China / World

Child jockeys remain in the saddle as Mongolia rides a questionable course

(China Daily) Updated: 2017-03-11 06:59

TSAGAAN HUTUL, Mongolia - Courts banned them, human-rights groups slammed them and the labor ministry demands they cease, but none of that has stopped Mongolia's politicians from letting child jockeys saddle up.

Despite the outcry, coaches still hire child riders to race at breakneck speeds across the freezing steppe in high-stakes contests with powerful backers.

The contests have been met with outrage on social media, where commenters share photos of young riders suffering painful falls from the saddle and call on authorities to enforce the court order suspending the event.

Child jockeys are forbidden from appearing in winter and spring races, according to regulations issued by the country's Ministry of Labor last year.

But that has not stopped the government from approving a recent horse race about 20 kilometers outside of the capital Ulaanbaatar in Tsagaan Hutul, as well as in two other provinces later this month.

Horse races are often held in temperatures as low as -20 Celsius, which can lead to frostbite, particularly in long-distance races in high winds.

Temperatures dipped as low as -12 C during Sunday's race in Tsagaan Hutul.

At one race on Sunday, at least 10 horses crossed the finish line without riders after their jockeys apparently fell off. In total, 31 of the young jockeys took a spill at the event, according to Mongolia's authority for children and family affairs.

Medics at the scene refused to say whether any children had been injured.

Mongolia holds an average of 600 horse races with more than 16,000 kids participating as jockeys, according to government figures.

A 2014 UNICEF report said that 326 child jockeys were hospitalized in 2012, mostly with head or bone injuries.

Break with tradition

Displays of skilled horsemanship are an important part of traditional Mongolian culture, but professional child jockeys are a relatively recent phenomenon, only appearing during the last 10 years.

As little as two decades ago, horse races were organized only during the country's summer festival Nadaam, and riding coaches, known as uyach in Mongolian, used their own children or relatives as jockeys.

Since that time, racing has become a popular, albeit shadowy business and uyach seek out boys between the ages of seven and 10 to ride in the competitions.

The riders are often sponsored by local politicians, who tout their ownership of race horses during election campaigns. Ownership of livestock is an important measure of success for rural voters, many of whom continue to lead traditional pastoral lives.

Children's light weight gives them an advantage in horse races that often run for between 18 and 26 km, among the longest on earth.

Most of the recruits come from lower-income families in rural areas, where uyach are widely respected.

Agence France-Presse

 Child jockeys remain in the saddle as Mongolia rides a questionable course

Child jockeys compete in a spring horse race on the outskirts of Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar last week. Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir / Agence France-Presse

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