The life of a nomad in Kazakhstan was unpredictable, with long hunting trips and frequent relocations and the constant battle with predators over grazing grounds. Nomadic peoples needed good, reliable transportation to take them to battle, to hunt and to transport their homes and their families, and horses played a key role in nomadic life. Horses were not just used for transportation: to this day, stocking enough horse and lamb meat for the winter is a priority in many Kazakh households.
In addition to practicalities, horses and horsemanship served as symbols of rank and vehicles to demonstrate strength and skill. Being atop a horse exalted a man and when two equally ranked men met, they needed to get off their horses and shake each other’s hands. (If one rider clearly outranked another, this formality was unnecessary.) And no public event was held without horse games, in which young men could show their riding skills, agility and dexterity.
Of course, you’re much more likely to see a Kazakh riding in a Toyota Camry rather than on a horse today. However, most Kazakhs still learn to ride at some point, and in the independent Kazakhstan, preserving traditions has taken on a new significance and horse games are emblematic of Kazakhstan’s unique and proud the proud history.
There are dozens of traditional Kazakh horse games, most with deep histories and stories attached. The rules and actions of the games describe the challenges and hardships of life on the land in Kazakhstan.
Kokpar, or gray wolf, is the most popular traditional horse game. Wolves were sworn enemies of the nomads of Kazakhstan: they attacked horses, sheep and sometimes even hunters and their homes. If a hunter or anyone else managed to kill a wolf, he was to deliver the head of the animal to the tribal leader and give the beheaded carcass to the people to be flayed. Flaying the body of the wolf was a symbolic victory over the animals that constituted such a threat to Kazakh livestock—which, of course, represented the difference between full bellies and starvation, between surviving the winter or freezing.
Kokpar was the main attraction of any event, especially Nauryz, the New Year that is celebrated on March 22nd in Central Asian countries. Nowadays, a goat carcass is used instead of the body of a wolf.
“The main objective is to fend off opponents and carry the beheaded goat carcass into your own goal, and to be successful in this game you have to be extremely skillful,” explained Astana resident Gabdulla Ashimov, a 28-year-old project manager at a construction company. “You also need a special relationship with your horse. In the game, your horse makes 50 percent of the decisions, so feeling and understanding each other is crucial. Moreover, your horse needs to be very strong and have good stamina. … Overall, your victory depends 50 percent on your skills and 50 percent on your horse’s stamina, experience and physical condition.”
Ashimov has played kokpar since childhood, “Each year at Nauryz we had horse games as children. We mostly played kokpar and we used whatever we had at our disposal. The sport is very healthy: while you ride the horse all your muscles are tensed, your hand grip becomes really strong, your posture straight and in a working stance. I did arm wrestling later when I grew up and horse riding really helped me in my arm wrestling career; I won regional and national competitions,” Ashimov told EdgeKz.
The game can be played with unlimited players; however, the official rules say that it is played in two teams of four. The goal is the same: to get a good grip on the carcass, fend off opponents, and gallop like the wind to your own goal to throw it inside your kazan, a bowl that serves as a goal or a net, to score. A regulation-sized field is 200 meters by 80 meters, but in other variations the size depends on the number of players and can be up to 300 meters and as narrow as 20-30 meters. Though the official rules make kokpar a team sport, it can also be played as every man for himself.
“The average goat carcass weighs between 30-60 kilograms; imagine how fit the players need to be! That’s the best workout you can get,” said Ashimov. “In kokpar, pretty much anything goes as long as you hold on to the carcass and don’t let your opponents get it, but one rule is that you can’t tie it to yourself or your horse.”
Popularizing Kokpar in Kazakhstan
Recently, one of the supporters of kokpar, First Vice President of the Federation of National Sports of Kazakhstan Sadybek Tugel, said on his blog:
“Now, we have prepared a draft law on the development of the national sport, which has been pending in Parliament and Government Program and also the development of national sports until 2020. It is designed to honor the 15th anniversary of the founding of the new capital [Astana] in 2013 with the first Eurasian championship, World Cup of national sports. And in 2016, we will have the first World Cup of national sports in Astana in honor of the 25th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence,” he wrote on behalf of the Federation of National Sports of Kazakhstan.
He also noted that the country is currently witnessing the dynamic development of national sports. Tugel proposed creating a kokpar club system and an annual championship: “We want to develop a professional club system in kokpar. This will involve the construction of 16 stadiums for playing kokpar … We have race courses in Almaty and Zhambyl regions, but we want all areas and cities like Astana and Almaty to have professional teams,” said Tugel in his statement to local media. A kokpar schedule has already been approved and can be found on the federation’s website (www.tugel.kz).
“Kokpar needs patronage in Kazakhstan and more incentives and motivation for young kids,” said Ashimov. With new support from the Federation of National Sports, this old game may have a bright future.
Other Popular Horse Games in Kazakhstan
KyzKuu is a more ceremonial and for-show sport that is often used to entertain visitors. KyzKuu comes from a Kazakh phrase meaning “to catch a girl.” There are different variations depending on the region, but the objective and rules are the same: a zhigit (a young, brave horseman) must catch a girl that he likes. He then challenges her to a race on horseback. If he catches her, he gets to kiss her. If he doesn’t, she can challenge him, and if she catches him she gets to whip him as hard as she chooses to. This is the crowd-pleasing part, with watchers whistling and calling out to winning women to whip their suitors harder.
In this game, horsemen pick up golden coins from the ground at full speed. The one who collects the most, wins.
Audaryspak was often played among older men in good physical condition. Two men try to throw each other off their horses. Whoever stays on top, wins.
Saiys is Kazakh jousting and uses the same principles and rules as European jousting.
This is long distance horse riding to demonstrate the stamina of both the horse and the horseman.
Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country by landmass and much of it includes the vast expanse of the Asian steppe. Horses for centuries were the lifeblood of the nation. They provided transportation, the hides were used for many purposes and the meat sustained the region’s nomads as they explored these great lands. Though modern cities now dot the steppe and cars have replaced trusty steeds, horses and horsemanship hold a unique place in Kazakhstan culture.