Thunder of hooves mingles with chants of spectators scattered around a dusty patch on the outskirts of mountains as men on horseback struggle to outdo each other and grab a goat carcass changing hands quickly between riders. This is Kok Boru, one of the oldest ancestral sports of the Turks. There are no professional Kok Boru leagues in Turkey but in the Ulupamir village of eastern Van province where Kyrgyz Turks reside, the sports thrive.
A sport played by capturing a goat on horseback, it is a synthesis of traditional practices, performances and the game. It is played between two teams on horseback that attempt to maneuver a goat’s carcass and score by putting it into the opponent’s goal. Kyrgyzstan registered Kok Boru on the UNESCO representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2017.
Kyrgyz Turks, who moved from the Pamir plateau in northern Afghanistan in the early 1980s to the Erciş district in Van province, want to pass the game on to future generations through the Ulupamir Kok Boru Sports Club that they have established.
Vice president of the club, Ümit Çağlar, told Anadolu Agency (AA) about the war game and noted that Kok Boru has a history of more than 5,000 years. He said the sport is not only unique to Kyrgyz and Kazakhs but it is one of the oldest sports of the Turks and noted that his community needs support for the promotion of Kok Boru.
Çağlar says Kok Boru, originally named ulak, started out as a combat practice. "It was also played in peacetime by warriors, who would demonstrate his skills and (entertain) at wedding parties," he says.
Though sport itself is tough, another challenge is to train horses, he says, noting that they were trained not to bite players and kick them when they are on the ground. "Horses need care. They need love," he says. "We have many young people in Ulupamir who are eager to play but not all can play well. You have to learn a lot," he says, from "controlling the horse by your knee while you are trying to grab (the carcass) with both hands." "The horse should act in harmony with you. They learn after about one year, they learn about your manners in the game, know when you will reach out (for carcass) when you will stand up," he said.
Horses should also be treated well during the game. "You will be looked down upon if you constantly whip the horse. That is why players carry the whips in their mouth (instead of hand). If you hit a horse on the head with the whip, you will be blamed. Indeed, the only time you are allowed to whip the horse is if you are in a hurry to get in time for a funeral or for collective prayers," he says. Çağlar recalls a time when his father would not allow him into the home for one day after seeing him whipping his horse.