27 October 2014

Riders on the storm: protecting child jockeys in Mongolia

Budgarav, 15, was disabled while working as child jockey
© UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Zetty Brake
In a ger tent in Ulziit, horse racing capital of Mongolia, 15-year-old former child jockey Budgarav rests on his crutches and adjusts the baseball cap on his head. Four years ago he was thrown from a horse during training and trampled, losing his front teeth and breaking both his legs. “It was very painful when I fell,” he says.

Budgarav wasn’t wearing any safety equipment and was not insured. His trainer didn’t want to report the injury or take him to hospital. Instead, his legs were bound with camel wool and he was warned not to tell anybody about it. By the time he did get to see a doctor, a month later, his legs and gums had become infected and his condition was much worse.

Despite his severe injuries, Budgarav is a happy and outgoing boy. He often smiles and jokes with visitors. But he cannot walk far from the ger, even on crutches, and has had to drop out of school. “Now I stay at home and watch TV,” he says. “Sometimes I play outside the ger. I would like to go back to school next year if my health improves.”

His younger brother Munkh-Erdene, 13, is also a former child jockey. He was thrown from a horse that slipped on ice during a winter race. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and landed on his head, crushing the side of his skull. Unlike his brother, Munkh-Erdene is a quiet, serious boy and still obsessed with horse racing. “I like drawing pictures of horses and listening to songs about horses,” he says. “When I grow up, I want to be a horse trainer.”

As his injuries are less severe, Munkh-Erdene is still capable of racing, although doctors have warned him that another blow to his head could be fatal. His parents have forbidden him to race, but the horse trainers still encourage him to do it. He raced again this year without a helmet and under another boy’s name. This summer, his parents sent him to stay with relatives to stop him from racing.

Children racing with helmets and safety gear at this year's Naadam festival
© Babka/2014
Cultural tradition

Horse racing is a part of Mongolian culture and has been practiced for many centuries. Every midsummer, the country celebrates the Naadam festival to mark Mongolia’s independence. The highlight of the festival are games featuring the ‘three manly sports’ of archery, horse racing and wrestling.

“Horse racing is a big part of Mongolia’s history and culture,” Sarangerel Chuluunbat from the Federation of Mongolian Horse Racing Sport and Trainers says. “Mongolia as a nation was founded on strong men and powerful horses. I am not against children racing horses, but I know our responsibility is to ensure the safety of child jockeys.”

However, horse racing has changed since ancient times and become more commercialised. Now hundreds of horses and jockeys race at one time and people gamble on the outcome. Athletes in the other traditional sports are adults but jockeys are almost always children, due to their light weight. Some trainers teach children to deliberately fall from their horse on the final straight so that it comes in lighter and faster. With so many horses galloping behind them, the risk of trampling is high.

As well as Naadam, wealthy families organise horse races to celebrate weddings, even during the winter months when the ground is icy and even more dangerous. In these races, the children are as young as five and rarely wear protective gear. If they are insured at all, it is usually for far less than the horses, who are considered the real stars of the show.

Ulziit, where Budgarav’s family lives, is where the main Naadam horse races are held. Almost all the children living or studying in the town work as child jockeys. The school is linked to the horse training centre and children are pulled out of class for up to a month to race, often without their parent’s consent. Those who cannot or will not race are sent home.

Budgarav’s father, Otgonbaatar, does occasional labouring jobs but horse racing was the family’s main source of income. Now they live on disability benefits and food coupons. The horse trainers gave the family one-off payments of 200,000 Tugriks ($108 USD) for each injured boy. “Life is hard,” Otgonbaatar says. “We don’t have enough to live on.”

Former child jockeys Munkh-Erdene (left) and Budgarav (centre) at home
© UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Andy Brown
Call for change

The current law governing the Naadam festival states that children under seven years old cannot take part in the race, and that those who do must be insured and wear protective gear. But this law is specific to the official Naadam races and does not cover other races such as those organised by local communities to mark weddings or haircutting ceremonies.

UNICEF is advocating for the law to be extended to cover all horse races in Mongolia. “We also want to ban winter races and raise the minimum age to nine, as a first step towards meeting the international standard of 14,” says Amaraa Dorjsambuu, child protection specialist at UNICEF Mongolia. “It’s important to acknowledge Mongolian traditions but at the same time we need to be strong on wrongdoing and prevent the exploitation of children.”

The situation has already improved. In recent years, the Government’s National Authority for Children has worked with the Federation of Mongolian Horse Racing Sport and Trainers to monitor national races and enforce the rules on age, safety equipment and insurance.

Over 1,700 children took part in this year’s Naadam races in Ulaanbaatar. “You can really see the difference,” Amaraa continues. “Last year, 63 children were injured and six killed during the Naadam races, but this year there were only two light injuries and no deaths.”

Otgonbaatar still celebrates Naadam but no longer feels the same way about horse racing. “Definitely my view of horse racing has changed,” he says. “The traditions have been lost and it’s all about big business. We used to have two healthy boys but now they are both disabled. If Munkh-Erdene had been wearing a helmet, he might still be OK.”

Outside Ulziit a new racecourse is being built. Alongside it a massive horse statue has been raised, paid for by a wealthy horse owner. The horse is shown tossing its mane against a dramatic backdrop of steppe and mountains. Significantly, although the statue stands beside a racecourse, the horse is shown without a jockey. It is clear that much more needs to be done if child jockeys are to become visible in the public eye.

A horse monument being constructed at a new racecourse outside Ulziit
© UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Andy Brown
The author
Andy Brown is Regional Communication Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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