Buzkashi is Central Asia’s most popular sport, Afghanistan’s national sport, and often referred to as one of Central Asia’s most dangerous sports.
What is buzkashi?
Buzkashi literally means “goat pulling”, and it is just that. This popular sport in Central Asia is similar to horse polo, and involves competitors on horseback competing to get the goat carcass into a goal.
It dates as far back as the 10th century when Turkic peoples began widespread migration westward from China and Mongolia, ending only in the 1930s. Buzkashi remains a legacy of this now gone era of migration.
Otherwise known as ‘horse polo’, it is played throughout Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and - thanks to an Afghan prince - even made its way to the US.
What is a “day at the buzkashi” like?
A “day at the buzkashi” is similar in what you may experience at a day at the races in terms of festivities, but it is more of an organised chaos.
Buzkashi very traditional, changing very little over the many years it's been around - probably contributing to why it is seen as one of Central Asia’s most dangerous sports. This gives it a great free and chilled feeling, and a similar celebration/festival feel to what you might experience at the Naadam Festival in Mongolia. It’s held out in the open in remote parts and moves around the country every year. For the biggest events, the President of certain countries will also attend, for example in Tajikistan.
The event will last all day. As Central Asia’s most popular sport, you won’t get bored easily. If you’re not the biggest sport fan, don’t fear - there’s plenty to keep you entertained! There are various stalls dotted around that sell Russian style food including Russian breads, and there are also stalls selling riding gear such as the tank hats and whips - just in case you get caught short mid- horse polo - match!
What do you need to play buzkashi?
Goat carcass -
Whilst the idea of using an animal carcass in sport may not suit with many animal activists, it is a traditional part of the culture. And with it solidly remaining as Central Asia’s most popular sport, it doesn’t seem like it will change any time soon.
So, if you want to play and have already found yourself some willing participants, horses, and a large open space in which to play, the next thing you’ll need is your carcass.
Squeamish people, look away!
The goat carcass is usually killed 4/5 days before the event. It is the decapitated, its hooves cut off, and then soaked in brine for a couple of days. This gives the goat carcass a much weightier and solid feel. They can even weigh up to as much as a small washing machine!
Usually, there are 10 - 20 carcasses altogether. One carcass will last for several matches, but because of the sports’ brutal nature, it won’t remain in one piece for long.
Riding Gear -
As one of Central Asia’s most dangerous sports, you’re going to want to make sure you’re thoroughly protected before a game of buzkashi. One of the most important things is the Russian style tank hats that riders wear to protect their heads. Traditionally these date back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan era. They were held back, kept, and put to good use when left behind. Pretty ironic, since buzkashi was banned during the Soviet Union.
You can still find lots of these around, but there are also newly made ones too.
In some countries, they also kit out their goat carcass so it is easier for the rider to be able to grab and keep hold of.
Your token crowd motivator -
What would a match be without a crowd, and what would a crowd be without cheerleaders to get everyone going! Typically, at a buzkashi match, there will be your token motivator, or cheerleader, there to keep everyone happy and excited.
The rules of buzkashi (are there any?)
It’s hard to put definitive rules to this wild goat pulling game since rules vary slightly within each country. Whilst it may all seem a bit chaotic, there are rules. And these rules, just like any other sport in the world, must be stuck to, with a referee keeping close watch.
The sport is either played in teams, or can be every man for himself - and this should be kept so throughout the match. You are not allowed to ride off into the next valley - but you are allowed to ride out to rest. This is also a tactic of some opportunists who stick around the edges in chance that the goat carcass will coincidentally come their way.
Should someone fowl, the referee will ride in with a megaphone which is connected to a tannoy system. There will also be commentary throughout the match with comes on on the tannoy.
Why is it named as one of Central Asia’s most dangerous sports?
If you haven’t been convinced yet that it deserves the status of one of Central Asia’s most dangerous sports, you should probably go and see it for yourself. It won’t take you much convincing!
The riders take this goat pulling game seriously. They often fall off and can sustain substantial injuries. The riders often suffer more blows than the horses. The horses themselves must be controlled since they get incredibly excited by the event and that in itself can be dangerous.
Nevertheless, buzkashi is still Central Asia’s most popular sport, and because of this children are introduced to it from a young age. Children will be introduced to buzkashi by watching on horseback from the edges of a match - witnessing the action first hand.
What does the winner of Asia’s most dangerous sports get?
The prize for the winner of the buzkashi match ranges from animals such as sheep, goats, lambs or camels, to goods such as Dvd’s, carpets, TVs, washing machines, tumble dryers… Much more practical prizes than a bottle of bubbly. Although, some top prizes include money.
Last year, the top prize was a very swanky Mercedes Benz. Nice!
After winning your game of horse polo, winners receive a voucher which they then take to the size truck to claim their prize. There will be many locals crowded around here, offering money for the vouchers so they can get their hands on the goods. This can be handy for a rider who has won several matches. You can only have so many washing machines…
Buzkashi in Tajikistan
Buzkashi in Tajikistan is much like that played in other Central Asian countries, with only a few differences.
It takes part whatever the weather, and there are no barriers or fences separating crowd from playing field. Local men like to stand closer to the edge - adding to its danger appeal as the game can run into the spectators.
The best riders are sponsored, just like many other sports in the West. The main sponsor will have pride of place at the end of the buzkashi playing field.
Where can I take part in buzkashi?
If you want to see this exciting game for yourself, heading in with a tour group is the best way to give you a true, local experience. Buzkashi in Tajikistan can be very spontaneous. You often don’t know that it will happen a day before the event, and it’s good to have a good contact with someone who knows the country and its people well to make sure you get to the best buzkashi event.
When it comes to locals attending a buzkashi goat pulling event, the crowd is mainly male dominated - but of course, females can also spectate. Crowds of locals love foreigners coming to spectate and enjoy a traditional part of their culture, and will encourage picture taking!
We don’t recommend taking part in the actual buzkashi game yourself, but if you have a horse, the riding gear, and the skills, there’s technically nothing stopping foreigners from taking part too. Just make sure you’ve got some good travel insurance!
What better way to enjoy Central Asia's most dangerous sport, buzkashi, than by combining it with celebrating the Persian New Year in Tajikistan?