A man without a horse is like a bird without wings
Old Kyrgyz proverb

Kok boru, also known as Ulak Tartysh or Oghlak Tartish is the national game of Kyrgyzstan, and also played in other central Asian republics such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is a version of polo with a difference, in which two teams on horseback compete against each other to propel a 'ball' through the opposition's goal.

First catch your goat

The alternative name, Ulak Tartysh or Oghlak Tartish means literally, the 'Contest for the Goat' which brings us to the distinctive feature of the game, and what distinguishes it from polo, which is that the 'ball' is in fact a goat.

A dead goat naturally. A dead goat that has been killed in accordance with Islamic halal rules (since Kyrgyzstan is predominantly a Muslim nation), decapitated, with its legs removed, gutted and weighed down with wet sand.

Traditionally it was an individual contest of horsemanship; with the goat placed in a centre circle in the middle of a field. It was then a sort of free for all in which each horseman would try and grab the goat and keep hold of it with the objective of returning it to the centre circle and being declared a champion. Whilst everyone else tried to stop him and grab the goat for themselves.

The prize for the champion being, of course that you got to keep the goat.

Polo with a headless goat

Kyrgyzstan is of course in Central Asia, just west of China, and was once part of the Soviet Union only achieving independence in 1991. Since independence there has been a renewal of interest in traditional Kyrgyz culture, and the Kyrgyzstan government has encouraged the development of the game as an expression of Kyrgyz nation identity.

'Kok boru' is in fact the traditional name for the game and literally means 'gray wolf'. Its origins likely go back centuries, even perhaps as far back as the days of Genghis Khan, harking back to the time when herds of cattle grazed in the steppes and mountains and the nomadic horseman had to protect their herds from the depredations of predatory wolves.

To be pedantic it seems that ulak tartysh refers to the individual game referred to above, and most sources refer to ulak tartysh as replacing kok boru. However in Kyrgyzstan this ancient game has now been organised into something approaching a modern professional sport, and it seems that within Kyrgyzstan 'kok boru' has been revived as the name for the this new professional game.

This new kok boru has now been reinvented as a team game. Each team consits of ten players, four of which are on the field at any given time. A game consists of three periods of fifteen minutes each and the centre circle has been replaced with a goal at each end of the field. Hence the object of the game is now to grab the goat and dump it in the opposing team's goal. And yes they still use the traditional dead goat.

With the support of the government there is a national league, commercial sponsorship and television coverage. The top teams have scouts that scour remote villages searching for new talent, and play the game in front of crowds of thousands in the Hippodrome in the capital Bishkek whilst getting drunk on vodka.

The Kyrgyz apparently have the ambition of making kok boru an Olympic Sport. And good luck to them. It may not have quite the appeal of beach volleyball, but it beats synchronised swimming any day of the week.


The Financial Times Saturday 23rd August

The Times of Central Asia Country Guide for Kyrgyzstan at www.times.kg/kyrgyzstan/?pub=kg010

The traditional Oglak Tartis among the Kirghiz of the Pamirs H. B. Paksoy, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1985: 2
found at http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/53/135.html