Central Asia, a region with a culture and tradition dating back thousands of years, has a number of special features that distinguish it from other regions. There is a special attitude towards the surrounding world, flora and fauna that goes back centuries. One of the oldest traditions is kupkari – ulak or goat riding. This equestrian game, which originated in Central Asia in the time of Zoroastrianism, is a favourite pastime of people in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. This sport has its own celebrities and masters who are well known among Kupkari devotees.
The horses are the best way to compete in this sport. The horses for Kupkari are a special breed among horses. Not every horse is suitable for this sport. Such a horse must have many qualities, such as endurance, agility, athleticism, the ability to use the body and fend off other horses, and finally good speed to outrun their rivals.
It is clear that such qualities are very rare in horses as a whole. That is why a horse with such characteristics is highly prized by those in the know.
Such animals are trained for kupkari from childhood. They are elite horses, which means that they cannot be used for other, everyday activities. They are kept in good stables that ensure that the animals do not freeze in winter and do not suffer from the heat in summer. To teach the horse discipline, it was fed and watered at a precisely fixed time. Every day it was taken for a walk, during which it jogged. The owner strictly monitored the horse’s diet so that it did not become too thin or, conversely, too fat.
Not every breed of horse is suitable for goat racing. It can be said that the local breed, the Karabair, is particularly suitable for this.
The kupkari was described by Chinese chroniclers as early as the VII century BC. They observed it in the ancient mountain state of Dawan (Dayuan), which lies in the Ferghana Valley area. The historians wrote that the game promotes the warriors’ agility and endurance and can be a good exercise to prepare for battle.
Kupkari has its own rules. First, a council, the maslikhat, meets to determine the size and number of prizes for the winner and to select a goat of appropriate weight. According to the rules, the weight of the goat must not exceed 50 kilograms.
The venue of the competition is determined. Usually a wide plain surrounded by hills is chosen for it. Why hills? So that the spectators can watch the competition from the hills. The goat is then slaughtered and part of the intestines removed, leaving the heart and liver. The limbs are removed, they are cut off up to the knee. One leg bone is broken off. This is done to make it easier for the riders to lift the carcass off the ground. If the weight of the goat is not heavy enough, the carcass is also stuffed with salt or even earth.
Kupkari is celebrated in rural areas on the occasion of big festivals or weddings. Wealthy people who celebrate their own festivals such as anniversaries, weddings or birthdays may also proclaim kupkari and display their prizes. While in ancient times camels, rams, cows or horses were given as prizes, today there are modern prizes such as televisions, carpets and sometimes cars, in addition to the prizes mentioned above. In ancient times, players could be seriously injured during a competition if they fell off their horse or collided with other participants. Nowadays, the Kupkari rules try to prevent this, but Kupkari still remains a sport with a high risk of injury.
Nevertheless, there is a risk of injury. This is to protect themselves from injuries caused by accidental blows with the kamchas. At the beginning of the game of kupkari, the festival master announces the game and the amount of the prize. A goat’s body, called “ulok” (in some regions it is called “ulok-goat”), is thrown into the middle of the circle. The task of the participant is to bend down to the carcass in the resulting crowd and lift it onto his horse. The other participants try to do the same. Finally, the strongest of them manages to lift the carcass and push it against the horse’s side. What happens next depends on the horse, its ability to avoid approaching riders and its speed.
The participant with the goat’s body flies at top speed to the target – the line or circle where he has to bring it. On the way, the carcass can be grabbed by the riders who have caught up with it and the game starts all over again. There are some restrictions in this game – the goat may not be thrown over the saddle, it may not be tied by the leg, rivals may not be hit in the face with the flail, etc. The rules are overseen by several judges chosen from the most respected residents of the region. When the rider carrying the goat’s body reaches a certain line or circle, these judges decide whether the rider has rightly or wrongly won. In this game, fair victory is valued above all else and dishonest players are loudly reprimanded. They are deemed to have besmirched their name. Such players can no longer expect to be invited to such an event next time. The multiple winners of such races, together with their horses, become living legends and people, impressed by the stories of their exploits, attend the next races hoping to see these celebrities live. They are respected, sit in the best seats at weddings and when they tell stories, they listen respectfully without being interrupted…
Morning breaks over the village. Today is a festival. Happily dressed people greet each other. Songs are heard, music is heard. The plain is full of people. In the distance, riders on stately, hot horses can be seen. So the kupkari is coming. The Aksakal has thrown the goat’s body on the ground and given the signal. The game has begun. The riders whirled over the billy goat, their horses neighing, snorting and sometimes roaring loudly, but here one horse broke away from the others and sped across the plain, outrunning the wind. The clatter of hooves can be heard from behind, but the horse cannot be caught up, a few more minutes and the rider throws the animal’s body into the marked circle with a triumphant cry.
The Kupkari is our heritage. It is a spectacular, intelligent game that evokes in men rigour, courage and determination. And these qualities have always been important in men. This means that the Kupkari game will live on among the people of Central Asia for a long time to come.