Ulak-kupkari, an ancient equestrian sport, is as popular with the Uzbeks as their national sport, bullfighting, is with the Spanish. Both always attract thousands of people.
The aim is to remove the carcass of the goat and finish the game first. Success is based on a sharp mind, strength, agility and the ability to ride and feel at one with the horse.
Those who have never seen Ulak-kupkari cannot imagine the speed and intensity of the battle on the vast field. Every now and then, the riders race after one of the players like an avalanche, and then, surrounded by him, they turn into a living, whirling, tornado-like ball of snorting horse mouths, flashing hooves and human figures clinging with their hands to the object of their pretensions – the carcass of a goat. Those who are at Ulak-kupkari for the first time are shocked by the intensity of the players’ fights and the violent emotional outbursts of the fans.
Ulak-kupkari is the most widespread and popular game not only among the Uzbeks, but also among the neighbouring peoples, the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, the Afghans, the Tajiks, the Karakalpaks…, which despite some differences is the same at its core. The Uzbeks use the name “kupkari”, which literally means “the work of many people”, in addition to the word “Ulak-kupkari”.
Nowadays there are three types of the game Ulak-kupkari: sporting competitions, competitions in honour of national, regional or district holidays and in connection with family celebrations. Each type has its own special features. However, the most popular and spectacular is the traditional wedding game Ulak-kupkari. Thousands upon thousands of foreign tourists long to see it.
Ulak-kupkari weddings usually take place in late autumn, winter or early spring. People flock to weddings not only from the immediate area but also from further afield. All the guests have to be accommodated and fed. Even a person who happens to be in the village will not be left without food and shelter. Not only horses, but also sacrificial animals, goats and bulls, will be prepared in advance for the games. The weight of the first is brought to 40-50 kilos, that of the second to 60-70 kilos. Traditionally, camels, horses, bulls, goats, sheep, carpets, pieces of cloth, household items, etc. are offered as prizes. Nowadays, the prize can be a car, a television and other modern appliances. As a symbol of the high prize, the organiser of the game sometimes exhibits his son as the prize. According to custom, the boy’s father or other relatives have to buy the child back.
Before Ulak-kupkari begins, according to ancient custom, a herald summons the guests. He announces the name of the host and invites everyone to pilaf or shurpa. After the meal, the host or his son loads the goat carcasses prepared for the game onto a cart or wagon and asks the people to bless the contest. The oldest of the Aksakals does it. The custom of getting on a horse only after ablutions and prayers has survived to this day.
The riders follow the custom of dressing when they play Ulak-kupkari. A wide chapan made of very thick fabric was customary for a rider. Tight clothing would restrict movement. However, there are deviations from the custom: players were marked with numbers, like footballers. However, the rule of wearing wide and tight cotton trousers instead of slacks remains unchanged. A dad is worn on the head, although leather helmets are preferred. The legs were wrapped in thick cloth to prevent injury and boots with wide cuffs were put on. The soles of the boots are thick to keep the foot in the stirrup.
The horses must also be equipped in a special way. The bridle must be free of metallic ornaments and the stirrups must be smooth to avoid injury. Horses with horseshoes are not allowed on the course.
When all preparations are completed, the organising family announces the start of the round robin. The venue is a large field. Two finishers, the marra, are set up at a distance of one and a half kilometres. The big prizes are placed at the top and the small prizes at the bottom. The marra is an area up to 20 metres in diameter. It is strewn with straw or paved with stones. The rider is obliged to throw the carcass of the goat into this circle. The one who throws the trophy into the circle is the winner.
On the line separating the field of play there is a place for the main referee and his assistants. They are on a special stand or on the back seat of a car. The carcass of the goat is thrown from here into the crowd of riders.
The rules require the players to fight fairly for the trophy. According to old tradition, the players make this pledge solemnly. The riders are not allowed to gallop in the direction of the spectators and they are not allowed to feed the carcass of the goat to the rider from the ground. It is forbidden for a player to run his horse over a bent rider. It is also forbidden to pull a trophy from the side of a player’s back with the horse holding the trophy. For a number of other offences, the win does not count. Although the rules vary from place to place, they all have in common that they require courage, honesty, no cheating and no trickery.
According to the rules of the International Eel Sports Federation, eel competitions are team competitions. It takes place on a specially prepared field that is 200 metres long and 70 metres wide. As in the traditional jerk, there are two hollow, cone-shaped concrete targets, each 1.2 metres high, at opposite ends of the field. The lower outer diameter of the cone is 4.4 metres, the upper 3.6 metres. The player has to throw the carcass of a goat into this pit. The riders called it töy-kazan or festive cauldron.
The game lasts 60 minutes and consists of three sections of 20 minutes each. The team that can throw the carcass of the goat into the opponent’s te-kazan the most times wins.
Before the game begins, the teams line up with the horses in a ten-metre centre circle and vow to behave fairly and strictly observe the rules of the game.
The game continues until the carcass of the goat is thrown into one of the billy goats or until one of the players breaks the rules. Points are awarded for the goat carcass thrown into the toy Kazan.
If the score is tied before the semi-final, no extra time is played. In this case, free throws, i.e. shoot-outs, are held after a five-minute break. In the semi-finals and finals, the referees shall decide on a 10-minute overtime if both teams have reached the same score at the end of the game. Play will continue until one of the two teams scores the golden goal.
The rider who scores the most goat carcasses in the toi kazan is considered the personal winner of the competition.
According to international rules, competitions are held for the “Friendship Cup”, which are friendly matches between national teams. At these meetings, special attention is paid not only to the best riders but also to the horses.
Ulak-kupkari leaves no one indifferent. These competitions produce brave riders and have been the people’s favourite sport for centuries. Ulak-kupkari fans hope that in time this wonderful game will become one of the Olympic Games.