Riding a Short Horse

Practicing a tradition over 1,000 years old.

Practicing a tradition over 1,000 years old.

A middling breeze wafted churned dirt, dusting riders in dusty anonymity. Obscured, galloping hooves pounded past. The riders turned crosswind and stretched out over the plain conjuring a thousand year old picture in my eyes; the darkened silhouettes of nomads bolting over the steppe. Horse racing.

This horse is rarin' to run.

This horse is rarin’ to run.

A crowd of locals, and visitors from outlying regions mix in the stands and ramble trackside sizing up the horseflesh before they stake their bets. The flag drops; equine hustlers careen up the straightaway. Moms, Dads, kiddies, politicians, lamas, workers, drinkers, and gamblers find a perch on wooden seats or at the trackside rail. With each lap, the flock chirps encouragement and advice to their chosen champion. I meanwhile, scout the infield chatting up waiting racers and event staff alike to learn more about the traditions of Surharban.

Surharban is a sports festival annually celebrated by the Buryat people. It is the Buryat version of Naadam in Mongolia. Wrestling, Archery and Horse racing are the main events, complemented by concerts, dancing and singing and various other cultural traditions. Check out “Surharban: Hitting the Mark” to experience a day of festival under a mean Siberian sun!

Buryats are horse people, and are proud of their rides. There is a horse breed named for the Buryat people. They are related to the horses the Mongols conquered the world with and can be described thusly: longhaired short horses. The Buryat breed stands a hand or two higher than their Mongolian cousins, but they are still short. When racing these small statured runners, Mongolian peoples have deemed it proper to rock a pigtail between the horses’ ears. That is steppe style racing.

Proper racing stripes.

Proper racing stripes.

There are approximately twelve races of differing lengths at Surharban. The horseman who left a lasting impression on everyone was horsewoman Otkhon Zhargal, whom I have dubbed the “Determined Firecracker”. A young lady of 12 or 13, she rode in two races and masterfully controlled both, bringing home two gold medals. Otkhon Zhargal was a cool customer, managing each race with steely aplomb. Psychologically, she ruled the race. Physically she put down any crowding/jockeying shenanigans with a quick elbow and an iron will. Take that boys! You’d better practice all year if you wanna win the crown from Firecracker.

Determined Firecracker (the girl, not the horse) winning her second gold. She is the definition of determination.

Determined Firecracker (the girl, not the horse) winning her second gold. She is the definition of determination.

Otkhon-Zhargal recieves a lama's blessing on her win.

Otkhon-Zhargal recieves a lama’s blessing on her win.

Proud papa stands by as "Firecracker" speaks to a local news crew.

Proud papa stands by as “Firecracker” speaks to a local news crew.

The Fuchsia Bow Master at Surharban!

The Fuchsia Bow Master! Targets shake in fear at his appearance.


This Buryat archer is kickin’ it old school with the braid. Surharban, Ulan-Ude circa 1924.  This is probably the Fuchsia Bow Master’s Grandfather. (The photo was found here.)

Surharban is here again, that Siberian nomadic summer classic where Buryats gather to wrestle, race horses, and demonstrate their archery prowess. Buryats dancing, Buryats singing, Buryats carrying on, slurping the juices from inside hot pozi, downing cup after cup of milk tea as they laugh with their friends. It is a good day to be Buryat, to remember the nomadic days on Siberian steppe, and to see your family relations from all the outlying villages. Archers loose, wrestlers grunt, and off dash the mounted horses under a smiling Asian sun.


Buryat wrestlers show us how it’s done at Surharban, around the turn of the century.

Buryat Wrestlers continue the tradition in 2010.

We are not up in the mix of all that hullabaloo this year, we miss it indeed. But you can admire some photos from Surharbans of yore, and you can check out a recent Surharban experience here. Please pray for our Buryats!

Buryats on parade at the opening of Surharban. What finery!

Surharban: Hitting the Mark!

Opening ceremonies of Surharban.

The toxophilites had drawn together. Grapplers, gathered. Jockeys, jumbled. Every hair follicle on my fair head prickled as the sun beat us. Dorj, Yulia’s cousin, sat stoically in a black button up shirt, and black slacks. We were waiting for action! But instead, mayors, governors and other top dog’s were filling our ears with pretty speeches of inconsequence. Dorj kept saying, “Man they are opening long”. In all fairness to the big wigs, they were sitting in the shade, and had no idea that a sun of treacherous intent coupled with their endless rambling prose was mind bending! Suddenly the droning stopped and . . . Dancing! Buryats and Russians alike twirled and whirled in a kaleidoscope of color to our delighted eyes. And singing! (Check out some Buryat singing here) Buryat style and Old Believer style are quite unique and different from any singing style known in the West. Twirling, silks of different hues billowing in Buryat hands, whirling, curved swords brandished in Cossack hands, color spun in dance to the lilt of their songs!

An archer looking fine.

Traditional Buryat stringed instrument the Morin Huur.

That was my introduction to Surharban, which means “hitting the target” in reference to archery. Toxophilites are by the way, “devotees of archery”. This is a festival celebrating archers, wrestlers and horse racers. All of which we watched under a burnt sun. After two ice-cream bars, a liter and a half of kvass, (a Russian sort of soft drink made of fermented bread, which Russians of all ages incessantly drink in the summer), several rounds of Mongolian style wrestling, and a couple rounds of archery, Dorj and I decided we were hot. We left the stands, and went to the cultural area for lunch, and to enjoy the dancing and singing of Buryat and Russian groups from different regions of Siberia.

Dorj in his stoic black.

Yulia came in time to watch horse racing. Dorj and I hung on until the race when after eight laps, we couldn’t tell if the race would finish soon, or continue till midnight! We decided we were baked twice over, and it was time to go home for Pozi! (Traditional Buryat meat dumpling of sorts.) As the day wore toward dusk, Dorj, his father, Sanpil and I ate pozi, and discussed the Creator of the world, and how he is crazy about Buryats! Every tribe!