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.

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Black Horse Rising!

The recently finished Physical Culture and Sports Complex in Ulan-Ude. Физкульт Привет!

The recently finished Physical Culture and Sports Complex in Ulan-Ude. Физкульт Привет!

Sport has played a vital role among nomadic tribes here on the steppe. Competitions featuring wrestling, archery and horse racing sponsored by local ruling princes kept the men battle ready and in fine physique. Those traditions carry on to this day in Surharban and Naadym and Naadam among the Buryats, Tuvins and Mongols respectively. Aside from traditional sports, and modern wrestling which all Mongol peoples excel at, there isn’t a whole lot going on in the world of organized sports here in the capital city of the Buryats. That is until now!

Meet the ladies of the Black Horse Volleyball.

Meet the ladies of the Black Horse Volleyball.

The crowd taking in Black Horse taking on #2 Voronezh.

The crowd taking in Black Horse taking on #2 Voronezh.

Ride Black Horse Ride!

Enter Black Horse! From seemingly nowhere, Black Horse has vanquished its foes all across this land called Rus in a feat even the Great Khan himself would be impressed with. The sets are masterful, the spikes, fiery, and the kills? Devastating. I’m talking women’s volleyball here neighbor. Right now the lovely ladies of Black Horse have proved unstoppable, riding hell bent for leather through the top ranked teams in League A, and as of this evening taken over first place in the league. I am still trying to get my head around how leagues work here, but I believe the top four teams from the league Black Horse plays in will participate in the Russian Volleyball Cup.

Black Horse brings it!

Black Horse brings it!

Setting up for the attack!

Setting up for the attack!

Every touch, every move matters! The crowd reacts to play on the court.

Every touch, every move matters! The crowd reacts to play on the court.

Black Horse defense.

Black Horse defense.

Entrance is FREE! We were invited to go with some friends last week, and found to our amazement a great arena, intense atmosphere, and really good volleyball. We were dazzled as the girls of Black Horse took care of business in an emotion filled 5 set match against #2 ranked Voronezh. Days later they toppled Lipetsk “Indesit” from the top ranked saddle, lassoing and branding them with the Black Horse brand two nights in succession.

The dismantling of #1 "Indesit" Lipetsk in process.

The dismantling of #1 “Indesit” Lipetsk in process. #5 is our American lass gettin’ er done!

Coach making his case.

Coach making giving marching orders.

These girls are good.

These girls are good.

the heat JUST KEEPS COMING!

the heat JUST KEEPS COMING!

An Americanka in Ulan-Ude

We were also nonplussed at finding an American on the team! Her name is Keao Burdine and she hails from Los Angeles where she played on two National Championship teams at USC and twice earned All-American honors and twice earned National Championship MVP! She also represented the US on Women’s National team at the Pan Am games in Mexico in 2011. Her international career has led her to Puerto Rico, Turkey and Russia. Go Keao! Our only American Horse on the Black Horse team. We are cheering for all you lasses to keep sticking it to the bigger teams and put Ulan-Ude on the sports map of Russia!

Our American girl at home on the court in Ulan-Ude, Siberia

Our American girl at home on the court in Ulan-Ude, Siberia

Images of Victory!

Black Horse celebrates victory.

Black Horse celebrates victory over #2 Voronezh.

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Black Horse celebrates victory over #1 ranked Lipetsk. On the wall behind them is written “Realize your dream!”

Black Horse salutes it's fans.

Black Horse salutes it’s fans.

Meet Tatyana McFadden

Tatyana McFadden

The London Paralympics 2012 started a few days ago. One of the stars on the paralympic team from US is an extraordinary young woman that was adopted from Russia when she was a little girl. Her name is Tatyana McFadden. She is just super!

Tatyana’s story is an inspiration to me. She was born with an underdeveloped spinal cord which made her paralyzed below the waist. That scared her parents, and they gave her up. Tatyana grew up in a very poor orphanage outside of St. Petersburg, where the kids did not even have colored crayons, let alone a wheelchair for the girl. But Tatyana was a fighter, and she learned to walk using her hands.

Then at the age of six she was adopted by a remarkable woman from America. She brought Tatyana home with her only to hear from the doctors there that the girl would probably live only a few more years and not reach adulthood because of her poor health. Well, together they proved them wrong! Today Tatyana is a beautiful woman, a full time student, and an accomplished athlete.

I can’t help but wonder how Tatyana’s life would have panned out if she had stayed in the orphanage. The sad but unfortunately true fact about Russian orphans is a great majority of them don’t have happy lives. So thank you to all of you adoptive parents for opening up your hearts to our kids, loving them no matter what, and helping them discover their future that might not otherwise happen.

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