Monday, 28 September 2009

Another bad day in goat world

The animal welfare lot would not have enjoyed this day trip out. Last Thursday, I had been to watch the Kokpar (Kazakh horse polo played using a headless goat instead of a ball) with my friend. It sounds gruesome, but in fact the horsemanship was extraordinary, and the game itself quite compelling to watch, and so on Sunday we headed back with the children, husband and some friends to watch the final.

We found our friend Nurlan, a team manager who we had met on Thursday, looking very nervous as his team lined up for the grand final, which carried a cash prize. This was it for them. The game began and the pace was aboslutely furious compared to some of the games we had watched earlier in the week. At times, the whole team would crash over the side line and almost into the spectators - we realised why the chest-height, solid metal fence was around the ground.

There was a bigger crowd watching, and the commentary was fast and furious but unfortuantely entirely in Kazakh which is nothing like Russian and so we couldn't understand much.

Tied up behind the commentary box was a spare "ball" - a very dejected looking white goat which had obviously also been an onlooker as its friend, a grey goat, was beheaded and its head and lower legs thrown uncerenoniously into a storm gutter running the length of the ground. Between our group we had nine children, two of which had been inquisitive enough to find the extra goat head lurking in the drain and took great and gruesome delight in staring at it for a long time, rather than watching the game.

It sounds barbaric to use a dead goat in a game. But then you need to think how this sport has developed and why they do it. Horses are part of life in Central Asia, a vital part of survival in this harsh and inhospitable climate. It is so cold in winter that vast tracts are frozen solid for six months, and then boiling hot in summer. The ground is not fertile enough to support arable farming in the main, and so the land has been used over the millenia by nomadic farmers who kept sheep, goats and other livestock and moved from place to place according to the grazing or shelter opportunites. When you drive across the steppe here, you are always seeing flocks of animals being herded by a lone shepherd on horseback. When the Soviets collectivised farming and tried to introduce mass cultivation practices on the land, over a million Kazakhs starved to death - and that was this century.

Another little-known fact about Kazakhstan is that more wolves live here than in than Canada and you do not need to have a PhD in Aesops Fables to know that sheep and wolves do not mix. The skills of Kokpar are all related to shepherding. Being able to reach from your saddle while riding at speed, and scoop up a 25kg beast in one hand, is no mean feat. To then gallop along while holding an irregularly-shaped, hairy lump under your leg or arm, would be similarly challenging, I imagine. Yet these riders can do all this and much more, with complete ease. And I am certain that the riding skills developed in Kokpar were born from practising this art.

The goats are slaughtered cleanly, used for the game, and then I am not sure what happens to their smashed remains. But the spare goat is not killed until it is needed (only if the original goat has disintegrated).

The Anti Fox-hunting lobby would be squealing with horror at such a sport, and would probably demand that a realistically-shaped imitation bean bag were used instead, but I think that this kind of concern is a long, long, long way off here.

Again, I am having problems formatting my posts on this borrowed PC, and today I have no option to upload my photo of the spare goat, so I will just hope for more success later.


  1. Doesn't Rambo play a similar game in one of his films in Afganistan? Buzkashi or something like that played with sheep?

    Animal rights is a luxury. They would have a nightmare at some of the stuff that goes on here. The stray dogs are kept in check by dog hunters... the list is endless. But, life is different here. I don't condone it, but I can understand it.

    Kazakstan sounds great. By the way, an old friend of mine is moving out quite soon with her toddler boy!

  2. Hi Brit in Bosnia
    Animal rights really is a luxury reserved for the developed world.
    Maybe your friend will come along to our baby group for people with toddlers?
    You have my email I think now. Tell her to feel free to get in touch if she wants.