At a glance: Mongolia

In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys

By Andy Brown

Horse racing is a hugely popular sport in Mongolia, but also a serious danger to the young riders who often ply their trade with no protection and no insurance. UNICEF is advocating for stronger safety laws to protect child jockeys and preserve families' livelihoods. 

ULZIIT, Mongolia, 31 October 2014 – In a ger tent in Ulziit, horse racing capital of Mongolia, 15-year-old former child jockey Budgarav rests on his crutches and adjusts the baseball cap on his head. Four years ago, he was thrown from a horse during training and was trampled, breaking both his legs and losing his front teeth. “It was very painful when I fell,” he says.

© UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Brake
Budgarav, 15, was injured while working as child jockey. He lost his front teeth and both his legs were broken.

Budgarav wasn’t wearing any safety equipment and was not insured. His trainer didn’t want to report the injury or take him to hospital. Instead, his legs were bound with camel wool and he was warned not to tell anybody about it. By the time he saw a doctor, a month later, his legs and gums had become infected and his condition was much worse.

Despite his severe injuries, Budgarav is a happy and outgoing boy. He often smiles and jokes,  but he cannot walk far from the ger, even on crutches, and he has had to drop out of school.

“Now I stay at home and watch TV,” he says. “Sometimes I play outside the ger. I would like to go back to school next year if my health improves.”

His younger brother, Munkh-Erdene, 13, is also a former jockey. He was thrown from a horse during a winter race. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and landed on his head, crushing the side of his skull. Unlike his brother, Munkh-Erdene is a quiet, serious boy, and still obsessed with horse racing. “I like drawing pictures of horses and listening to songs about horses,” he says. “When I grow up, I want to be a horse trainer.”

Although doctors have warned Munkh-Erdene that another blow to his head could be fatal, and his parents have forbidden him to race, the horse trainers still encourage him. He raced again this year without a helmet and under another boy’s name. This summer, his parents sent him to stay with relatives to stop him from racing.

Cultural tradition

Every midsummer, the country celebrates the Naadam festival to mark Mongolia’s independence. The games featuring the ‘three manly sports’ of archery, horse racing and wrestling are the highlight of the festival.

“Horse racing is a big part of Mongolia’s history and culture,” says Sarangerel Chuluunbat, from the Federation of Mongolian Horse Racing Sport and Trainers. “Mongolia as a nation was founded on strong men and powerful horses. I am not against children racing horses, but I know our responsibility is to ensure the safety of child jockeys.”

© UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Brown
Former child jockeys Munkh-Erdene (left) and Budgarav (centre) with their parents outside the family ger.

Unlike in ancient times, today hundreds of horses and jockeys race at one time. Athletes in other traditional sports are adults, but jockeys are almost always children, because of their light weight. Some trainers teach children to fall from their horse on the final straight, so that it comes in lighter and faster. With so many horses galloping behind, the risk of being trampled is high.

Wealthy families also organize horse races to celebrate weddings, even during the winter months, when the ground is icy and even more dangerous. In these races, the jockeys are as young as 5 and rarely wear protective gear. If they are insured at all, it is usually for far less than the horses.

Ulziit is where the main Naadam horse races are held. Almost all the children in the town work as child jockeys. The school is linked to the horse training centre, and children are pulled out of class for up to a month to race, often without their parent’s consent.

Budgarav’s father, Otgonbaatar, does occasional labouring jobs, but horse racing was the family’s main source of income. Now they live on disability benefits and food coupons. The horse trainers gave the family one-off payments of 200,000 Tugriks (US$108) for each injured boy. “Life is hard,” Otgonbaatar says. “We don’t have enough to live on.”

Call for change

The current law governing the Naadam festival states that children under 7 years old cannot race, and jockeys must be insured and wear protective gear. But the law is specific to the official Naadam races and does not cover other races.

UNICEF is advocating for the law to be extended to all horse races in Mongolia. “We also want to ban winter races and raise the minimum age to 9, as a first step towards meeting the international standard of 14,” says Amaraa Dorjsambuu, Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Mongolia. “It’s important to acknowledge Mongolian traditions, but at the same time, we need to be strong on wrongdoing and prevent the exploitation of children.”

© UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Brown
A horse monument being constructed at a new racecourse outside Ulziit.

The situation has already improved. In recent years, the Government’s National Authority for Children has worked with the Federation of Mongolian Horse Racing Sport and Trainers to monitor national races and enforce the rules on age, safety equipment and insurance. Over 1,700 children took part in this year’s Naadam races in Ulaanbaatar.

“You can really see the difference,” Amaraa continues. “Last year, 63 children were injured and six killed during the Naadam races, but this year there were only two light injuries and no deaths.”

Otgonbaatar still celebrates Naadam but no longer feels the same way about horse racing. “Definitely my view of horse racing has changed,” he says. “The traditions have been lost, and it’s all about big business. We used to have two healthy boys, but now they are both disabled. If Munkh-Erdene had been wearing a helmet, he might still be OK.”

Outside Ulziit a new racecourse is being built. Alongside it a massive horse statue has been raised, paid for by a wealthy horse owner. The horse is shown tossing its mane against a dramatic backdrop of steppe and mountains. Although the statue stands beside a racecourse, the horse has no rider.

It is clear that much more needs to be done if child jockeys, and their rights, are to become visible in the public eye.



UNICEF Photography: Children with disabilities

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