Buzkashi – goats and gladiators

In central Asia, men play a strange game on horseback. Instead of a ball, they use a goat carcass. Instead of goals, they must ride until free of challengers. Instead of minutes, the game can be measured in days. This is Buzkashi – goat grabbing.

Long established as the national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi is polo’s drunken uncle. The sport is also played in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. It is a sport of the Stans – where the masters have ridden for centuries, gloriously along the steppes they call home. The game starts with the placement of a goat carcass in the center of a horse circle, and from there, the riders stare each other down while gripping tightly wound whips in their gleaming teeth.


During the Taliban reign in Afghanistan, the sport was outlawed, but today it has seen a resurgence as the national pastime. Two variations are played, Tudabarai and Qarajai. In both versions, the field is separated into two teams. Tudabarai is the simpler more traditional form of the game. To win, a lone rider must carry the goat until free and clear of all other riders. The riders use their boots and whips to discourage any sort of advance, though horse tripping is strictly forbidden. Qarajai is the more complex version of the game, and requires players to take the goat around a marker and then place it in the team’s designated scoring circle.

The winning team receives a bevy of prizes, from televisions to fine turbans to camels. Games have been known to last for days, and it is a rough demanding sport. It is said that only the masters of the sport, called “Chapandaz,” are truly adept at retrieving the carcass and absconding with it to glory. Unlike a running-back in the NFL, these masters do not hit their peak until much later in life. Most are well over 40. They have spent a lifetime training, and their horses are equally prepared. A good Buzkashi horse must train for five to ten years and can fetch over ten-thousand dollars. This amount is 25 times the average laborer’s yearly wage in Afghanistan and would be comparable to paying $1,000,000 in relative terms in the United States.

Since Afghanistan is a war zone, it is best to catch a game of Buzkashi in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, it is possible to catch games during the late August Independence celebrations. Community Based Tourism arranges a number of tours in the region.

flickr images via U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan