One of the main activities during Naadam in Mongolia is, besides wrestling and archery, horse racing. This is done in several age categories, starting with 1-year old horses up to 6+, and sometimes non-full-bred Mongolian horses have a separate race (mainly cross-bred with Arabian horses). The races are varying in length of 10 km up to 20 km.
Most participating horses are caught from free roaming on the pastures around the ger (with a territory of about 100 km diameter) in May or June. Some are fed a little extra hay (or other feed) to get stronger soon, but most are just ‘trained’. This means regular catching of the horses on the field, then saddling and racing with the sun of the herder for some kilometres to practice. Then, in the end of June, the festivities start. Naadam, the main national festival, starts first in the soums (villages). After that, in the aimags (province capitals) and finally also in Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia). However, sometimes the order is different. Most horses only race in nearby soums, but some herders travel around to different soums and aimags to race. Some men are specialised in training horses for racing and the best of them earn a lot of respect (and probably money as there is some betting going on) if they trained the winning horses.
Before the race, the horses manes are tied and the jockeys sing the horse race song and drink some airag. The race starts by checking the horses teeth to see if they are in the right age category and full-bred Mongolian horses. This is done near the finish line. From there, the horses with their young jockeys (sometimes only 6 or 7 year old boys and girls) walk to the start, about 20 km further. The one-year old horses race for about 10 km. Most horses don’t have saddles and the jockeys are just riding without (as they are nearly born on a horse, they can easily manage, though some drop off during the race…). In the end, they turn around and the race starts. Cars and motorcycles drive in front of and next to the horse racing group until about 500 m before the finish line. The finish is on the Naadam field, where a whole group of people stand around yelling and encouraging the jockeys and horses. The first horses are welcomed, but after a few have finished, most people draw back to drink airag, so the last ones are hardly noticed as it might take a while before they finish. EXCEPT for the one-year-old horses! The last one-year-old horse to finish will be next years winner is the general belief and is overloaded with medals and prices. The owner of the winning horses in the Arvaikheer (aimag) Naadam got 10 million Tugrik (about 6,500 euro), which is a year salary, though in some other aimags owners of winning horses can even receive a Landcruiser.
The winning horse receives a blue scarf (khadag) and is walking around with that the whole day. As most people ride around with their horse the whole day as they can see wrestling and archery better on top of a horse, these horses stand around the crowds the rest of the day. The more professional horse trainers keep their horses next to the horse racing field in a group of racing horses and live in a small ger or tent going from one Naadam to the other. After all racing activities, the horses are released to the fields to their herds again and manage themselves during the next 9 months.