Human Journey

Kok Boru: Do you have what it takes to play this Central Asian sport?


From the outside, it looks like pure chaos. Men are shouting and pulling reigns. Horses are protesting and charging from one direction to another. Hooves beat the earth, sending dust soaring in the air.

A man in a blue shirt can be seen through the clouds of dust reaching down to the ground to pick up the prize: a headless goat carcass. The other men begin to charge towards him, tugging at the carcass, trying to get the man in the blue shirt to drop it, but he holds it tightly as he gallops away from his opponents. With every passing moment, you’re certain one of the men will lose his balance, making him vulnerable to gravity’s greedy pull, or that one of the horses will buck to be free of its rider, throwing him to the ground under stamping hooves. Somehow, this doesn’t happen and all the men remain mounted. Usually.

Carcass in hand and wrapped behind leg, this player races towards the goal, outmaneuvering his opponents. (Photo by Toby A. Cox)

This is Kok Boru – a national Kyrgyz game, not for the faint of heart, that combines elements of rugby, polo, and football, replacing the ball with a (fresh) headless goat carcass.

Thousands of years ago, when the people of Kyrgyzstan were nomadic, wolves would attack and eat their livestock. Since their livestock was also their livelihood, this was a problem. To ensure survival, they would kill wolves they saw. Eventually, they developed a use for the wolf carcass: Kok Boru (Blue Wolf). What might have started as a game played by shepherds to pass the time, has become one of the many cultural symbols of both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Of course, present-day, the wolf carcass has been replaced with a goat carcass.

Both teams trying to gain control of the goat carcass. (Photo by Toby A. Cox)

To play Kok Boru you need 12 players – 4 will play at a time and the remaining players will wait on the sidelines. You also need a field, decent in size, as well as two large pits on both ends of the field to serve as goals. The rules of the game are quite simple (in theory): get the goat carcass in the goal to score points for your team.

And they’re off! (Photo by Toby A. Cox)

The sheep carcass will be placed in the center of the field. When the whistle blows, eight men on horseback will charge towards the carcass. To gain control of the carcass, he must reach down from atop his horse to the ground, grab the 75 pound carcass, and hoist it up onto the horse’s back. At the same time, he must also be galloping towards the goal at the end of the field.

Racing towards the goal – will he score points for his team? (Spoiler: He drops it) (Photo by Toby A. Cox)

This game not only takes incredible strength and skills, but also courage, since all players are just one slip-up away from a serious injury should they fall off their horse. It is also a game that takes immense teamwork and, according to player Tynchtyk, immense focus. “When I play, I don’t pay attention to anything else. I only focus on the game.”

Tynchtyk, 35, from Talas has been playing Kok Boru since he was 17. He has never broken any bones. (Photo by Toby A. Cox)

Kok Boru is one of the many games that will be played in the World Nomad Games next fall.

In Kok Oi, Talas, Men gather to watch Kok Boru (Photo by Toby A. Cox)
Toby A. Cox is a 2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow exploring the story of Islam and religious identity in Kyrgyzstan. She will spend the next 9 months conducting interviews in all seven regions of the country, gathering stories on how the Kyrgyz people perceive the role of Islam and Islamic values in Kyrgyz culture. Through this fellowship, Toby aims to learn more about how Kyrgyzstan’s history has impacted the religious identity of individuals and the multidimensional Kyrgyz identity. She will use writing, videos, photos, and maps to offer insight into the religious landscape of Kyrgyzstan, simultaneously shedding light onto the diversity of Muslim identity. Toby studied Foreign Affairs and Middle Eastern Languages at the University of Virginia and is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Jordan and Kyrgyzstan. 

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