The race season is in full swing again, although it never really stops. Big city, sparkling events and country annual gatherings populate the calendar. Many of these events go unnoticed in the wider world, but provide a fantastic day for riders and spectators.
The basic elements of a day at the races are similar around the world. Groomed horses, a racetrack of sorts, spectators cheering on their favourites, food in abundance, and fashion.
In Tibet and Tibetan areas, the races are traditional annual events, held during summer, and every male Tibetan for 100kms around wouldn’t dream of missing it. Women and children come, but not as often – someone has to herd the yaks and sheep.
Tibetan races are usually 5 circuits around a mile length track, so the riders are young, light and ride bareback. The track is delineated by motorbikes at the edges. Few of the riders would be over 15 years old, and are usually a fairly small size for 15 as well. The horses spend non-racing days on the grasslands, working with the herds, staying tough and ready to endure the race. These are not the $1,000, 000 cosseted royalty of the city race carnivals!
Cheering on the favourites happens here too, but with a difference. Before the race the horses will be showered with Tibetan wind horses – small squares of paper with Buddhist drawings and sayings on them – for luck. The crowds create a wild, ululating yodel during the race and, for the winning horses, the accolades are ribbons and flowers. The owner receives a gift of a blanket or beautiful fabric to decorate the traditional Tibetan coats. The Chinese Government bans gambling, but… we are at the races!
Race day picnics happen around the world as well, and Tibetan ones are magic to see. Each family group has a specially decorated white tent, and inside the stove continuously boils hot water for tea. Long swathes of plastic covering the ground hold the festive food – cold boiled yak or mutton, dried meats, sweets, bread rolls and oranges. Soft drinks and Tibetan beer joggle for place in the foodstuffs. No bubbles or strawberries and cream here!
Many of the families stay for a few days, catching up with far-flung friends, and just maybe, finding boyfriends for marriage-age daughters.
Australian country races have much of the same camaraderie, especially those that are semi-private races, designed for friends and friends of friends. A local horse owner will offer a field for the races, set out some hay bales to race around, and organize a porta-potty. Horse floats start arriving late the evening before, and swags are laid out under them. Spectators bring their own folding chairs and are laden with drinks.
The races themselves are often run as time-trials, with only the first ride on each horse counted for each rider to determine the winner. The switching of horses and riders makes for interesting comparisons and the spectators then need to decide if they are cheering for the horse or the rider.
This is definitely a family event, with children’s trials, and afternoon novelty races. Well-behaved dogs are welcome as well. Lunch can be a picnic, or more likely a barbeque provided by the host, with meat from his own or friends cattle. The non-riders are lunch crew and set everything up ready for the crowd
After the day at the races, the evening is rounded off with prize giving (a cup and chocolates) beside a massive bonfire and lubricated by some good ales or wine. There maybe a bit of singing, and perhaps a touch or two of romance as well.
Around the world horses are treasured, riding is loved, and horse-people have the same shared joy in their animals and friendships.