Scenes from a Headless Goat Polo Match; or How Ulak Tartysh Became My Favorite Full Contact Sport

UlakTartyshCollageУлак тартыш, or ulak tartysh, is a fast-paced, full contact sport played on horse back, with two teams battling over a headless carcass of a goat. Players are equipped with nothing but whips, their horses, and determination, and the game is vicious, violent, and dangerous. It is also, hands down, one of the coolest games that I have ever seen. Played throughout Central Asia under several names – buzkashi in Afghanistan, kokpar in Kazakhstan – it is one of Kyrgyzstan’s most beloved of national games. This match celebrated Nowruz, the first day of Spring, along with other traditional sports like eagle hunting, taigan racing, and horseback archery.

How to play ulak tartysh

  • Divide your best riders into two ten-person teams, make sure you can tell your opponents from your teammates so you don’t whip the wrong person in the face.
  • Remove the head from a goat (or sheep, whatever’s handy) and drain the blood while you and your team are getting warmed up. Thank the goat for giving its life to play a game and omeen.
  • Four players (or five, depending on your definition of the rules) on each team can be on the field at once, which is roughly the size of two football fields.
  • The goat carcass is dropped in the middle of the field, and the teams fight to get the one-hundred pound goat up on their horses before someone else can. If you’ve ever seen a rugby scrum, imagine horses and whips in it.
  • The teams try to throw this carcass, carried under one leg across the field, into a large hole to score points – passing it between teammates and trying to steal the carcass back.
  • The holes at either end of the fields are called kazan, after the large cooking pots used in Kyrgyzstan, and about four feet high, a little shorter than an average horse – so right about leg-height for the rider. The goat has to get all the way into the kazan to score a point. After scoring, the goat is dropped at center field and the horseback scrum begins again.
  • If players take the goat out of bounds, its dropped in one of three jousting circles (right field, left field, or center field), where two players compete to pick it up off the ground, kind of like a jump ball in basketball, but with a lot higher stakes.
  • Between ramming your horse in to your opponents, flailing your whip, and trying to hold onto a one-hundred pound sack of meat, try not to fall off your horse (as it is most likely galloping at full speed).
  • This goes on for two, forty-five minute halves with a 15 minute halftime. Our halftime was a Kyrgyz man in full national dress lip-syncing to several songs by clearly different singers. It was perfect.
  • The winning team gets to eat the goat, now fully tenderized by an hour-and-a-half of brutality. Hurray!


Pictures, Top to Bottom, Left to Right:

A rider carries the goat under one leg and a whip in his mouth at full gallop across the field. | Teams defending their goal at full speed. | Full speed, headed for an open kazan. | Galloping the length of the field. | Celebrating national day at half time. | Two teams, jousting for the goat (the brown lump in the center). All that steam is coming from the horses. | What is a public sporting event without snacks? This girl is tossing sunflower seeds out to the crowd. | Excited foreigners in a sea of Kyrgyz men. Sara, Grace, and I were some of the only women in our section, and definitely the only foreigners. | HANDS UP FOR ULAK TARTYSH!


One thought on “Scenes from a Headless Goat Polo Match; or How Ulak Tartysh Became My Favorite Full Contact Sport

  1. Pingback: Kyrgyz Portraits: Ak-Sakal at the Games | i figure wherever i am, that's where the world is

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