AKIPRESS.COM - Racing their steeds across the endless Mongolian steppe, child jockeys as young as seven dream of glory and riches in a country where horses are a national passion.
Yet rights groups warn of a dark underbelly in the sport – where vulnerable pre-teens face the risk of crippling injury and harsh treatment or even physical abuse by trainers, according to The Star.
Tsendsurengiin Budgarav’s hopes turned into a nightmare when he was 11 and had a career-ending fall that shattered his right thigh.
His trainers denied him hospital treatment and insisted he kept quiet, he said. Infection set in but he was not operated on for a year, leaving him almost bedridden. Now 17, he is undergoing a new course of surgery to enable him to walk with crutches.
“I felt so sorry that I fell off that day, I wish I hadn’t ridden that horse,” he said from a hospital bed, fighting back tears.
He liked the awards and medals of his glory days, he said, but claimed his trainer “used to put out his cigarettes on my forehead like lighting a match.”
For hundreds of years Mongolian tournaments have showcased the horsemanship skills which helped Genghis Khan’s armies conquer a vast swathe of the Eurasian landmass.
Modern races are grueling tests of stamina for the horses, far longer than even Europe’s top steeplechases, so that small children are preferred as riders.
Contests became more numerous and lucrative on the back of the landlocked country’s recent resources boom, offering cars and cash for prizes, with some 600 races held annually.
More than 11,000 children are registered as jockeys, according to the government’s child protection agency. Some 150 participated in the main official celebrations of Naadam, Mongolia’s biggest festival, in Ulaanbaatar.
A 2014 UNICEF report said that some 326 child jockeys were hospitalized in 2012, mostly with head or bone injuries.
It surveyed 529 child jockeys, with some five percent saying they had been beaten or kicked by their instructors.
Aspiring Mongolian jockeys leave their families and schools behind as young as seven to learn from trainers, known as uyach in Mongolian, who also become responsible for their education. Critics say they have little recourse if victimized.
Later this year Mongolia will bring in new child protection legislation, banning kids from winter races, in a bid to curb the number of injuries due to slippery ice-and snow-covered terrain.
The law will also mandate punishments for trainers if children are injured in summer contests.
Child protection advocates have long demanded the measure, but close links between government officials and racing events mean enforcement is in question.
Mongolia’s Prime Minister Chimedn Saikhanbileg approved a horse race in February where 16 children fell from their horses, two of them breaking their legs, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
Dangaagiin Avirmed, head of the Mongolian United Federation for children said: “The races are being held because decision makers love to watch, and their horses are there. That’s why they don’t cancel the race, no matter how many children got hurt.”
And the sport’s appeal also endures for children with few other options.