No joy ride: Mongolian child jockeys risk their lives in dangerous horse races despite ban

Mongolian child jockeys competing in the "Dunjingarav 2017" spring horse race on the outskirts of Ulan Bator.
Mongolian child jockeys competing in the "Dunjingarav 2017" spring horse race on the outskirts of Ulan Bator. PHOTO: AFP
A Mongolian child jockey preparing to compete in the "Dunjingarav 2017" spring horse race on the outskirts of Ulan Bator.
A Mongolian child jockey preparing to compete in the "Dunjingarav 2017" spring horse race on the outskirts of Ulan Bator. PHOTO: AFP
A Mongolian child jockey competing in the "Dunjingarav 2017" spring horse race on the outskirts of Ulan Bator.
A Mongolian child jockey competing in the "Dunjingarav 2017" spring horse race on the outskirts of Ulan Bator. PHOTO: AFP
Mongolian child jockeys competing in the "Dunjingarav 2017" spring horse race on the outskirts of Ulan Bator.
Mongolian child jockeys competing in the "Dunjingarav 2017" spring horse race on the outskirts of Ulan Bator. PHOTO: AFP

TSAGAAN HUTUL (AFP) - Mongolian courts banned them, human rights groups slammed them and the labour ministry demands they cease, but none of that has stopped Mongolia's politicians from letting child jockeys saddle up.

Despite the outcry, coaches still hire child riders to race at breakneck speeds across the freezing steppe in high stakes contests with powerful backers.

The contests have been met with outrage on social media, where commenters share photos of young riders suffering painful falls from the saddle and call on authorities to enforce the court order suspending the event.

Child jockeys are forbidden from appearing in winter and spring races, according to regulations issued by the country's ministry of labour in February 2016.

But that has not stopped Mongolian Prime Minister Jargalsaikhanii Erdenebat from approving a recent horse race about 20km outside of the capital of Ulaanbaatar in Tsagaan Hutul, as well as in two other provinces later this month.

Winter-spring horse races are often held in temperatures as low as -20 deg C, which can lead to frostbite, particularly in long distance races in high winds.

Temperatures dipped as low as -12 deg C during Sunday's (March 5) race in Tsagaan Hutul.

At one race last Sunday (Feb 26), at least 10 horses crossed the finish line without riders after their jockeys apparently fell off. In total, 31 of the young jockeys took a spill at the event, according to Mongolia's authority for children and family affairs.

Medics on scene refused to answer AFP's questions about whether any children had been injured.

Mongolia holds an average of 600 horse races with over 16,000 children participating as jockeys, according to government figures.

A 2014 United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef) report said that some 326 child jockeys were hospitalised in 2012, mostly with head or bone injuries.

Displays of skilled horsemanship are an important part of traditional Mongolian culture, but professional child jockeys are a relatively recent phenomenon, only appearing during the last 10 years.

As little as two decades ago, horse races were organised only during the country's summer festival Nadaam, and riding coaches, known as "uyach" in Mongolian, used their own children or relatives as jockeys.

Since that time, racing has become a popular, albeit shadowy business and uyach seek out boys between the ages of seven and 10 to ride in the competitions.

The riders are often sponsored by local politicians, who tout their ownership of race horses during their campaigns. Ownership of livestock is an important measure of success for rural voters, many of whom continue to lead traditional pastoral lives.

Children's light weight gives them an advantage in horse races that often run for 18km to 26km, among the longest on earth.

Most of the recruits come from lower income families in rural areas, where uyach are widely respected.

Ya Boldbaatar, the chief organiser of the Uyach Association, told local reporters that organisers had not received notice of the court's decision to ban child jockeys before the most recent race: "We only heard the decision from the media."

Khurelchuluunii Bayasgalan, a public relations officer at the metropolitan administrative court told AFP that the horse-racing coaches association still has 14 days to appeal against the court decision, meaning that the order was not yet final.

But the ruling should have been put into immediate effect, Odonkhuugiin Munkhsaikhan, a legal expert at Mongolian National University, wrote on his web site.

"However, the government has conflicts of interest. Some of the Cabinet members are uyach and have been allowed to organise the race without considering the court's decision."

Sanchir Jargalsaikhan, a political scientist in Ulaanbaatar, told AFP that the case showed how Mongolian plutocrats could increasingly ignore the country's laws.

The speaker of the country's parliament, the Great Khural, is also a member and head of the Uyach association, he said, adding that "because of this confluence of interests, an amateur association is able to override the decision of the court and go unpunished".

Last winter, 16 children fell off their horses and two broke their legs during a race that was held over objections by the Mongolian National Human Rights Commission and civil society groups.