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Buzkashi, or “goat grabbing,” is a violent, fast-paced equestrian sport played in many parts of Central Asia. At a stretch, one might consider it the more savage cousin of polo. It is particularly associated with Afghanistan, and it is considered by many people to be the Afghan national sport. This game is not for the weak of heart; it requires skilled riders and horses, and a tough stomach, since a dead goat or calf is involved. Casual games of Buzkashi are popular in many parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia, and serious competitors also enter formal competitions.
The sport is known by a variety of names in Central Asia, including Ulak Tartysh. It has been played for hundreds of years, as writings and paintings from the area indicate. Essentially, it tests the skills of riders and horses, rewarding people for aggressive, strong riding and decisive movements. By tradition, riders do not own their horses; instead, the valuable mounts used in Buzkashi are owned and trained by third parties who select talented riders for their animals.
In theory, Buzkashi is played by teams, but the game is a classic illustration of shifting alliances. The goal of the game is to pick up and retain hold of a dead goat or calf, which is traditionally beheaded and packed with sand or rocks to make it heavier. In a variant of the game called Tudabarai, riders must simply get the goat away from the crowd of other riders, or they can play a more challenging version, Qarajai, in which riders must loop around a target on one end of the field and then throw the goat into a vat or clearly marked ring.
Team members may foul members of another team to regain control of the goat, but they will also turn on each other. Riders can hit, bump, whip, or slap each other to grab the goat, and they must hold the animal rather than looping it onto their saddles. Most Buzkashi riders suit up with heavy garments to protect themselves from other players, and serious injuries are not uncommon. At the close of the game, the winning horseman is rewarded with prizes, and the owner of the horse typically offers a reward as well.
The horses used in Buzkashi are very agile and strong, with the ability to stop on a dime when required. Riders are usually capable of controlling their mounts with their legs alone, leaving their hands free to attack other players or hold onto the goat. It takes years of experience to play the game well, although casual players are often welcomed at informal games.