PtG Article 12.04.2007

Commercial horse racing in Mongolia is endangering child jockeys

In Mongolia, more than 30,000 child jockeys compete in horse races each year. Children riding horses in races is a popular tradition, but as horse racing has become more and more commercialised, injuries and fatalities have increased drastically - in part because races are now taking place at sub-zero temperatures.

“Horse racing is increasingly becoming an issue of violating children’s rights,” Jadamba Dashdorj, a commissioner at Mongolia’s Human Rights Commission says to the International Labour Organization’s newsletter, Issues.

The Human Rights Commission has collected information about injuries and fatalities in the last three years. The findings were alarming and showed that a substantial number of child jockeys received serious and sometimes fatal injuries after falling from horses.

The increase in injuries can in part be attributed to the fact that races no longer are confined to the traditional Nadaam Festival in the warm month of July. Now horse training associations and wealthy horse owners organise an increasing number of races around the year including in the period after the Lunar New Year in January or February, when sub-zero temperatures create much higher risks of injuries and other health problems.

For instance, in February 2006, the English-language Mongolian newspaper, the UB Post reported that a horse race taking place on 1 February had been criticised for endangering the health of child jockeys. 1 February was the coldest day that winter with temperatures going as low as minus 46 degrees Celsius, and many children without proper clothing had sustained cold related sicknesses and injuries.

“In recent years, horse racing has changed from a popular sport of the people to a form of amusement of the wealthy. If the horse owners do not follow the established rules for the safety of child jockeys, we will pursue the matter in whatever way we can. This is an issue of child rights,” an official from the National Department of Children told the UB Post.

The official called for parliament to ban the sport in cases of extreme cold. A vain hope perhaps, as the newspaper could also report that the first and the third horse in the race belonged to the Prime Minister and fourth and fifth place went to horses belonging to other members of parliament. 

An issue of children’s rights

The problem for many Mongolians is to see horse racing as an issue of children’s rights. Many children learn to ride from the age of four or five and there is a very long tradition of children riding horses in races particularly around Naadam, where the nomad population celebrates the world’s second oldest ‘Olympics’.

Since the days of Genghis Khan more than 800 years ago, families have travelled far to compete in the ‘three manly sports’ — archery, wrestling and the all-important horse race where horses race from 12 to 28 kilometres across the steppe depending on the age of the horse.

According to the law, children must be seven years or older to race at the Nadaam and in 2005 a government decree also required children to wear protective helmets, knee and elbow pads - but many do not and laws on age and equipment are not properly enforced.

The United Nations has called on Mongolia to address the issue of child jockeys in traditional horse racing by undertaking a comprehensive study to assess the nature and extent of exploitation of children in the horse-racing business and by explicitly prohibiting employment of children under 16 as jockeys in races in line with the minimum age for work set in labour law.

So far, none of this has happened. Instead the International Labour Organization has brought together the National Sports Committee, the National Department of Children, the Human Rights Commission and three major horse trainers’ associations in Mongolia to discuss what can be done to preserve tradition but also protect the rights and the safety of child jockeys.

The parties have agreed to work together over the next three years to improve laws on the organisation of horse races, ensure legal protection of child jockeys, collect and analyse information on injuries and monitor the implementation of relevant laws.

One of the main themes at the 2007 Play the Game conference will be the impact of sport upon children's lives. The conference will be held in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, and will run from 28 October to 2 November. For more information about the conference, including information about conference themes and how to register, please click here .