Do children become jockeys at age five?

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The answer is yes and no. According to the Rules of the National Naadam Horse Racing, the minimum age of child jockeys is seven years of age. However, this rule does not apply to all horse races in the country organized throughout the year. Province, soum, and other regional horse races have their own rules. While these horse races are required to register with the National Union of Mongolian Horse Racing, most organizers of these smaller-scale horse races either do not register or do not establish proper rules. Therefore, there is no guarantee that children racing in those horse races will be at least seven years old, and in practice, many children younger than seven race in these competitions.

It is worth noting that most regulations contained in the above mentioned rules focus on the horses, not the jockeys. A requirement that safety gears need to meet certain standards, minimum age, and a rule that child jockeys must be awarded at least 20 percent of the award are the only regulations related to child jockeys.

Naadam, also known as the “three manly games”, is a big part of Mongolian culture, tradition and customs. Horse racing is one of these three important games. As historians explain, the practice of horse racing helped Mongolians breed genetically “superior” horses.

According to historical records, Naadam as a cultural event dates back as far as 2000 years. The more modern form of Naadam began with the Danshig Naadam of the Seven Khoshuu in the 15th century. In 1778, Naadam became a state and religious celebration and started to take place in Khui Doloon Khudag, southwest Ulaanbaatar.

Another piece of evidence that horse racing has been an important part of Mongolian history and culture is the Khalkh Juram, the law of Mongolia in the 18th century.  A total of 17 clauses made up a whole chapter on horse racing in the law.

Starting with this year’s national Naadam, child jockeys’ fingerprints were collected in a central database that will help monitor the health, education, and social conditions of the children, and facilitate better analysis, explained Ts.Altanzaya, head of the Children’s Development and Protection Department of the Family, Youth And Child Development Agency.

She mentioned additional safety requirements such as safety gear standards, minimum age, mandatory insurance, and added that fingerprint registration will make sure that no child will be able to substitute for another child in a horse race.

The safety gear standards cover clothing, protective gears, boots, saddles, and even bridles. However, it is still quite rare for horse trainers to abide by all the rules and standards. The fines for horse owners failing to follow the rules range from MNT 10,000 to 20,000 for individuals and MNT 50,000 to 100,000 for organizations.

Unofficial figures suggest that there are 13,700 child jockeys registered in total, and 7,000 child jockeys race each year. For this year’s national Naadam, around 1,500 jockeys registered 700 took part.

In recent years, Mongolians have become more and more interested in their own culture and traditions, which could explain the increasing number of race horse trainers, especially among young people, and the increasing number of child jockeys as well.

While the younger generations of horse trainers turn to new ways, by utilizing vitamin supplements and injections from abroad, some are balking at the call to end child jockeys, insisting that it is a tradition. From 2014 to 2016, six children died and around 400 children were injured during horse racing.

The worst danger for child jockeys is racing in the winter. It is treacherous even for adults to ride horses for 10 to 26 kilometers in the winter when the temperature often drops below minus 30 degrees Celsius. There have been too many cases of children suffering severe injuries such us frozen hands, legs, faces, and other parts of the body.

Most everyone in the country would say that children’s participation in horse racing is an important part of Mongolian tradition. While there are three main laws in Mongolia that protect children’ rights and safety, such as the Law on the Rights of the Child, the Law on the Protection of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is no law that directly and clearly regulates child jockeys or protects the rights of children participating in horse races.

In other words, using children as jockeys in horse races has been a tradition for many generations without any clear and strong legal protection of the children’s safety and rights. It is only regulated by the rules of the individual races which no one really pays attention to.

Article 19.1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1994, states, “Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse …”

The International Labor Organization made an observation in 2015, asking the government to put law to practice.

“Recalling that horse racing is inherently dangerous to the health and safety of children, the [ILO Committee of Experts] urges the government to take the necessary measures in law and in practice, to ensure that no child under 18 years of age is employed as a horse jockey,” the observation read.

There is still a big debate in Mongolia whether the use of child jockeys constitutes physical violence or abuse. Children often decide to race themselves and their parents enter into contracts on behalf of their children with horse trainers based on template agreements drafted by government organizations, officials explain.

Another related problem is trainers taking child jockeys to races in Inner Mongolia, China. In 2016, 169 children went to China to race on 400 occasions, according to a joint research report by the police and the Human Right Commission. The report also warned that the export of child jockeys could lead to trafficking of children.

Internationally, there has been progress on the issue in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, where children were used in camel races. These countries decided to use robot jockeys instead of children as a result of strong pressures from the international community regarding the violation of children’s rights.

Since we Mongolians have already broken with traditions by feeding horses imported vitamins and injections, and by following horses with car during races, why is it so hard to ban the use of child jockeys altogether? Why are most people reluctant to stand with those who speak out for children? How we live has changed tremendously over the past few decades, and so has our culture. The only thing we still have to change now is our attitude.

Myagmardorj Buyanjargal
Myagmardorj is a freelance writer and certified translator who holds a Bachelor of Law Degree from the National University of Mongolia and Bachelor of Science Degree in engineering in mining technology from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology.