SHEBERGHAN, Afghanistan -- Abdul Rauf Amini, a horseman and breeder in northern Afghanistan, is the keeper of an ancient tradition.
He grooms horses to ride and compete in buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport that involves teams of horse riders fighting over a decapitated and disemboweled goat carcass. They jostle to grab the goat then maneuver around a large field while aiming to land it in a marked circle and win the game.
Amini, 50, has spent most of his adult life preparing horses for the dangerous and thrilling sport, where the sheer stamina and brute force of the horses and their riders are on display. The game has few rules and players run the risk of falling off and being trampled by horses.
This is why, being known as a chapandaz or expert horseman, a local term for buzkashi players, is a badge of honor and earns them considerable respect in the local community.
Inside his stable in Baba Ali, a village outside Sheberghan, the capital of northern Jawzjan Province, Amini is preparing his horses for the impending buzkashi season, which is scheduled to begin early next month.
“You have to look after them around the clock,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We clean the horses’ faces with a soft piece of cloth. Every day we brush the horses with a special comb and clean their hooves,” he said of the meticulous care buzkashi horses require.
Special exercises such as horse walking and showering are necessary to maintain the animals for buzkashi, or goat-grabbing in Persian. Similar to well-groomed athletes, diet too is central to preparing the horses to compete in the tough games held in large fields ringed by snowcapped mountains.
Breeders such as Amini prepare a specific diet for each horse that consists of rye, straw, pasture grass, eggs, bundles of rice, and oils or fats. Such a diet can cost up to $700 per animal every month.
“I have been keenly interested in horse breeding and grooming since I was a child,” he said. “My late father always encouraged me, and I helped him look after the horses,” he added while reflecting on the techniques and knowledge he had acquired over three decades.
Amini says the horses that are groomed especially for buzkashi competitions, which typically involve two teams of a dozen riders, are expensive. “The price of local horses ranges from $2,000 to $30,000, but foreign horses cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000.”
In Jawzjan, different horse breeds produce different results. Ghorogh, Jirn, Samand, Meshki, and Sorkhoon all local horse breeds considered best for buzkashi because of their strength and grace.
But individual characteristics and performance ultimately decide their market value. “Most horses are currently imported from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan because local horses here are smaller while the foreign ones are larger,” Amini said. “In Afghanistan currently there is a large market for foreign breeds.”
Buzkashi is played in many Central Asian nations, too, and is part of the nomadic heritage of many nations in the region. Its rules, however, vary from country to country and even among regions within one country.
Kabul has taken some steps toward promoting buzkashi. In March, the country’s first buzkashi league attracted thousands of spectators in Kabul. “It’s never been played on such a scale. I am very excited to see so many people here,” Haji Jawad Noori, a 28-year-old player with the Kabul team, told AFP at the time. “You have to be very fast and flexible. The carcass is also very heavy.”
In Jawzjan, officials hope to continue promoting the sport. “We are working on formalizing the winter season,” said Mohammad Siddiq Fayez, the provincial director of sports and physical education.
He says that in coordination with the National Buzkashi League, they are working on structuring the competitions, which are often held on Fridays or as part of folk festivals. “Buzkashi is our heritage and national treasure,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
In Kabul, officials see a bright future for the sport, which has drawn comparisons to Afghanistan’s tumultuous politics where strongmen have violently competed for power.
“We want to promote buzkashi,” said Ghani Modaqiq, an official at the state television network. “It’s our national sport, and we want to make it a globally recognized sport.”