In A Nutshell
The sport of polo has traditionally been an exclusive pursuit of the rich. But throughout Central Asia, a more humble version of the sport is played. Called buzkashi, players use a headless goat carcass instead of a ball.
The Whole Bushel
In the countries of Central Asia, people play a bizarre version of polo called buzkashi. The rules can vary somewhat between different areas, but they typically involve competing teams on horseback attempting to drag a headless goat carcass into a goal called the “circle of justice.”
While polo can be a rough sport, buzkashi is downright vicious. The biting, kicking horses crush together, often trampling the goat flat. The players use whips not only to goad their own animals, but to lash into competitors. There are no mallets; rather, a player has to lean over in his saddle to seize the goat, which can weigh well over 45 kilograms (100 lbs). A headless calf is sometimes used, as its corpse is better able to handle the crushing hooves of the horses. The calf is decapitated and disemboweled, legs severed at the knees. Then the body is soaked overnight to harden the flesh.
Buzkashi is extremely popular in Afghanistan, where it was banned during the regime of the Taliban. When the current republic was set up, the government was quick to introduce buzkashi as the “national sport.” The best players are backed not by Nike and Gatorade, but by a retinue of local warlords, who shower them with wealth for a job well done. Betting can run into the thousands of dollars, a huge amount of money in a country where most people live in poverty.
It is believed that the sport’s origins lie some 800 years in antiquity with the Mongol horsemen of Genghis Khan, and is practiced outside of Afghanistan in many countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. In Xinjian, China, the Tajik people play the game atop yaks.