Buzkashi is a game that dates itself into Afghan antiquity. The name Buzkashi, literally translated means "goat killing" suggest it was derived from hunting mountain goats by champions on horseback. Today the rider (or team) who is able to pitch a dead calf across a goal line first wins. The game may last as long as a week and is as free-wheeling as the Afghan spirit.
Legend has it Buzkashi was played for the first time in the Oxus basin. The Turkic peoples and others who migrated from the steppes to Afghanistan domesticated the horse and used to as a mobile weapons platform for combat. Two types of horses are indigenous to Afghanistan. The "qataghan" is a sturdy pony known for strength and endurance. The other is larger and is raised in the steppes of Faryab and Balkh. Both breeds are used in Buzkashi. Only male stud horses are used in the game.
Buzkashi horses require special training in order to be successful in the game. Should the rider be thrown or dismount, the horse waits. A trained horse will gallop with terrific speed as soon as the horseman snatches the carcass of a calf in order to gain an edge in the game. The horses are said to enjoy the game as much as the riders. The price of trained horses range 20,000 Afghanis and 100,000 Afghanis in pre-jihad Afghanis. If one was to pay in a more valuable international currency, they could be had today for between $700.00 and $2,500.00.
Buzkashi horses are fed oats at regular intervals. A few days prior to Buzkashi, the trainer keeps the horse hungry for part of the day and rides it daily a fairly long distance. This is meant to soften the horse and make it slightly lean to avoid busting when under excessive strains.
Horsemen call their animals after their natural colour. For instance, a grey horse is called "t'Aragh"; an ash blond horse is referred to as "samand"; a red horse as "jayran"; and a white one as "qezel" or "buz".
Horsemanship in Afghanistan was customary during the Vedic times. The people in the Oxus basin domesticated the horse in order to defend their homeland against the marauding cavalry of enemy tribes while herding their flocks.
When horsemen practiced in ancient times, their relatives watched them. At night, the horsemen critiqued each other and corrected errors on the next day's ride. When fighting on horseback with archery fell into disuse, the horse come to be viewed as a means of transport in the first place and a vehicle to play Buzkashi in the second.
Wrestling matches always accompany Buzkashi because usually a hand to hand fight followed a cavalry campaign. A successful horseman had to be strong and adept enough to beat his opponents on the ground as well. Wrestling is considered as an ancient game like Buzkashi and it is practiced on sunny days in the Spring. It is very popular among the people in northern Afghanistan where every move made by a popular wrestler causes such a great excitement among the crowds. Young men wear "chapan" (cloak-like garments) and wind shorter turbans around their waists. They wrestle bare-headed. No foul play is allowed according to unwritten rules of the fames. Biting is considered very bad form.
Afghans remember the stories of famous horses, horsemen and great battles in which the latter displayed their mettle as adept horsemen and wrestlers. Buskashi is regarded as an imitation of ancient battles. The peoples of Balkh, Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan, Samangan, Juzjan, and Faryab are known to be good at Buzkashi. It is is played on special occasions such as weddings, the Eid, the new year day and at local carnivals.
At fairs every horseback rider can participate in the game. It is a free for all where riders help their friends by whipping competitor's horses so they are unable to make the pitch. It is a melee which is richly enjoyed. Only champions of Buzkashi participate in important matches. They are taken very seriously and there is much less "horse play."
Buzkashi horsemen wear thick hats, quilted dresses, long boots and wind strong scarves around their waists.
In the Pamirs, Buzkashi games are played only in summer to celebrate weddings but elsewhere, there is no set time. Buzkashi is played on a level field covered with snow. To spite the cold and snow, everyone turns out to watch the match. They get very excited when the calf is brought to the pitch and fights between spectators are not uncommon. The women watch from roof-tops.
Traditionally, a calf is beheaded, the legs are cut off at the knee and its entrails are removed. The carcass of the calf is then soaked in cold water for 24 hours before the game so that it may be tough enough to withstand the tugging that takes place. When there is no calf available, a goat is used instead.
Winners are awarded prizes of "chapan", turbans, cash or rifles. The riders may not own the horses they ride in competition. Most of the Buzkashi horses belong to men who can afford to buy them and hire trainers. Usually, the owner of the horseman also awards the horseman a prize, as his horse gains fame in victory. An adept horseman can generally get any horse he wants to use in an important Buzkashi match.
According to unwritten rules of the game, nobody can tie the carcass to his saddle or hit his opponent on the hand to snatch the calf. Likewise, tripping an opponent by using the rope is forbidden.
Buzkashi continues until a team is announced the winner. At the end of the game, a horse race is arranged which is known as 'paiga' . Horses used in paiga races are different from those meant for Buzkashi. Younger boys are not allowed to participate in such races because race horses are not saddled. Some ride their mounts bare-back and others use a thin saddle blanket.
Horsemen are frequently carried away and in their excitement they will bump, hit and jar opponents. When they return, they are usually bruised or have a broken limb. Sometimes, they choose a site for pitch near a river and a few horsemen conspire to drown their opponents. The Afghans play for very high stakes and take the game very seriously. It is not uncommon for riders to continue in the game with cracked ribs, broken limbs and various head injuries.