Khentii Province, Mongolia – “I miss everything about him. I ask why I kept sending him to race and why we taught him to ride a horse,” says P Batsaikhan, whose son, Lkhagvadorj, was seven years old when he died.
The boy was competing in an ancient tradition in Mongolia – racing horses at top speed on the country’s vast steppes.
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These horse races are some of the longest in the world. And have some of the youngest child jockeys.
When Lkhagvadorj fell, he was trampled by the horses. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, and his skull was crushed.
His father, S Baasandorj, had been waiting for him at the finish line.
“I rode as fast as I could to the hospital. When I got there, he had died. I sat next to my son for an hour in silence,” he recalls.
Mongolia is the birthplace of Genghis Khan, who founded an empire on horseback. Today, horses remain a symbol of the nation’s sovereignty and spirit.
This culture is celebrated every year at Naadam, the country’s biggest festival. As part of the celebrations, hundreds of horse races are held across the nation, keeping an ancient tradition alive.
Mongolian law states that children must be at least seven years old to compete in horse races. But Al Jazeera found riders as young as five – riders like Babu.
“I like galloping very fast. Racing is the best,” he says.
Babu is one of an estimated 30,000 Mongolian child jockeys. He is so small that he needs his father to hoist him into the saddle. But after months of training, he’s about to compete in his first race.
With 80 other jockeys, Babu will ride one of his father’s stallions along a 24km, unmarked dusty track. He’s raring to go.
“I like to ride a horse and I like to win,” he explains.
The International Labour Organization calls this ancient sport a dangerous form of child labour.
In the past five years, 1,500 child jockeys have been injured and 10 have died in horse races across the country, according to figures from the Ulaan Baatar Traumatology Hospital.
Dr P Bayarsaikhan is a trauma surgeon at the hospital. He has treated injured child jockeys.
“It’s considered a serious injury when it comes to us,” he explains. “We feel very emotional because it involves children.”
Despite laws requiring children to wear protective gear, many children compete without helmets.
Bayarsaikhan says this lack of safety equipment means that head injuries are common among those who fall, leaving some riders with long-term brain injuries. He says child jockeys are unable to accurately assess hazards while riding, leading them to take dangerous risks.
Tsanlig Battuya, spokesperson for the group The National Network Against The Worst Forms of Child Labour, believes child jockeys are often exploited, with children from poor families sometimes pushed into the sport.
“What we are trying to say is to keep the children away from exploitation – not because we don’t want them to ride a horse. We are trying to protect their rights and safety,” she says.
A law requiring jockeys to wear helmets was introduced in 2011. But Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, the former minister of culture, sports and tourism, claims only Naadam races are regulated. This means trainers are free to ignore safety guidelines in private races outside the festivities.
If a trainer is judged to be responsible for a jockey’s death, the maximum penalty is an $8,000 fine. Tsedevdamba says this is insufficient, and is calling for tougher penalties.
No one has gone to jail so far for a child's death in a horse race ... It's a big problem because no one was sued and the state never prosecuted anyone for a child's death
“No one has gone to jail so far for a child’s death in a horse race … It’s a big problem because no one was sued and the state never prosecuted anyone for a child’s death,” Tsedevdamba explains.
With some jockeys dropping out of school to race and train full-time, Tsedevdamba says they struggle to find work once they become too old to race.
“They aren’t educated … so that’s another problem,” she explains.
But in a country where horse racing and the political establishment are closely linked, activists question whether there is the political will to properly regulate the industry.
Earlier this year, Al Jazeera found that Mongolian parliamentarians owned 654 racehorses.
With few voices in Mongolia calling for a complete ban on child jockeys, the tradition looks set to continue.
“If we are pushed to take the children completely off the horseback it will be non-Mongolian,” says Tsedevdamba. “I think every Mongolian would want to make their children learn to ride horses … we have to draw a line between what is a traditional race and where we have to stop our children.”
For five-year-old Babu, horse racing offers the chance to prove himself in one of the toughest races in the world.
“I want to win a prize during Naadam,” he says.
For his father, it’s about continuing a proud family tradition, which dates back thousands of years.
“It’s like we become one with the horse. It’s in our blood. The bond is there,” he says.
To find out how Babu’s debut race goes, watch Mongolia: Born to Ride on 101 East.