Haji Mohammad Pahlawan waves his whip in the air, pulling his grey stallion away from the calf carcass he has just dumped in a goal to claim victory in a tournament of buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport.
A cloud of dust swirls around the heaving scrum of three dozen horses competing in the final contest on a vast plain in the northern province of Samangan, where buzkashi riders known an “chapandazan” are revered as heroes.
About 3,000 spectators, all men and boys, cheer, whoop and ululate as a beaming Mohammad canters over to tournament officials to collect his $500 prize, gathering his mounted teammates for their lap of victory.
Buzkashi, from the Persian words for goat (“buz”) and drag (“kashi”), has been played in Central Asia for centuries, with Afghanistan’s neighbours Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan having their own variations.
Banned under the Taliban’s regime of 1996 to 2001 for being “immoral”, there were fears the ancient game would again be barred after the group seized power in August this year.
But not only have Taliban fighters gathered in the crowd after Friday prayers to watch this showpiece buzkashi tournament, a local commander is taking part as well, and Mohammad’s club is captained by a district governor.
“I’m walking away with the glory,” 29-year-old Mohammad tells the AFP news agency on the sidelines, still wearing his Soviet-era tank helmet, his face layered in the fine powder kicked up during the two-hour competition.
Flanked by mountains, the early-season tournament takes place at Qara Shabagh, just outside Samangan’s capital Aybak, where the Hindu Kush mountains meet the Central Asian steppe.
As the tournament gets under way, with the winners of early rounds claiming 1,000 Afghan afghanis ($11) each, the crowd swells to create a huge rectangular pitch around the 50 to 60 horses and riders.
A rowdy group of several hundred fans are pushed back repeatedly by gun-toting Taliban fighters, although they are quicker on their feet when the pack of marauding buzkashi horses hurtle towards them as they wrestle for the muddied carcass.
The most excitable is 45-year-old Khasta Gul, who runs on to the dung-caked pitch to cheer on his favourite rider, spraying water into the air and cracking jokes to other spectators.
He gets a reward of 500 Afghanis ($5.50) from one rider for his unbending enthusiasm.
“I have a lot of passion for sport,” says Gul. “I support our riders and enjoy spurring them on.”
Among the riders gripping their wood and leather whips between their teeth is local Taliban leader Abu Do Jana, aided by a young fighter called Osama, but they are no match for the winner.
And Mohammad says the group has not created any problems during the tournament.
The rider says his combined winnings and bonuses for the day total about $800, more than five times the average monthly salary in Afghanistan, which is facing a huge economic and humanitarian crisis.
The brothers will continue to play buzkashi each week throughout the winter, until April.
“Those who don’t have any hope are losers,” he says. “The season is looking great now.”