The Naadam Festival: Archery and Horse Racing!

The Naadam Festival: Archery and Horse Racing!

On the first day of Naadam, we explored the history of the Mongolian Naadam festival and learned about the rich history of wrestling in Mongolia. Naadam used to be called “the three games of men.” Wrestling is one of those three games. Today we’re going to explore the storied history of the other two games: Archery and Horse Racing! We hope you’re ready, as it is surprising who plays in these games!


Archery has a very special place in Mongolian culture, identity, and history. The bow and arrow are one reason Genghis Khan was such a successful conqueror. No army in the ancient world could defend against both air and land attacks. For this reason, archery is a valued sport and skill for Mongolians. It is not surprising that they include it as one of the three sports of Naadam.

To begin, the archery competition has rules that differ from what you might think! Forget the idea of shooting an apple of someone’s head, or the old cartoon shows of shooting dead on a bullseye (perhaps even splitting a competitor’s arrow to win!). In the Naadam Festival, archers arrive dressed in traditional costumes with special hats that will mark their current rank as an archer. Their rank is determined by the number of red ribbons on the hat. If they have yellow ribbons on, it means they are already State Marksmen.

In the competition, both men and women can compete. Men shoot from a distance of about 75 meters and women shoot from 60 meters (although some ethnic regions/tribe of Mongolia have different rules). First, archers will shoot arrows tipped in rock or wood. Their goal is to hit a line of 8x8cm cylinders called khasaa. They want to push the cylinders back over a leather strip behind the khasaa. There are judges (who are also archers competing) who will help the archer by using hand signals to communicate how their shot landed. Furthermore if the archer is successful in hitting the khasaa, the judges will raise their hands into the air and shout, “Uukhai!” In the event of success archers receive points based on their shot. The only way to be recognized as a State Marksman is to win during Naadam.

Look at what an archery competition at Naadam looks like, and what it means for Mongolians!

Horse Racing

The horse is a very special animal in Mongolian history. Being a nomadic people, horses enabled ancient Mongolians to travel enormous distances and keep up with the animals they hunted. In addition, using horse riders in warfare allowed Genghis Khan the ability to defeat his enemies because the Mongolian army was unparalleled in its ability to shoot arrows from horseback. The Mongolian army would pummel their enemies with wave after wave of arrows. Not to mention it made them difficult to catch because they were so agile. It’s obvious that horses were a treasured animal early in Mongolia’s history. You can see that importance today in Mongolian artwork. It is a very popular symbol that is used! It’s even more obvious when you look at the third and final sport of Naadam- the Horse Races! 

Horse racing in Mongolia is unique because they placed focus upon the horse, not the rider. In the first place they split races into categories based on the horse’s age. The race is also unique because the riders are children aged 6-12! This is just another sign of how hardy the Mongolian people are! The races range from 15 kilometers for the younger horses to 30 kilometers for the eldest. This is not a simple race! Traditionally, riders would not use a saddle, but over time Mongolians have added protections for the riders such as the use of protective gear and GPS trackers. The top five winners (the horse that is) are praised, sprayed with fermented mares’ milk (called airag) and adorned with blue ribbons. They don’t celebrate riders quite the same way, as they are don’t have a big part in helping race.

Take a few minutes to learn a bit more about this fascinating tradition here:


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