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HORSE GAMES
One man’s search for the tribal horse games of Asia and Africa
by Bob Thompson

Bob Thompson was commissioned into The Life Guards in 1966, and he describes, in the second chapter of this book, how his military career came prematurely to an end some five years’ later, with a Board of Inquiry and the prospect of no promotion nor a posting to the Saumur Cavalry School. In reading this, the reader is left with the impression that Bob Thompson was probably not ‘ninety nine percent responsible for endangering’ his troop on the Pirbright ranges during Summer Camp, and to forfeit his commission was indeed a harsh punishment. But perhaps this book might never have been written had he not found himself out of the Army at a time when travelling to Afghanistan and other places across Asia and Africa was still possible, if at times distinctly hairy?

The story of these tribal horse games is told with a very personal and fast style, as the author recounts conversations and events in remote places, his mission is to find and describe these games before they disappear entirely. Very few dates are mentioned, however it’s clear that these stories are a compilation of many separate journeys abroad, over several decades. When not travelling, Bob Thompson is at home on his farm in the Welsh Borders, with his wife, perhaps thinking about the next adventure. 
The real story begins in Afghanistan where, having left the Army, Bob Thompson became a horse-coper (horse dealer) for an expedition to find the lost city of Firozhkoh.  But more interesting for him was the game of Buzkashi, played by teams of twelve mounted players, with the aim of picking up a ‘buz’, the carcass of a beheaded goat, and carrying it around a marker flag. This is not a manicured and gentle game, far from it, as riders and horses encircle the dead beast, attempting to gain possession.

Following a useful tip-off from a Turkish diplomat in Kabul, the author then travelled to Erzurum in eastern Turkey, in search of the ‘Cirit’, a Seljuk cavalry training game described by a local as ‘a game on horses, where we throw javelins at each other’.  Points are scored with one point for hitting an opponent, two for knocking him out of the saddle or catching a thrown javelin, and one point for ‘forgiving’ an opponent by waving a ‘Cirit’ over him rather than throwing it. Clearly a dangerous pursuit in which death or injury is possible, at least vendettas after the game are prevented by adherence to strict rules. 

In Tehran, the author met his former squadron leader, Major Arthur Gooch, the Military Attaché, who put him in touch with an extraordinary lady, Mrs Mary Gharagozlou, responsible for the breeding of Persian Arab horses. Then to Pakistan, to see the ancient form of polo played at Gigit in the north-eastern part of the country, where the author found the famous polo pitch covered with cattle hoof-prints, each filled with water, just three days before the next tournament.

And so the book goes on, to Ethiopia, Mongolia, Manipur, Cameroon. Mali, and Burkina Faso, each with another interesting tale to tell. Bob Thompson meets a colourful array of locals and other travellers, some friendly, some hostile. Central to the narrative are the horsemen, their horses, and the mounted ‘horse games’ that Bob Thompson describes in such detail. These are ancient games originally designed to train warrior horsemen and their horses, and it is remarkable that they have survived for so long. Fortunately this book tells their story. But the quest continues, since Bob Thompson is determined to go travelling again; there are other ancient horse games that need to be recorded. And important that they are, since it is highly unlikely that even an adapted version of the javelin-throwing ‘Cirit’ will ever make it to Smith’s Lawn!

The Editor

Published by Merlin Unwin Books. merlinunwin.co.uk

© Crown Copyright