NGOs say child jockeys shouldn’t race in commercial winter horse races

By Helen Wright

The UB Post reported that a group of children’s rights NGOs and associations had joined forces to try and stop child riders taking part in spring and winter horse races, raising their concerns at a press conference. 
They say that due to the very cold weather conditions it is not safe for child jockeys, who can be as young as seven years old, to take part. Due to race days and child jockeys can also miss out on important school work, meaning they get left behind in lessons. 
The NGOs also say that races organized during the winter and spring are not traditional, unlike the races which take place as part of the Naadam Festival in the summer, and are organized for commercial gain. Because of this, they say adults should take part as jockeys rather than children. 
The UB Post spoke to Amaraa Dorjsambuu, a child protection specialist at UNICEF Mongolia, to find out more about their concerns.

Can you tell me about winter racing in Mongolia and why it should be stopped?

Our concern is really about children who are riding the horses in winter and spring. These races only started in 2004 and a recent study we commissioned with the Human Rights Commission and Legal Research Center and Bar Association of Mongolia looks into five main issues.
1. Are winter races really part of the culture?
2. Are they in line with national standards? And do we have a legal framework for them?
3. What are the health hazards?
4. How does this affect children’s education?
5. And whether it is a form of hazardous labor?
So these are the areas that we looked into. What the report showed is that the legal framework is really missing, there is a big hole, and winter racing is not regulated. First of all, we have the national festival, Naadam in July, which is regulated but there are no such regulations on organizing races in winter or springtime.
Secondly, this is not in line with the obligations that the Government of Mongolia has entered into with international conventions. So our recommendation is to really align with international treaties and have the races regulated to ensure children’s rights.
If the races are to continue, we strongly urge that it is done so using adults who are over 18, especially when the nature of this racing is becoming more commercial. With this commercial nature, we think the horses should be ridden by adults because there is no tradition of them being ridden by children.
This year, mayors of 12 provinces prohibited to organize these racing competitions until May 1. But because there is a government decree that allows them to organize races, people still do and this year, the first race happened on February 28.

Were there any problems with the last race that took place? 

So far we don’t know how many children fell off their horses or got injured, as we have not heard from the national counterparts yet. So far, we know that 19 children fell off their horses but that needs to be verified. We don’t know yet exactly how many got injured or what is the severity of their injuries, so we will follow up on that.

And what are the health hazards with winter racing in general?

In terms of the health hazards of winter racing, it is happening in a time when it is very cold, and if it is -15 degrees or -20 degrees and a horse is racing at the speed of around 70 kmph, we do not know how a child would feel on a horse. But it would be a lot colder. And the clothing they wear is not fit for winter, we have a standard but that is only for summer racing and we do not have winter suitable clothing for children. They need to be able to put on many layers and then the safety stuff on top of that.

And what about the educational problems caused by the races? Can you tell me about that?

It has, of course, very negative effects on the children’s education. It does not only effect the day of the race so children have to take a lot of time off school. They need to prepare for several days before that. So on those days, children also miss classes. And if they miss classes, then they cannot catch up.

How old are the children that take part in the races? 

The students who are riding the race horses are from primary and secondary schools. The majority are aged from seven to 12 and they are chosen to take part because they are so light.

Can you tell me about some of the dangers that the children face?

It can be really dangerous for them because the horses and children are not familiar with each other. Traditionally, for example, my dad was a child jockey when he was young, but he was riding horses that were familiar to him. They were his dad’s and they grew up together so they knew each other. But nowadays, so many horse races are happening and the trainers lack children so horse trainers go to a school or to a school dormitory and ask for a child. This means that the horses are completely unknown to the child, so they are not used to each other. And of course, a horse is an animal so it can behave in any way it wants and is unpredictable. They can be beyond control and that can cause risks for the child.

Why do children want to take part in these races?

If you look at the profile of these children, they are from vulnerable families. And the public opinion about racing is that if you want your horse to take part in a competition then you should have your own child ride it, but that does not happen.

Ideally, would you like the practice of winter racing to stop altogether?

At UNICEF, we want them to align the legal framework with the international one, and ban winter and spring horse racing if a child is riding – if it is adults we don’t care (laughs)! Adults can make their own choices and know what risks can occur when they take part. But seven year olds cannot foresee what could happen to them. They miss classes for about a month so they are not able to catch up and of course if you stay behind once, then for those little children, especially the ones from the countryside who are away from their parents, that will see them really fall behind with their studies.

The injuries they can receive, they can be life changing. What is being done to make the sport safer?

With the approval of the law on February 5, that will really help to address those issues because we now have a provisional on mandatory reporting. Now we know that from the study we commissioned that about 300 children a year get injured. We know this because they come to a trauma hospital after a race. But we don’t know how many get injured and were taken to provincial hospitals or district hospitals because there was no reporting requirement. But now if a child falls off a horse, it doesn’t matter if the injury is light or severe it has to be reported. There is also now an online database where that information will be input and it can be followed up.

Who is keeping watch over the races to make sure this happens? Which sort of organizations?

There is a task group in charge of these kinds of thing for each of these races if they are organized by the government or by their decision. So in the organizing committee, it is good practice that they invite, well it is not really invite, they have to have children’s organizations at the registration to make sure the age of a child jockey is seven or above and if all the children are insured and to make sure they have safety clothing.
From the organization’s point of view, we would like to stop children racing altogether, but we will not be able to stop it all at once. We won’t, for example, be able to ask that the age is raised from seven to 12. We will have to take it in stages from seven to nine or 10 and then 12. Then, ideally, from 12 to 16 to 18 and then adults only.
There is nothing we can do about the summer races like the Naadam festival because that is a tradition. But winter racing is not a tradition and is for commercial gain so we can do something about that.

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