Polo for Warlords – Afghanistan

Afghanistan has an ancient sport called Buzkashi. The intent is to take a  dead and headless goat or a calf and move the body from one place to the other while on horseback. This sounds simple in theory but is incredibly difficult in practice. Barring your way is a horde of several hundred Afghan horsemen that are nearly all hardened warriors and all of whom have been riding since they were children.

I’ve always been fascinated by this sport and was determined to watch a match. In the back of my mind I really wanted to play. I’ve ridden horses growing up and played polo a few times. A few days after arriving in Afghanistan I expressed this desire to my guide. He informed me that Buzkashi is not commonly played in the winter and I would not likely get to watch. He also stated that non Afghans never get to play, ever. Several days later we were in the northern city of Mazar i Sharif and he got a call telling him that a match was about to happen.

We arrived at the match and were patted down to make sure we had no weapons. I found this ironic as my guard had an AK47 and it was not taken from him. The area was several hundred yards long, with dirty concrete stands set around it. There were several hundred riders on the field and about half that amount of spectators. At least 75% of the spectators were bodyguards. It transpired that my body guard for the week was normally the body guard of a local warlord, so he went to sit with those guards. During the match I got some pictures with some of the guards, and talked to several of them. That got the attention of one of the players. He noticed the American talking to his guards and wanted to investigate. He rode over and struck up a conversation with my guide and I. My guide gently and politically explained that this man was a local warlord and owned 6 horses that were worth about 20,000USD each. A few minutes later my guide got a shocked look on his face. He turned and confessed that the warlord had invited me to play, and that at this point I was going to need to at least attempt to play. The warlord whistled and several horses were brought over. I mounted up and a way we went. I’ve ridden a good number of expensive polo horses, but that horse in the dusty fields of war torn Afghanistan was the best trained I have ever ridden by no comparison. I joined the game with the intent of getting 30-50 feet from the action but never getting into it. After 10 minutes of getting near the action one of the riders broke away with the dead calf and raced off. I happened to be right in his path so I pulled my horse around and delivered a few blows to his ribs. My horse bolted and I was caught up in a tide of Afghan warlords attempting to pull a dead calf away from one another. The moment was exhilarating and a bit horrifying all at the same time. If you think you can ride I strongly suggest that as a test.

I returned the horse and continued to watch the rest of the match with my guards. The sport is incredibly dangerous and brutal. The horses often jump up on eachother and the riders flog them with short whips. The whips are meant for the horses but often end up finding other riders as well. After the match my guide told me that I was the first American since at least 1996 to play the sport. When the Taliban took over they banned it and the country has experienced virtually no non military westerners since that time. I have been blessed with many travel experiences, but I will never forget the day I was the first westerner in decades to play Buzkashi with warlords.

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