Horses used to be central to life on the Tibetan Plateau, for transportation, herding and symbols of status. The Plateau was famous for its handsome breeds and for centuries, they were a trading asset exchanged for tea, brocade and treasures from the Silk Road. Horses are still held in high regard, and though cars and motorbikes have taken their place for transportation, nomads still find them to be the best for herding, and especially for racing.
There are horse races all year around, all over Amdo. In Zorge, where Ritoma is located, the biggest race takes place in summer, at the time of the Lhatse, when men from all the clans in the area assemble in the broad valley just off the Ritoma grazing areas, pitch their tents in a wide circle and plant their arrows in the large conical structure that dominates the event. On the morning of the first day, they ride their horses and make offerings to the protector deity Amnye Machen and the local gods that dwell on the various surrounding peaks. Ritoma alone has four major ones, headed in importance by Amnye Tongra. The event is attended by all the villages in Zorge. Ritoma is the nearest village, two hills over, and local vendors come and install restaurant tents and market stalls selling goods ranging from toys to fruit. At Norlha we give our employees a three day break, and we recognize our weavers, tailors or managers among the crowd, the young unmarried girls and boys parading in their best, children tugging their mother’s sleeves for toys or snacks.
The races last three days and involve over a hundred horses, selected from the families in the area. Schedules are vague, people take their time, crossing over the wide plain sometime in the morning, to find a spot on the pasture, walking among herds of sheep and yak that are still grazing there, soon to be lead to the higher summer pastures. The atmosphere is relaxed, with spectators and horses slowly congregating towards the racing ‘track’ a circle of grassland marked off with colorful flags. Families or women and children sit in groups, taking out snacks and catching up.
On the final day, the fifteen finalists race, circling the track four times. The first thirteen horses are declared winners amidst much cheering and are paraded, covered in colorful scarves by well-wishers. The jockeys all ride bareback, some with helmets, others not. There are always a few accidents, marked with a horse galloping away from the track rider less, and people racing towards the spot of the mishap.
The race over, people congregate towards the stalls, picnicking on the grassland, to later attend the rope pulling games.