The sport of kokpar is like blood-drenched polo, with a headless goat as the ball. And even as Kazakhstan tries to forge a modern, high-tech identity for itself, this age-old game is being pushed as a defining part of its culture. By Will Boast
The most decorated athlete in all of Kazakhstan is a five-year-old Mongolian horse named Lazer. Born wild on the steppe, he lacks the lean grace of a thoroughbred or an Arabian. Except for his large head and broad front haunches, he is small enough to be mistaken for a pony. His coat is a dusty black, tinged with rust, and his unkempt mane hangs punkishly over his eyes. Short-legged, small-eared, with aloof, walnut eyes, he might be any one of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of horses ranging over the grasslands of this enormous, wide-open country.
In the ancient nomadic game known as kokpar (roughly, “goat-grabbing”), Lazer is a champion many times over, with eight Kazakh National Games and two Central Asian Games titles to his name. Kokpar’s premise is simple: two teams take to a chalked-out 200-metre field to compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal. Lazer has been trained for the game from an early age, learning to evade or dig in against much larger defensive horses. In fierce face-offs and chaotic scrums, it’s often a wonder that Lazer’s rider – a thickset, windbeaten man named Abdijaparov Abugali – can even hold on, let alone swing his body down Lazer’s flank in a headfirst lunge for the trampled goat carcass around which the horses stamp and circle.