The rugged men of northern Afghanistan raise their buzkashi horses to be warrior princes, ready for the savagery of polo with a headless carcass.
Mounts, like their riders, must be brave, strong and fast to compete in the traditional sport of buzkashi, which means “dragging the goat” in Persian.
The game involves ripping a 50-kilogramme carcass from the fray of horses and dropping it in the “circle of justice” traced on the ground in lime — after doing a lap of the field at a full gallop.
“Only one horse in a hundred stands a chance in buzkashi,” says Haji Mohammad Sharif Salahi, the president of the buzkashi federation in Balkh province, whose family has owned horses for 100 years.
“The stallions of General Dostum cost up to $70,000. Some of Marshal Fahim’s reach $100,000,” he says, referring to the Uzbek warlord living in exile in Turkey and the late Afghan vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim.
“Everything depends on their strength and their resilience,” says Salahi, wearing a tawny karakul hat, as he rubs a ruby-ringed hand on the neck of an enormous chestnut measuring more than 18 hands (1.85 metres). “They are trained to respect and behave calmly, but if you let go, this one eats the others.”
Balkh has more than 150 buzkashi horse owners, some with more than 400 steeds. Dedicated events draw 500 horses but that figure can go up to 2,000 if it is a wedding celebration.
While buzkashi is the pride of the north, the game also has a strong following in Kabul, with weekly matches during the season drawing hundreds of spectators.