Photo Essays | Society | East Asia

Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

During the summer, the people of Kham showcase some impressive horsemanship.

By Marc Ressang for
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

A horse rider makes his way across the makeshift racetrack near Litang.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

With makeshift bow and arrow, a rider attempts to hit a target while leaning sideways off his galloping horse.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

Tibetan men show off their horse riding skills to a crowd of visitors from surrounding regions.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

Three Tibetan women have a chat near the white stupa shrine in Litang.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

Riders make their way around a smoke offering of cypress and juniper leaves before starting the races in Litang, Sichuan Province.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

Novice monks and older boys during a ceremonial procession near Maniganggo.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

Young novice monks use a dung-dkar or conch to ward off evil spirits during a ceremonial procession near Maniganggo, Sichuan Province.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

A yak dance is performed by monks in front of the monastery in Maniganggo. The play includes several characters from buddhist and Bon mythology.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

Views over Chola mountain and Yilhun lake near Maniganggo. Nomads move to high pastures around the mountain range to let their yaks graze and move to lower altitudes in winter.

Credit: Marc Ressang
Horse Riding, Tibetan Style

Horse riders throw up prayer papers and chant buddhist prayers as a blessing before commencing the races. The colors represent the five different elements.

Credit: Marc Ressang

In China, near the border of Sichuan and the Tibetan Autonomous Province, lies the heart of Kham, one of the three traditional Tibetan areas in China.

With most of the region lying at altitudes of 3000m or higher, the landscape consists of vivid grasslands bordered by impenetrable mountain ranges. Rain seems to drizzle constantly, but when the sun breaks through it almost instantly burns the skin.

Every summer, when the weather is about as good as it can get, the local monasteries organize Tibetan operas and horse races, which are interspersed throughout the summer months. The events have a religious significance. Local monks play an important role in the production of the Tibetan operas and enjoy a high honorary position at the horse races. Villagers and nomads alike from around the region gather for a few days at a time.

Attendees set up temporary tent camps for the duration of the events and  spend their time buying and selling traditional medicines, jewelry, and other regional specialties. Between the highlights and local performances, they eat yak meat dumplings and drink butter tea.

At the Litang Horse Racing Festival, men of any age – all well-trained horse riders – like to show off their skills in different ways. From high-speed races to acrobatics, bow and arrow skills, and even shooting muskets, the riders showcase their agility from the top of their horse. For some, prizes can include cash or even a new car. For others, a chance to show off to the girls is reward enough.