CULTURE KLASH: Moran-Kazakhstan Cowboy Connection

By on August 30, 2017

Rodeo skills translate to nomadic sport, but cowboy competitors have a lot to learn.

Kok Boru Team U.S.A. at the World Championship in Kazakhstan.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A mob of riders on horseback bustle and jam, sort of like in a roller derby match or rugby scram. As the swarm struggles, gyrating and bulging, two player-horse dyads break away, galloping towards an elevated hole of mud and dirt with water inside. One pair ekes out in front of the other, the lead rider throwing a goat carcass into the muddy pool to score a point for the red team. As popular as American football is in the US, this is kok-boru, its Central Asian counterpart.

Last week in Astana, Kazakhstan, a kok-boru team of Americans from Jackson Hole joined 11 other nations to vie for first place at the World Championship. Ten of the U.S. team’s 11 players grew up together in Moran, WY, riding, rodeoing and ranching, skills all translatable to the nomad sport.

This is the second year the American Cowboy Kok-Boru Team competed on the world stage–although perhaps compete isn’t the most accurate word. Team manager Candra Day said, “Our team doesn’t win the games, but we are playing better and better in every game we play. We’re told that in a year or two, we’ll be very competitive.”

While it would seem that American cowboys have little in common with the other 11 central Asian teams, hailing from countries often considered as ideologically different as can be from the American west, that is not the case, said Day.

Kok-boru means, “blue wolf” in the Kyrgyz language and the game is said to have possibly evolved from an informal contest between shepherds who hunted wolves that targeted their flocks.

In its present day interpretation, the ancient sport is played by four horsemen on each team, who all jockey at top speed to edge opposing riders and their horses out of the way in order to score, i.e. throw the goat in the hole. It’s fast paced with collisions and tight maneuverings, using horses that have been trained for years to play in particular positions. Instead of the traditional goat carcass though, its championship substitute, a more palatable 60-pound rubber “goat,” must be picked up off the ground by players on horseback amidst the chaos and equine shuffling. Day wrote in an email, “If [the player] is able to pick it up, his teammates block him from the opponents, if they can, while he places it under his leg to hold it. Otherwise, the other team is allowed to grab it and steal it.  So there’s a lot of attacking and tug of war. When the goat is secured and hard to steal, the player races for his goal at full speed.”

Dangerous doesn’t seem an apt descriptor; players must be incredibly skilled, and have stamina and strength, not to mention incredible courage.

The American team was first invited to participate in the World Nomad Games in 2016 held in Kyrgyzstan last August, which are akin to the Olympics of Central Asia with over 50 nations represented. Admittedly beginners, the Americans fielded a team in two weeks and had no training before their first match. “Imagine playing your very first game of football against the Denver Broncos,” Day said, “players on the other teams have been playing since childhood and are the best their countries have to offer.”

Having competed with the best of the best in 2016, the Rocky Mountain team, respected by their competitors, was invited back this year by the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan. “The team’s horsemanship and bravery are respected by all participants,” Day said, “Our players love the game and their enthusiasm wins America many friends.”

The pool of teams may have been smaller this year, but the competition was not much tamer. However, this year the team had the opportunity to train for five days with a Kazakh coach pre-tournament.

But, the international journey was for more than simply a sporting event.

Some view the cowboy kok-boru trip as a diplomatic affair. Day said the U.S. mountain team’s “commitment to play this traditional game expresses our respect for the cultures of Central Asia.” In addition to the countries named above, teams from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, China, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Hungary were represented at the World Championship.

Traveling to the Kazakh capital city was also an opportunity for local musician Isaac Hayden, who was accompanied by a group of Kazakh musicians, to showcase another attribute of rocky mountain culture: music. Playing original songs and cowboy tunes, Hayden was well received, Day said. Hayden performed all over the city during the competition, even playing at the opening ceremony for the championship.

Jackson cowboy culture in Kazakhstan was not happenstance. Vista 360°, of which Day is also the president, organized the sporting/cultural exchange. The local non-profit strives to promote cooperation and understanding among mountain people across the globe by hosting cultural exchanges between cowboys of the western mountain region and central Asia for more than ten years.

Planet JH is hoping for a mountain west kok-boru championship hosted in Jackson Hole where maybe, just maybe, the American Cowboy Kok-Boru Team could have a home court advantage. It never hurts to dream.  PJH

Note: American Cowboy Kok-Boru Team members are: Team Captain Creed Garnick, Brendan Bryant, Garret Edington,Golden Garnick, Jay Givens, Dennis Ley, Brian Minton, Chandler Minton, TJ Moulton and Scott Zimmerman, Jay Givens, Brock Harris. Sky Garnick is the Coach for the team and Team Manager is Candra Day.

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