“The Three Games of Men”: Celebrating Naadam Festival in Mongolia


July 2022

The overcast sky darkened as spectators and participants gathered in an open area of flat grassland. As we bounced over the uneven ground inside a vehicle, I felt a pang of envy to see most people arriving on horseback, at speed. A cheerful explosion of colour in the vast greenspace, Mongolian men, women and children were proudly dressed in brightly coloured deels – traditional Mongolian clothing – for the special event. 

One of the country’s biggest national holidays, Naadam is a traditional festival celebrated across Mongolia each year, which involves three events, known as the “three games of men”: wrestling, archery and horse racing. Despite its name, nowadays women and girls take part in the archery and horse racing, but only men compete in the wrestling.

As we arrived in the sum – village – of Tosontsengel in Khovsgol province of northern Mongolia, some excited, some nervous-looking children milled around as they prepared to take part in the horse racing event. Mongolian horses are small, therefore their jockeys for the race are children as young as 5 years old who gallop a distance of between 10-15 kilometers. 

Ahead of the race, adults poured milk or beer over their horses’ backs – a gesture they believe brings them luck. The young jockeys then began their walk to the start line, some 14 kilometers away. 

Some time later, people began to congregate around the finish line and a scattering of horses appeared in the distance. As they neared the finish line, red-cheeked children summoned the strength to push their horses over the final stretch. 

After an exhilarating and visibly exhausting race, eight-year-old Burentogs slumped to the ground, disappointment and frustration written all over his face. Last year’s winner, the young jockey wasn’t so lucky this year. “Me and my horse are tired now,” he said. “It was a long race.”

Each July, families travel across Mongolia to spend Naadam with their relatives, visiting their local sum to watch and/or take part in the games, enjoying khuushuur – a traditional food that’s similar to a dumpling filled with meat – and gathering in a ger – a Mongolian tent – in the evening to watch the wrestling on TV. It’s a time when Mongolians proudly dress in colourful clothes, and men commonly drink airag – an alcoholic beverage made from fermented horse milk.

Young men ride horses around on the first day of Naadam in the village of Tosontsengel in northern Mongolia.

A herd of horses head out to graze on the shore of Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia. The lake is a popular tourist destination for Mongolians during the Naadam holiday.

Spectators wait in the rain for the horse race to begin.

The horses are measured to make sure they’re under a certain height to be eligible for the race.

A young competitor prepares for the horse racing event at a local Naadam festival in northern Mongolia.

A young woman rides a horse around the festival grounds.

A man pours beer over a horse’s back, which is thought to bring good luck.

Riders gather before they head to the start line, some 14kms away.

A young rider prepares for the race.

Children race to the finish line.

A young rider is visibly disappointed after not winning the horse race.

Horsemen gather around the outside of the arena to watch the wrestling event.

Four-year-old Byambadulam shows off her traditional Mongolian clothes inside her family’s ger (traditional Mongolian tent) near Khovsgol Lake in northern Mongolia.

Eighty-two-year-old Bor used to train race horses when he was young. “When I was young I bought horses from different parts of the country to make a strong breed,” he told me. “I won the horse race many times but during communism there were no medals, instead we won teapots with blue silk scarves.”

A young rider rounds up a herd of horses ready to milk the mares to produce airag. Airag is a popular alcoholic beverage in Mongolia made from fermented horse milk.

Women prepare khuushuur – a traditional food that’s similar to a dumpling filled with meat – inside a ger at the Tosontsengel Naadam festival.

Frying khuurshuur in a ger at the festival.

Customers wait for the khuushuur to be served.

A ‘drive-thru’ on horseback, youngsters ride up to the ger to buy khushuur.

Naadam is an opportunity for young people to socialize and get to know each other.

During the Naadam holiday many Mongolians spend time at Lake Khovsgol, a popular tourism destination for locals as well as international tourists.

Five-year-old Lkhagvaa (left) and her sister Lkhamma, 6, ride horses at their family home near the sum – village – of Katgal in Khovsgol province of northern Mongolia. Despite their love of horses and riding as fast as they possibly can, their father Batolzii is reluctant to let them compete in their local Naadam festival due to concerns over their safety.