“Bo-Ntate, you need to move your cars, that is the finish line.” Standing in a brown field surrounded by mountains, Basotho and horses, we didn’t realise that the two piles of white painted rocks were the finish line.
Horse racing in Lesotho is not like in the US or UK. There are no grandstands, betting windows or tracks for that matter. In fact, there aren’t even any agreed upon races beforehand. Owners show up and haggle over the cost of entering, race length and winner’s purse. Then there is an informal parading of the horses followed by a slow walk out across the fields to the start line. A flag is dropped and off they charge back towards the assembled spectators. No finish line technology, just a guy sitting on one of the ‘finish line’ piles of white rocks in order to provide an “eyeball finish” if needs be.
These informal, but very competitive gatherings happen around the country, but some of the biggest, and oldest, occur near Semonkong, a market town about two hours from the capital. This is the epitome of horse country, with very few roads and no major cities for more than 100 kilometres in any direction. Here in the Maloti Mountains horses are a source of transportation, agricultural labour and pride. People with few other material belongings revere their horses and back them to the hilt in these races.
The horse races generally occur once a month between March and October, though if there is someone staking an extra large amount of money then an extra race day can occur quite suddenly. The money isn’t huge, but there is a lot of it flying around the crowds! Betting is chaotic and anyone can bet anyone else. If you agree terms, you have a third party hold the money, then winner takes all. You add this chaotic betting system to the official negotiations for the terms of the races and rag-tag jockeys riding unfamiliar horses and it is best to watch from a bit of a distance!
We went for the Independence Day races, one of the bigger events of the year and we were not disappointed. What started slow and low-key became louder and more energetic with each passing race. Horses are paired based on age and size, with the races progressing to older, stronger horses. By the end, it became a straight match race – one on one. We have no idea what was really happening, but the excitement after the winning horse came across the line was intense and great fun to be around.
There is something special to behold from the joy that the Basotho get from their horses. Seeing it in the natural setting of the fields around Semonkong and Maletsunyane Falls was all the better. These horses don’t belong on the manicured race tracks of Saratoga or Aintree, but rather on rock-strewn dirt tracks streaking across the mountains of Lesotho.
Here are a few videos of the event to give you a real feel for it – first the parade, followed by a win. Please excuse the poor quality and line across the middle…