In a snow-covered field in eastern Turkey’s Kars province, two teams of men on horseback are facing one another in line, waiting for the referee’s signal to start. When the whistle blows, the youngest man on one side calls out to an opponent and throws a wooden stick at him, before galloping back towards his teammates. Now in possession of the cirit, the wooden stick that gives this game its name, the opponent gives chase. Despite the snow kicked up by the horses, and the freezing cold air, both players are sweating heavily. It looks like a scene from a battle.
Cirit is a traditional Turkish sport that originally comes from central Asia. Once played as a war game, it is an art in itself. A player must be in total harmony with his horse, which twists and turns according to the balance of the rider. Cirit is a team game, as well as a test of individual skill, and true to its origins it comes with military-like rules and a code of honour. If an opponent falls off their horse, for instance, players are rewarded for helping them up.
Burak Koçak, a 24 year-old farmer, has been playing cirit since he was 15. A love of horses runs through his genes, he told Inside Turkey. “My dad and grandfather loved horses. My horse is like my child, and we play cirit to socialise and have fun.”
Cirit is most widespread in the eastern Turkish provinces of Kars, Ardahan, Uşak and Erzurum. In the Kars district of Selim, which borders Armenia, events are held every two weeks. Until a decade ago, it was regarded mainly as a form of local entertainment, but the sport has since become more professionalised. Kars hosts 14 official cirit clubs, all of which are amateur, but professional clubs exist in some neighbouring provinces.
The game originated in the 16th century, and had become the largest spectator sport in the Ottoman Empire by the 19th century. In 1826, it was banned by Sultan Mahmud II because of its potential to cause injury. Even today, cirit matches can play host to serious injuries and fatal accidents.
Selçuk Başkaya, chair of Turkey’s national association for the sport, has been playing cirit for 18 years. He said that although he has suffered “minor injuries” in competitions, the game’s rules encourage safety and penalise hitting horses with the stick. “We’re just trying to keep our ancestral sport alive,” he said, adding that cirit can be beneficial to the well-being of horses as well as the players.
The chair of the Kars chamber of veterinarians, Ercan Ödül, agrees with Başkaya that cirit can improve horses’ quality of life. He told Inside Turkey that animals are well looked-after and regularly examined by vets.
“As both a veterinarian and an observer of the sport, I can say that horses are valued highly, and a lot of effort goes into maintaining their well-being,” Ödül said. “You can’t force a horse to do anything. The horse really needs to love and respect you to acknowledge your lead. A horse in cirit will be bathed, exercised and well fed. Horses in this region are a status symbol and a source of respect.”
Horses that play cirit are healthier and livelier, Ödül added. “Horses were born to run. These animals can only relax if they run,” he said. By contrast, the vet said, horses that are only ridden during the summer and left idle in winter end up in worse shape. “Horses are very delicate creatures,” he concluded.
Others argue that despite cirit’s cultural value, the game is not so harmless. Berivan Buğan, chair of the Kars Street Animals Association, believes that there needs to be closer inspection of the surfaces that matches are played on.
“Cirit fields need to be ploughed, with soft soil,” she said. Buğan criticised the practice of playing matches on the frozen surface of Lake Çıldır, to the north of Kars. “[It] risks the lives of both the horse and the rider. They brag about it, but it’s unacceptable,” she said. According to Buğan, unsuitable surfaces cause damage to horses’ hooves, while leg injuries and broken necks are also a risk.
Cheap equipment is another potential problem, said Buğan, who claimed that horses sustain mouth injuries from harnesses made out of wood instead of leather or plastic. “If they can’t buy the [proper] equipment, they shouldn’t be playing cirit,” she said. “Or they should raise funds.” Horses that are too old to play cirit are released into the wild, Buğan noted, and suggested that a farm be built to house animals that are retired from the game.
Mehmet Özmen, an academic at Giresun University in north-eastern Turkey who has studied cirit, said that the game is now well-regulated and non-violent. “Today, cirit is a spectator sport,” he said, adding that accidents can be easily avoided. “It’s a crucial part of the game that the stick never touches the horse.”
Ödül and Başkaya both acknowledged that horses sometimes suffer mouth injuries, but said this was rare and due to poorly-trained riders or inadequate equipment. “Anyone who thinks this is a violent game should watch it carefully,” said Başkaya. “I have ten horses, and none of their mouths have bled to this day.”
Ödül added that horses are monitored for injuries. “If there’s blood, the game stops,” he said. “The games in Kars are traditional and emotional. People here could never bear to see their horses hurt.” The vet said that the practice of releasing older horses into the wild is frowned upon, because the animals often die in traffic accidents. “We criticise that heavily, because these horses can’t live alone for long. That violates their right to live.”
Buğan, however, thinks that more can be done to protect the animals. “Public institutions and non-governmental organizations need to step in to form a supervision mechanism, but that isn’t done,” she said. “There are cirit games going on everywhere: at weddings, for shows, for tourists. It’s torturing those animals.”
According to Buğan, the sport should be more tightly regulated, with regular field inspections, vaccinations and health checks. “We invaded these animals’ living spaces and we tamed them. We need to respect them and their natural habitats.”
For many players, cirit remains an important part of their identity. “Cirit is a lifestyle for us, we play it because it’s tradition,” said 24-year-old Bilal Polat, another farmer and long-time cirit player. “We want to keep it alive and pass it on.”