Mongolia’s Naadam festival and child jockeys: placing a child’s life at unnecessary risk or a needed moment of pride for families ?

Mongolia’s Naadam festival and child jockeys: placing a child’s life at unnecessary risk or a needed moment of pride for families ?
Child jockey at the horse races of Naadam festival, by Mark Fischer, via Flickr, 2012/June 24th


Pauliina Majasaari

Human Rights Researcher 

Global Human Rights Defence


Billy, a nomadic herder of horses and goats, and his son Babu, of five-years-old, is getting ready for the Naadam festival in Mongolia.[i] As part of the Naadam festival horse races are a celebration of a long-standing tradition of Mongolian culture.[ii] Babu will be making his debut as a child jockey, racing amongst more than 60 other riders and on a 24-kilometre track.[iii]

Children in Mongolia are used for horse racing, due to their light weight, which allows the horse to run faster.[iv] However, the risks related to horse racing are quite severe, as about 5% of children fall off their horse in every race and at times are badly injured, through breaking their bones and suffering severe bruises.[v] In the worst cases children get life-long injuries and some die.[vi] For Mongolian nomadic families, having their children partaking in horse races and riding their horses is a moment of pride. However, the practice of using child jockeys in horse races has received a lot of criticism over the decades.[vii] Such includes the concerns on the risks to life of the children that horse racing brings about as well as missing school to prepare for the races.[viii] Some child jockeys even drop out of school to race full-time and later on have a difficulty to find a job when they have to retire from racing.[ix] Even though the national legislation sets the minimum age for jockeys at seven years, in practice the enforcement of the law is lacking as children young as five are participating in the races.[x]

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), article 6, state parties should ensure to a maximum extent the survival and development of a child.[xi] In connection, article 3 of the CRC, includes that state parties must ensure to protect the well-being of children and always take into account the best interest of the child as a primary consideration.[xii] Additionally, article 28 of the CRC, obliges states to take all measures to encourage regular attendance at school and aim for the reduction of drop-out rates.[xiii] Furthermore, the Worst forms of Child Labour Convention No. 182, sets out that work which by its nature is likely to harm, amongst others the safety of children, is considered to be one of the worst worms of child labour and as such should be prohibited and eliminated as a matter of urgency.[xiv]

Firstly, in relation to the obligations set within the CRC, Mongolia is acting in contradiction to ensuring the maximum survival of the child jockeys, as the minimum age to participate in horse races is way too low compared to the skills needed to participate in horse racing, which is unpredictable due to the nature of  horse racing and the dangerous weather conditions within races.[xv] Moreover, the children at such a young age do not hold the capacity to fully weigh the possible risks present, to protect themselves from actual danger, and the children do not have the possibility to get accustomed to the horses they ride, which increases the risks of accidents.[xvi] As such, the legislative body of Mongolia is not taking the best interest of the child into account when setting the age limit to be so low, as the nature of horse races in combination with what is in the best interest of the child, such as their physical well-being and survival to a maximum extent in life, is not present. Furthermore, in line with article 28 of the CRC, Mongolia is not taking all measures to ensure regular attendance at school and to reduce dropout rates in relation to child jockeys. Many of children participating in horse racing take long absences from school, for up to a month, which leads to the children lagging behind compared to the other children attending school and can lead to fully dropping out of school.[xvii] Evidently, dropping out of school also affects the development of a child as they are not learning the needed resources for pursuing further professions as well as learning to cope with other children and develop needed social skills for life. In line with the aforementioned, it is very clear that the work of child jockeys is very likely to harm the safety of the child as the nature of horse racing, the young age of the children, inadequate development of the children’s physical and mental skills, and the presence of extreme weather conditions, such as extreme cold and ice, all increase the risk of accidents detrimental to the safety of the child. Thereby the use of child jockeys in horse races is considered to be worst forms of child labour and should be prohibited as soon as possible.

Therefore, as expressed by international actors such as the International Labor Organization and UNICEF, Mongolia is urged to change the current permissible age of child jockeys to a minimum of 18-years, as then the children have more maturity in predicting and assessing risks, as well as have the ability to protect themselves.[xviii] Such would also allow for the children to stay in school and would not incentivise children to drop out of school in order to train for the races.[xix] Lastly, by increasing the age, the tradition of horse races would not have to be fully abolished while simultaneously the state of Mongolia would be protecting children from worst forms of child labour.

[i] Sarah Yeo, ‘Mongolia: Training with a child jockey’ (Al Jazeera, 29 august 2017) <> accessed 4 April 2024.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ‘Children in Mongolia’ (, April 2016) <> accessed 4 April 2024.

[v] ibid.

[vi] ibid.

[vii] ‘Mongolian child jockeys as young as five miss school and risk injury’ (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 16 July 2018) <> accessed 4 April 2024.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] ibid.

[x] ibid.

[xi] Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted 20 November 1989, entered into force 2 September 1990) 1577 UNTS 3 (CRC).

[xii] ibid Article 3 (1) and (2).

[xiii] ibid Article 28 (1) (e).

[xiv] Convention (No. 182) concerning Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (adopted 17 June 1999, entered into force 19 November 2000) 2133 UNTS 161, Article 1 and Article 3 (d).

[xv] ‘The Rights of Child Jockeys in Spring Horse Racing’ (ILO), 18. 

[xvi] ibid.

[xvii] ibid 12.

[xviii] ibid 33.

[xix] ibid 34.