Horse Races in Darfur

        … Peace in Sudan



Written by:

Paul Hormez Azzo (Cavalier)
Glomedia CEO.


This Publication is dedicated to:

All lovers of Equestrian Games and Peace in Sudan


Table of Contents
Horse racing … the past 1
Horse racing … the present 5
Equestrian in Sudan 8
Darfur … Land and Horses 12
Equestrian games and horses in the Darfurian life 14
Horse racing and the societies in Darfur 22
The Darfur Crisis 26
Equestrian role in endorsing the peaceful coexistence in Darfur 28
Horse fairs and the due economic prosperity in Darfur 30
Pictures Index 32


Horse racing … the past

Equestrian is a shore-less sea that incarnates the values of generosity, magnanimity, virility and noble competition.

The Sudanese horses as well, have been mentioned in the holy bible; “the official of the treasury of queen “kandake Amani tari” was seen in Jerusalem in a horse-drawn chariot …” (Acts 8:26-40).

horses2                                                          (P. 1) A Nubian archer on his horse-drawn chariot

Horse racing is an ancient global sport. Perhaps, it began as early as humans learnt to tame and train horses. The recorded history of horse racing goes back to 1500 BC, when chariot racings were held in Eastern Europe and North Africa.

Ancient Greece, as well, shed more light on race of riders on horseback as it was held at Olympia for the first time in 680 BC. Few decades later (in 648 BC) horse-drawn chariot racing was also introduced. Horse racing then took off to different parts of Anatolia and Europe; many kings and nobles of that era (Kings and lords of England in specific) enrolled in this sport. They owned, bred and raised horses, as they organized, held and participated in races. The horse racing was therefore known as the sport of the kings.

In another part of the world, Arabs dealt with horses since the early ages. They gave a great amount of attention and care to their horses, and put them in race competitions.


Perhaps one of their fiercest and most famous wars broke out because of a horse race. That war was named after the names of the two racing horses “Dahis and Alghabra”.

Arabs of that time were accustomed with betting on racing horses, and holding races discreetly for the purpose of betting. A widely known Arabian proverb describing any two things which are competing very closely to tell the difference between them, that they are like “sweepstake horses”.

Then came Islam and abolished all types of betting and sweep-staking, however encouraged taking care of horses and praised them, allowing horse racing to catch fresh tailwind.

The Arabian horses, and specially the Arabian race horses, caught big attention early in time, as specialized centers were built to breed and raise them to insure their superior performance in the race field and the purity of their breed. Most of today’s thoroughbred race horses can be traced back to one of three Arabian horses: Pearly turkey, Arabian Darley and Good Wolfing Barb, all of which were taken to England by the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century.

King James-I, the king of Britain, founded the first horse racing center in New-market, Suffolk county of England, where races began to be held around 1619. The town of New-market is still a horse racing center in the recent days.

Up until the middle of the eighteen century, English horse racing lacked the proper organization. But after 1750, when the first Jockey Club was founded, a series of well- organized horse races (known today as the English classics) started to be held periodically.

Throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, the officials responsible for race courses made several serious trials to organize horse races in a proper manner, in an effort to upgrade the sport and make it more disciplined, efficient and fully transparent.

However, the equestrian practice has changed dramatically in the last centennial, and the jockeys of today ride their horses in a far different way than the way their ancestors used to.

The training methods are also more advanced, and the racecourses more developed and better maintained. The horses themselves became more specialized.

Since the end of WWII (1939-1945), many flat course and steeplechase race horses gained international fame.


Horse racing … the present

In present days, two main types of horse racing are widely practiced. In the first type, the jockeys race on their horses over a racecourse, in what is known as flat course horse racing. The other type of racing is the steeplechase (or hurdle racing).

Thoroughbred race horses weights between 450 and 545 kilograms, while their withers height is between 155 and 165 centimeters. A thoroughbred horse is not allowed to participate in races unless it reaches two years of age.

cups-horses                                                    (P. 3) A Sudanese horse breeder saloon, with his race trophies displayed

All horses born in the same year are equal in age even if they were born in different months, as the customs dictate that horse age is calculated from a specific month of the year (January in the northern hemisphere and August in the southern hemisphere), this puts horse ages in integral age groups (two, three, four years and so on).

Most horse races are between 1200 and 4000 meters long. All horse races (whether they are steeplechase or flat races) have restrictions on horse age and the weight it bears. The “weight for age type” dominates most of the races around the world. Under the weight for age rules, the weight carried by the racing horse is determined by its age. The younger horse bears less weight than the older and stronger one. Similarly, mares bear less weight than stallions. In some races the weight is determined based on certain status like the previously won races.

The shape, contents and size of racing tracks varies widely from a racecourse to another as well as from a country to another. Some tracks are left handed while others are right handed and some race fields are straight.

Before the race, each jockey is weighted with all his/her equipment. This weight must equal the weight specified for his race horse. Track referees oversee the weighting process. Horses are then taken to the saddling area to be fitted with saddles and other equipment s. Jockeys then head to the saddling field and wait for the referees signal to ride their horses and guide them in an exhibition parade passing in front of the podium and keep walking towards the entrance of the starting gate. The “starter” who is the referee responsible for starting the race, signals the start of the race and the starting gate opens simultaneously. The horses surge out of the gate with extreme power and run with all their might toward the finishing line.

After the end of the race, the jockeys are weighted once more to make sure that the horses carried the exact weight they should bear. Blood and urine tests are also carried on the horses to make sure that they were not given any prohibited substances.


Equestrian games in Sudan

The first equestrian organizing body in Sudan was established in 1908 as a horse fair. In 1919 that fair was transformed to be the “Horse Racing Club” which held several races and fairs since its establishment.

spring-stage                                                                  (P. 4) Horses sprinting out of the start gate in Khartoum racecourse

When WWII broke out in 1939, horse racing was put to a halt and the horse racing club was closed. Its activities were shifted to the city of WadMedeni where it continued functioning until 1944 when it stopped due to budgeting irregularities. By the end of WWII, the first horse race in 1946/1947 was held in Burri suburb. Later it was transferred to the recent horse race location as the founders donated and raised big amounts of money to build it. In 1976 the club evolved to become “The Higher Commission for Equestrian and Horse Racing”. Later in 1977 that entity carried a new name “Sudanese General Equestrian Union” which it still holds today.

Similarly in Darfur, the first horse racing club was established in 1926 in the city of Nyala. Later in 1934, seven thoroughbred horses were brought in. A period of recession followed and continued till before the sixties of the twentieth century. During the sixties and seventies, races and fairs were organized and held periodically. One of the most famous fairs of those days was the one held in 1960 and was attended by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdelnasser and a number of high rank officials from Arab, African and foreign countries.

Another known fair was the “Camel and Equestrian Fair” held in south Darfur in December 1967 which was attended by guests from fifteen Arabian and Asian countries. It was also attended by princes and sheikhs from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, in addition to high rank officials from Egypt and Syria.

Of the most important attendees of the Races and Fairs held in Darfur in that period were: King Faisal bin Abdelaziz Al-Saud the then king of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdalla bin Abdelaziz the then crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Charles the crown prince of the United Kingdom, Prince Al-Hassan bin Talal the crown prince of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Sultan of the Sultanate of Brunei, the then Syrian president Hafez Alasad, H.E. George Traykov president of Bulgaria, General Tito president of Yugoslavia, the Ethiopian Emperor Hailesellassie and Shiekh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahian President of the United Arab Emirates, in addition to a number of important international celebrities and statesmen.

bin-saud                                                           (P. 5) King Faisal of Saudi Arabia on his visit to Darfur Horses Fair

By the beginning of the eighties, horse racing activities were ceased again, only this time due to the drought and desertification wave that hit most of the East African nations. But that cessation did not stay for long as drought eased by mid eighties and horse races and fairs were resumed with growing activities and attendance.

The 1997s extraordinary “First Fair of Equestrian, Horse and Camel Racing”, that was organized and held under the patronage of the late Alzebair Mohammed Saleh the ex-vice president of Sudan, was and still is considered the real new and powerful launch of horse races and fairs in Darfur. That fair was honored by the presence of His Excellency prince Mohammed Alfaisal Alsaud and princes and sheikhs from the Arabian Gulf.

The number of horses participating in that fair was astronomical, around 200,000 horses. While the feverish competition during the fair to possess the best horses led to the spiral hike of the prices to become comparable to prices of their imported rivals, the city of Nyala became a popular market for horse trading in Sudan as well as addressing the needs of export markets like Chad and Nigeria.


Darfur … The Land and the Population

Darfur region covers a quarter of Sudan’s overall area. This is comparable to the space of Spain. Darfur region borders four different republics: Libya is on the north-west border and Chad is on the western border, while Central African Republic borders the region on the south-west and the republic of South Sudan on the south.

Darfur region extends from the African grand Sahara on the north, passing through poor savanna areas in the middle of the region and ending over rich Savanna areas in its south. Most of the land in Darfur region is flat except few mountain areas, the most important of which is Marra Mountain that stands at 3088 meters high where the most fertile lands in the region are found.

darfur-region                                                               (P. 6) Darfur region covers a quarter of Sudan’s overall area

The population of Darfur nears 7.5 million souls (2008 census); they speak different indigenous languages in addition to Arabic. A large number of tribes live in Darfur. These tribes can be classified in two groups: in the first group are the “settling tribes” in the urban areas, among those are the tribes of Fur, Masaleet, Zaghawa, Daju, Tenger and Tama. The second group contains the “dueling tribes” who travel from a place to another like: Abbala, Mahameed, Mahryea, Bani Hussain, Rezaigat, Maalya, Salamat, Bani Halba, Hamyat, Tarjam, Gumuz and Maydoub.

Acacia Senegal (Gum Arabic) trees flourish in many areas of Darfur, in addition to cotton and tobacco plains in the south-west, different fruit trees and vegetables are grown in Marra mountain area, taking advantage of the temperate climate of that mountain area. Wheat, millet, sorghum, corn among other crops are planted in other areas. Darfur also enjoys a huge wealth of livestock from camels to sheep and goats and cows and horses.

Darfur is privileged with a unique cultural diversity, thanks to the ethnic multiplicity in the region.


Equestrian games and horses in the Darfurian life

Horses are considered one of the most valuable possessions of Darfur tribes, they complete and endorse the personality of Darfurians in general and Baggara tribe members in particular. A “knight” title in Darfur is only given to the man that possesses a mare or a stallion and enough courage to provoke him to fight battles in protection of the tribe. The Baggara tribe possesses Arabian thoroughbred horses. Their horses are kept ready to rescue, invade or hunt at all times. Horses also represent an important  manifestation of the superior  social status.

horses-on-race                                                  (P. 7) the Baggara tribe possesses Arabian thoroughbred horses

A Baggara tribe member rides his horse in search of water and food for the tribe and its livestock. Additionally, Baggara horses play a capital role in shows, parades, fairs and festivals as Darfur was and still is the land of parades, exhibitions and fairs. In preparation for such events, the horses are heavily decorated in an exquisite manner and are exhibited in the middle of the joy and admiration of the masses.

Baggara tribesmen pamper their horses and pay a lot of care and attention to them. Horses’ nutrition and health are paid very close attention. They offer their horses milk, honey, dates, millet and malt. As well, Horses enjoy strong presence in the popular literature among Baggara poets.

It is said that most Sudanese horses are descendants of the western or Baggara or Kordufan horse. It’s also said that this breed came from north–west Africa before 1000 years. This breed is abundantly available in south-west Kordufan and south Darfur where these horses are thoroughly depended on in livestock controlling, giraffes and elephants hunting, participation in tribal fairs and national holidays.

The western horse is square structured, not exceeding 140 cm, strong, rigid with high endurance power towards the harsh environment in the rich savanna areas, where insects and high humidity are main stays in the rainy season.

Although the western horse is similar to the horses of northern Africa in terms of the shape, size and color, time and natural selection and environmental variations in addition to the introduction of Arabian breeds played their part in uplifting the western horse over its North African counterpart especially after 1926.

Due to its strength and endurance and resistance to harsh environment, the western horse breed became popular all over Sudan and the most preferred for both riding and carrying luggage for traveling.

 brown-horse                                           (P. 8) most western horses are Light-bay, Chestnut and gray in color

Most of the western horses are Light-bay in color, but you sometimes can find the Chestnut and the gray, the head of the horse is more convex and smaller than the head of Dongola breeds. The shape of the head is little different as well, its neck is short and strong with almost straight shoulders (which makes riding them a bit difficult), its hock is sickle-shaped, its sock (wrist) is short and straight, although its structure and hoofs are hard and perfect.

In general the western horse is way better than its Dongola counterpart.

For all those strains, the western horse has spread over all the regions of west Sudan and large areas in the middle of the country, certainly among the Baggara herdsmen who use it to manage the herds and for hunting and racing, which opened the way for the adoption of breeding programs as to produce stronger and faster horses.

The tribes of west Sudan (including south Darfur Baggara tribes like Rezaigat, bani Halba, Habbanyea, Taaysha, Taregum and Fallata, as well as Mesaireya and Bedaireya in Kordufan) are known for their horse breeding, and the lush resources of food and water in west Sudan boosted those efforts and led to the increase of horses population and the wide spread of horse riding. People of the west in general and Darfurians in specific were passionately attached to this lifestyle and all its show of manhood and strength and bravery, as well as the exhibition of their extraordinary skills in riding the horses in all occasions.

Most of west Sudan tribes agree on equestrian games and horse riding methods. Hunting on horse backs is a common habit among these tribes, and the habit of using spears when chasing giraffes and other preys is still practiced in recent days among the tribes.

Since early times, those tribes took care of training their horses to dance on drumbeats and to harmonize head moves with the front legs, in celebrations held on market days where the youth, the elderly and the kids all gather to see those dances, in a tradition well preserved and practiced to show the capabilities of the horse and the riders’ control over it.

One of the competitions that is still practiced in those festivals, is a contest where each rider holds a coin between his thigh and the saddle and compete in different types of races. The rider who manages to hold that coin in place till the end of the contest is considered the best and most skilled horse rider. Prince Younis Wad Dakeem (A Mahdist leader) was known to master this type of competition and encouraged his fellows to practice it.

Rezaigat tribesmen are known for taking extra care of the riders’ appearance when on his horse, and often the rider receives respect and appreciation from the masses, which encouraged tribe members to master the horse breeding and practice their games up to the present times. Among the distinguished members of the tribe is the “colonel” who can control the largest number of riders. The colonel must be courageous and a master in equestrian arts. He is also in charge of training the riders.

The tribal chiefs and heads were competing to possess the best stallions to improve the breed and its performance.  By the end of the nineteenth century, as the English colonized Sudan and visited the plains and valleys and water sources, and studied the way of living of the different tribes, they sensed a big economic potential in livestock. They planned to grow and develop it to become a part of the state revenue.

It was also the Englishmen way to the heart of the tribal  chiefs as they took care of their cherished livestock.

man-onhorse                                                   (P. 9) The Englishmen way to the heart of the tribal chiefs passed through                                                                                                                                     taking care of their cherished horses and livestock.

The English established the livestock authority to carry on the duties of caring for the herds’ health, safety and development. The director who was appointed to that Authority carried the highest service rank in the country. The tribal areas in the west where livestock is produced and raised were organized and gathered. Of the most important activities in those gatherings were races between the horses of the different tribes in what is known as “the parade”, and distributing trophies to the best breed horses’ owners who worked hard in breeding them. Those policies adopted by the veterinarian authorities helped boosting the breed improvement of all kinds of livestock animals in general and horses in specific, to improve their outcome. This culture continued to be practiced till the present days, but with setbacks in breeding some of the other types of livestock animals.

Women in Darfur play a big role in taking care of the horses; feeding and cleaning them so the rider can rise over his beers because the more the care given to a horse the faster and better it can sprint and compete.

women-and-horse                                                               (P. 10) The “Hakkamat” are the most rhetoric and creative tribal poets

The “Hakkama” is a tribeswoman that possesses a special rank in the social system of the tribes of west Sudan especially in Darfur and Kordufan. She is a poet and a glib-tongued speaker, her ability to speak smoothly and fluently secured her a unique place in the hearts and minds of the tribe members. They fear her criticism and satire, and thrive to please her so that she praises them making them distinguished among their beers.

One of the important roles of the Hakkama is keeping the heritage and history of the tribe and tales of its great leaders and heroes, she tells those stories in the ceremonies and gatherings of the tribe. It is noticed that most of the “Hakkamat” (plural of Hakkama) are illiterate; nevertheless, they tell the most rhetoric and creative poets which enthrall all members of the tribe.

As the population of horses in west Sudan has increased dramatically, and with the rise of the Mahdist state which made Omdurman its capital city, the horse races activity was transferred to Omdurman where the Mahdist state took good care of it. The horse racing became more active amongst the Mujahedeen of Ansar, and horses were exhibited in parades in front of the  Khalifa Abdullah in every occasion and festivity. One of the best and most distinguished horses of Mahdist times was “Assar” which Khalifa Abdullah occasionally rides and displays his might and strength on its back.

Horse Racing and the Darfur Societies

darfur-societ                                                             (P. 11) Horse races play a major role in healing the social bonds and in                                                                                                                                             discarding the ethnic, tribal tendencies among the Darfurians

Horse races in Darfur, which are held in all localities of the region during the week days and in the major cities on Fridays, play a major role in healing the social bonds and in discarding the ethnic, tribal tendencies and endorsing the cultural and social bonds among the citizens of the region. This is due to the passion shown by the masses to the sport of horse racing and their love of the featured horses and skilled riders, and they pay huge respect and admiration to the horse owners who are chivalrous, generous and noble.

Around the racecourse, one can witness thousands of spectators and horse racing fans from all the tribes of Darfur men, women and kids all coexisting in harmony and cheering up their preferred horses and riders with enthusiasm and without racism, bigotry or ethnic intolerance.

coexistance                                                         (P. 12) Darfur men, women and kids coexist in harmony and cheer up their
                                                                      preferred horses with enthusiasm and without ethnic intolerance

On the other hand, equestrian games and horse breeding play a big role in the development and prosperity of the livestock in Darfur, due to the exceptional importance of the livestock in the economy of Darfur. Most of the people of Darfur raise cattle, they are herdsmen, and horses play a central role in the life of the herdsmen as they are used to manage and protect the herds from thieves and predators. The care given to horse breeding on both official and private levels had its positive reflection on the stability of the herdsmen and the rapid growth of their livestock.

Sudanese race horses in general and the horses of Darfur in specific are breeds from the best strains known globally. The horses grown entirely in Europe cannot endure the hot and dusty environment of Sudan. They also lack the natural immunity against the horse deceases known in the country like the equine plague that previously led to the ban of Sudanese horses from competing internationally because of its contagious nature. But lately as Sudan has been declared free of this decease, horse owners and riders are now aspiring to compete globally in South Africa, Australia, Europe and Arabian countries like UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Iraq and Egypt.

The process of electing the best horses for breeding is made possible through the horse races held in the localities of Darfur, but the limited participation in races due to the deteriorating infrastructure of the racecourses crippled that process, posing a real challenge for the commercial export of Sudanese horses as well as the participation of the horses in the regional and international races. Despite that, the superior and distinguished Darfur horses found their way to the local and regional markets, and the export of horses to Chad and Nigeria is executed through personal initiatives.

From a touristic point of view, Darfur is considered a local and international tourist destination. It possess huge touristic potentials, attractive environment and a hospitable and generous population. Horse racing events which are organized in the major cities of Darfur (like: Nyala, Jenaina, Zalinji, Deain, Ed Alfersan and Rehaid Albardi and others) are big tourist attractions.

Although Sudan is considered as one of the earliest African states to organize horse races and fairs in Khartoum and Darfur, it is still lacking basic infrastructure facilities and services. Most of the racecourses in Darfur lack starting gates with international standards. The tracks themselves are poorly paved and do not have dedicated saddling areas and horse/jockey preparation areas. The racecourses also lack the required cameras to properly verify the sequence and events of the races. Ambulances and integrated veterinary services pre and post races are also absent.  All this led to the deterioration of Sudan’s role in this sport.


The Darfur Crisis

Occasional conflicts were witnessed in Darfur region between herdsmen and farmers. Those conflicts broke because of the scarce resources and were fueled by tribal affiliations of the parties in conflict, and those conflicts were often contained and resolved through the tribal customs and systems in place.

The location of Darfur region bordering four countries and having tribal extensions into those countries, and the vast areas of the region participated in making Darfur a place of continuous conflicts.

The region was affected by the Chadian civil conflict and the Libyan-Chadian conflict and the internal conflicts of Central African Republic. All these conflicts led to the flourishing of the arms trade in Darfur and the tribes of Darfur reacted to the conflicts across the borders.

Darfur is also a contact point with what is known as the Francophone belt countries (Chad, Niger, Central Africa and Cameron). This fact makes it easier for the observers to understand the French interest in what’s happening recently in the region, as Darfur is rich with natural resources like iron ore, gold, Uranium and rare earths. It is also believed that the oil reserve in the region surpasses the seven billion barrels, all that in addition to the huge numbers of livestock.

Some experts blame the Darfur crisis on the economic and social sub-normality due to the long absence of economic and human development in the region; others blame it on the political domination of the central government in Khartoum in relation to the governance, financial and administrative issues.

After years of negotiations and dialogues in Sudan and abroad, the federal government in Khartoum launched a national dialogue initiative which led to a referendum held in April 2016 for the people of Darfur to choose between keeping the five states or going back to a single state. The people of Darfur chose to keep the five states region.

The national dialogue is still going on between the government and the rebel movements to try to reach a comprehensive peace agreement.

Equestrian role in endorsing the peaceful coexistence in Darfur

All over the world, games gave people a thing to look forward to, and a place to spend their time and resources on. Whether the people are game players or just fans and followers, they like winning and do whatever they can to achieve it or see it through.Since the time of the first settling  in the region, horses spread happiness among-st Darfur people; they introduced a new life style that enthralled the Darfurians.

hukmat-drfr                                                    (P. 13) Tribal poets (Hakkamat) welcoming peace and settlement efforts

When seeing the masses of fans following and cheering up the competing horses with extreme passion and without the least consideration to ethnicity or tribal tendency, the observer can easily see the potential that equestrian games possess.

Therefore, establishment and organization of the equestrian games in Darfur will definitely lead to more and more people checking-in the games either as owners, riders or as fans and followers or take any other stock holding activity in the games. That alone can weaken the intolerance between people from different ethnicity  as people work,dine, play and laugh together.

peac-horses                                                        (P. 14) Officials welcomed by tribal horse riders in Darfur  

Equestrian games can also provide a kind of an alternative space to the battle field, where people can compete and demonstrate their noble and courageous values and fearlessness in a peaceful and nondestructive way.

The most critical role of the equestrian games and horse racing is to boost the peaceful coexistence between the various tribes of Darfur.

Horse fairs and the due economic prosperity in Darfur

More horse fairs and races mean more business for a countless number of stakeholders.

Horse breeders can see more buyers knocking on their doors looking for the best mares and stallions that they can buy. This trend will raise the price of horses to an economically healthy level.

economic-racing                                          (P. 12) Darfur men, women and kids coexist in harmony and cheer up their                                                                                                                                     preferred horses with enthusiasm and without ethnic intolerance.


Jockeys, jockey training schools and horse trainers will land more work and make more income than what they are making now, as these occupations will transcend from amateurism to professionalism.

Several equipment and service providing businesses will be created to cater for these growing economic activities.

The region will secure its position as a touristic destination as internal and global tourists will visit the region to witness the beautiful beasts competing and the colorful masses cheering and enjoying the festivities.

Local and federal authorities will also have their share of the show, as overall revenues soar and commercial operations multiply. But the ultimate gain for the authorities would be the peace and security restoration in the region.

Once that economic development is triggered it will not stop, and it will keep gaining momentum from within the region itself, till it reaches the bordering regions and countries. Only then, that recently developed economic model of Darfur will have a life of its own as well as trends and tendencies affiliated only to it and resonating all over the Sudan and the region.

cups                                                         (P. 16) Winning in equestrian games is a win for the whole region