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  • Arabian Horse History Expert: Becki Bell

    Arabian Horse History

    Your horseandponytimes.com Arabian Horse History Expert is: Becki Bell

    Turkish Arabian Horses: The History of Cirit

    Turkish Cavalry Soldier by Philip de Bay, 1818

    The European cavalry tradition survives today as dressage, an art that was once practiced to prepare horses and riders for combat. Turkey, too, still nurtures the remnants of its once proud cavalry tradition. Turkey's cavalry-rooted sport is called cirit (pronounced Jee-rit), and is played almost exclusively by riders mounted on Arabian horses.

    Cirit is a mock combat game involving two teams of seven to 10 players, each armed with a three-foot blunt oak or poplar stick. The teams line up facing each other at about 140 yards. The game begins when one rider gallops to his opponent's side and throws his stick down in front of one of the players. Then he flees back to his own side, with the challenged player in pursuit. The pursuing player must hurl his stick at his challenger in an attempt to hit him before he reaches safety.

    Each cirit player executes a series of similar passes lasting only a few seconds. A hit counts for six points, and forcing an opponent's horse to veer off course is worth three. Falling carries a three point penalty, and hitting an opponent's horse instead of the opponent results in expulsion from the game. Skilled players avoid being hit by ducking, hanging off one side of the horse, or performing a number of evasion techniques somewhat reminiscent of cossack vaulting. Extra points are awarded if the pursued rider is able to catch the stick instead of being struck by it.

    Turkey has a rich equestrian tradition that has survived for many centuries. In antiquity, Turkish tribesmen lived on horseback—literally—often eating, drinking, conducting business, and even sleeping in the saddle. Children were prepared for a life on horseback as toddlers, learning to balance on the backs of sheep before they were old enough to walk.

    From this rich equestrian tradition rose the sport of cirit, which was born in the Ottoman Empire about 500 years ago. Like dressage, cirit was used to prepare cavalrymen for battle and to hone their attack and defense skills. By the 16th century the sport was extremely popular in Turkey, and by the 17th century it was also played in German and French-speaking territories and had spread as far as Europe. It was popular outside of military circles, too, and was even played by poor farmers in central Anatolia. It was often played at weddings and other celebratory events.

    Cirit was banned in the early 19th century by Mahmud II, who was concerned about the growing number of injuries and deaths associated with the sport. The sport did not stay down for long, though, and was officially revived in 1996 when the Turkish government formed the Turkish Traditional Sports Federation, an organization designed to keep traditional games alive. Today there is a codified set of cirit rules, a formal training course, and official recognition for 34 seven man teams. Cirit fans are hoping to find a television audience for their sport, and to eventually take it abroad.

    Like endurance horses, cirit horses must be fit. Like racehorses, they must be fast. And like polo ponies, they must be agile. If the sport ever reaches the heights its fans hope for it, it is likely that the Arabian horse, who meets all these criteria, will continue to be its mount of choice.


    Your horseandponytimes.com Arabian Horse History Expert recommends these websites:

    Arabian Horse Association
    The official association for Arabian Horses in the United States.

    Past articles by Becki Bell:

    The Arabian Influence (July 2002) | Horses on the Arabian Peninsula (May 2002) | Witez II (March 2002) | Arabian horses in America: *Leopard (January, 2004) | Turkish Arabian Horses: The History of Cirit (August, 2004) | The Spanish Arabian (June, 2003) |



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