On their slender mounts, riders from isolated villages in Lesotho’s majestic mountains flocked to the peaks on Saturday. In the remote kingdom of southern Africa, horse racing is a centuries-old tradition, perpetuated by a people of pastoralism.
At an altitude of more than 2,200 meters above sea level, the high plateaus of Semongang have unspoiled nature always shrouded in mist. Maletsunyane Falls, Africa’s largest, creates a permanent mist with water falling 186 meters into a spectacular gorge.
Sotho herders, the largest ethnic group in the landlocked country of 2.2 million people, have decided to pit their powerful horses against each other under the pale midday sun. Horses arrived in the 19th century with European settlers who have been under British protection since 1966.
Shepherds have taken to these hills, famous for their endurance, and driven their sheep up the mountainside. This breed was called “Basotho Pony”, although these horses are of medium height.
In spiral green hills with landscapes pierced by stone houses with thatched roofs, men travel everywhere on horseback along cobblestone paths. Some villages with steep access are otherwise inaccessible. Donkeys carry goods.
“It’s an absolute necessity in everyday life. There are places where you can’t go any other way,” says 45-year-old Motlatsi Menaka.
Wrapped in bright traditional blankets, groups of several dozen men. Animals are brushed, their manes braided, sometimes trimmed. For months and years they praise the virtues of their trained mounts and sing: “My horse will triumph, and no enemy can resist him”.
– not shy –
The most prestigious race is organized in July for the birthday of Letsi III, the powerless monarch of the tiny constitutional monarchy.
But in the hills, races are held throughout the dry season of southern winters from May to September, excluding the Covid periods.
“The announcement of the upcoming race spread like wildfire from village to village,” says Jonathan Hulse, 52, who says a lot of word-of-mouth works in this area.
He put the equivalent of 280 euros on the table to sponsor the competition, divided into several categories according to the age of the horses. Prices range from 72 to 135 euros plus stocks. Bundles of currency notes are exchanged between hands in a crowd of a few hundred people seated on large stones, and betel-nuts are well-to-do.
In Lesotho, one of the poorest countries on the planet, where the average salary is less than 150 euros, these species are a good source of income for breeders.
Most horse owners are shepherds who earn their living by selling wool from their herds. The annual harvest season has begun. In a warehouse in the area, the wool is sorted according to fiber length and thickness on wire mesh tables. Herders receive on average the equivalent of 3 euros per kilo.
Jockeys are selected from boys in villages. Most of them are in their 20s, light build and not shy.
“I can go fast, really fast,” protested 17-year-old Tsang Masotsa before heading to the starting line. The owner pays him just 5 Euros to ride the three-year-old mare.
Silhouettes of horses propelled at breakneck speed stretch into the distance along a winding path. Riders are whipped, and some hit Kai on the neck. The route is over a kilometer on a dirt road.
Behind the finish line, marked by a pile of stones, the excited crowd whistled and shouted.