Outreach: The Growing Enthusiasm for Minang Horse Racing

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The tradition of horse racing in the Minang area (West Sumatra) has lasted for centuries. Apart from being a custom, horse racing in West Sumatra has now become an annual agenda of the Indonesian Equestrian and Horse Racing Association, as an event organized in Payakumbuh. Minangkabau horse racing also has multi-effects, ranging from developing people’s horse breeding, providing a living for horse handlers and jockeys, to boosting regional tourism.      

    As soon as a yellow trumpet was blown by a steward from the race control tower, racehorses were released from their start boxes and dashed off swiftly on their tracks. Spectators packing tribunes and track sides gave their roaring applause to arouse the spirit of their ace horses racing in the 2019 Lebaran Cup Horse Racing Championship in the Kubu Gadang racing arena, Payakumbuh, West Sumatra, on Sunday, June 16.

    The annual horse race held for two days on June 16-17 was followed by 50 large racehorses from several parts of West Sumatra and Riau. In the race arena, flags of various colors hoisted by regions who deployed their contestants fluttered gaily. Red was the flag of Agam, yellow represented Batusangkar, green was for Padang Panjang, yellow-green for Pariaman, blue for Payakumbuh-Lima Puluh Kota, white-yellow-blue for Sawahlunto, yellow-blue for Padang and yellow-red for Solok.

    The Lebaran Cup horse racing contest began with bogi horse racing, a traditional horse competition in West Sumatra. Bogi horses are those whichpull the bendi, or small buggies, each carrying only one passenger. Thereafter, the contest was continued with horse racing from the beginner class to the derby class--the most pretigious class.

    According to Aldias Sastra, Racing Commission deputy chair of the Indonesian Equestrian and Horse Racing Association (Pordasi), his association has an annual calendar for horse racing in Minang. Horse racing contests are annually held in six areas in West Sumatra. “In Bukittinggi and Payakumbuh, there are two annual events,” he said.

    Although horse racing in West Sumatra has been oriented to national standards, Aldias pointed out that Pordasi maintains the traditional contests. “Bogi horse racing is an example, using bendi, and also free horse racing, which are still continued,” he added. “This is meant to give opportunities to communities breeding ordinary horses.”

    Aldias also mentioned the multi-effects of horse racing in West Sumatra, among others on people’s horse breeding businesses, the livelihood of racehorse handlers and jockeys, as well as on tourism. “In West Sumatra, horse racing has long been a tradition. In Batusangkar, for instance, every time a horse race takes place, there is always a week-long night fair, also a football match. People go to the race arena as a meeting place, and youths gather there to fall in love,” he said.

    At present, there are dozens of racehorses in West Sumatra. Those participating in the championship in Payakumbuh this year are descended from crossbreeding with horses imported from Australia. They are large and sturdy. According to Datuk Paduko Bosa Nan Kuniang, their owners are wealthy people whose hobby is horse riding. “They spend a lot of money to take care of the racehorses,” he said.

    Erizal Chaniago, one of the owners of horses from Payakumbuh contesting the derby class, put the monthly cost of maintaining a racehorse at around Rp8-10 million. The amount is for feed and salaries for breeders, jockeys and trainers. “Their stables must be well-built, their feed is also 90 percent imported, except grass. In Jakarta even the grass is imported,” said Erizal, who is also House of Representatives legislative candidate from Gerindra Party and owns a number of racehorses in Payakumbuh, Manado and Java. He indicated that the racehorse feed was imported due to its measured protein allowance.

    The horse racing tradition in Minang land has virtually lasted for centuries. Horse racing contests in West Sumatra is estimated to have been widespread since the Dutch colonial era, despite the previous existence of horses in this region. Thomas Dias was the first Westerner who went into the inland of West Sumatra and meeting with Sultan Pagaruyung in the middle of 1684. He was an employee of--the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (the Dutch East Indies Company) assigned by Melaka Governor-General Cornelis van Quaelbrgen.

    In his notes, Naar Midden Sumatra in 1684, Dias wrote that Sultan Pagaruyung felt obliged to become a good friend of His Highness the Governor General of Melaka. “In order to prove how greatly he esteemed the friendship, he handed over one of the two horses owned by the nation to His Highness the Governor as an expression of amity,” Dias noted.

    Suryadi, a lecturer at Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen (Faculty of Humanities), Leiden Institute for Area Studies SAS Indonesië, Leiden University, Holland, said the root of present-day horse racing had existed in West Sumatra at least in the last decade of the 19th century or early 20th century.

    L.C. Westenenk, Assistant Chief of Oud Agam (Olden Agam) introduced this sport which was considered elitist.

    It was also Westenenk who brought the night fair tradition to Fort de Kock, Bukittinggi, which later spread to other cities like Padang, Solok and Batusangkar, in the form of fancy fairs. “Westenenk also introduced the tradition of organizing horse racing with professional management,” said Suryadi.  

    Suryadi maintained that there was obviously the Dutch (Westenenk) role in the construction of horse racing arenas there, although the land was provided by local communities. “If I am not mistaken, the oldest horse racing was in Fort de Kock,” he added. “The horse racing tradition at the time was only found in Fort de Kock, Padang Panjang, Payakumbuh and Fort van der Capellen (Batusangkar), never in the area of Padang.”

    Suryadi explained that horse racing became a favorite because it was seen as a prestigious sport. In horse racing arenas, local elite members, Dutch as well as indigenous, like tuanku laras (religious teachers), demang (district heads) and landraad (court) prosecutors would meet. This was certainly inseparable from the image of horses associated with chivalry.

    As a result of this growing horse racing tradition, said Suryadi, many local elite members later owned racehorses and bogi horses, some kind of a new hobby deemed prestigious. Some of them owned very good bendi carts. Racehorses, bogi and bendi (mostly decorated with colorful accessories, dominated by red) thus became symbols of prestige and social status of the traditional elite and indigenous intellectuals.

    This could still be noticed in Minangkabau until the 1970s. Datuk (elders) or village heads of the time possessed bogi or bendi, just like demang, tuanku laras and the others. "Those who owned horses and bendi-bogi at the time were like the people possessing Alphard cars today. The horses, bogi and bendi were taken care of by handlers employed by the local elite. So there have been two types of horse racing, the one with jockeys riding and the other with bendi-bogi," said Suryadi.

    According to Suryadi, horse racing arenas in those days showed a marked difference in social status between common people, the traditional and European elite. The elite groups enjoyed the seats provided by arena stadiums while ordinary people were mostly standing on track sides. The arenas at the same time served as social interaction venues, even as dating places for young couples in love. This is reflected in many romance novels with Minangkabau backgrounds published in the 1920-1930s, such as Melati van Agam (The Flower of Agam) by Swan Pen and Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck (The Sinking of the Van der Wijck Ship) by Buya Hamka.

    At first the Dutch may have arranged horse racing contests to channel their hobby and also display prestige and social status. But gradually their activity developed into an arena for public amusement.

    In its development, horse racing also related to politics. “I once read that meetings were conducted by communists after horse racing because it was easy to attract the interest of many people who had gathered in the horse racing arenas,” Suryadi added.


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