Lesotho’s own ‘Durban July horse race’

Lesotho’s own ‘Durban July horse race’

Luciah Phahla



DUST billows as stallions gallop through the roars of exultant men and ululating women. Each is cheering for their favourite jockey.

This is not the internationally celebrated Durban July horse race but the annual Semonkong race in honour of King Letsie III’s birthday.

The scene is fantastic, complete with a relic dirt track and beautiful blue mountains, set in a small town some 1 000 metres above sea level.

Hundreds of spectators have come from surrounding villages to watch this Saturday presentation of horse racing and their joy becomes obvious when a tripling contest starts.

This contest involves a unique mix of frolicking and racing.

Tripling is a prancing style in which the front and hind legs on the same side of the horse work together. It is not a gallop and it is also not a trot.

Riders are welcomed on to the track by men shouting poems and songs. They are waving sticks, blowing whistles and wearing beautifully designed blankets.

When the tripling contest starts, the horses are immediately engulfed by clouds of dust. They stride purposefully, vying to prove their worth while jockeys and spectators alike bellow their names.

About 30 seconds before the finishing line and having tripled 900 metres, a stallion by the name of Khang proves its mettle as it out-sprints seven other competitors.

Khang’s jockey is Moholi Adoro, a shy boy of 15 years.

Adoro does not recite praise poems for his horse as jockeys are normally wont to do.

Instead, it is Khang’s admirers that gleefully recite poems as they cheerfully pat the brown stallion and run their hands down its shiny black mane.

The riders here are mostly trainers or owners.

Some are herdsmen who would normally be mounting their horses to travel to cattle posts in the mountains. None are professional jockeys.

The competitors have come from all over.

The wealthier have hired horse boxes; others have loaded their stallions into bakkies.

After the tripling contest is another competition – the gallop.

This time around spectators place bets.

Stallions on watch are Khang and Jerusalema. Both are renowned in these parts for their speed. One mineworker bets M1 000 on Jerusalema because he has seen it in a previous race. He swears no stallion can outrun Jerusalema.

Another, who recites poems for Khang, also bets M1 000 saying both the stallion’s name and its reputation on the track are a sure sign it will beat Jerusalema.

Khang is a Sesotho word meaning dispute and this enthusiastic fan believes his favoured horse will win this figurative dispute.

He is proved right.

As in the tripling contest, Khang is the victor of the gallop.

Another star is also catching the eye – the 15-year-old boy jockeying the champion horse.

Adoro has now ridden two wins and he has done it with the confidence of a master.

It is as if he has been doing this for years.

After this latest win, thepost tracks down Adoro, a Form B student at Lithabaneng High School in Maseru. He is shy, only giving short replies.

“I have been riding horses for the past four years,” he whispers. “I don’t race every year. Last year I didn’t take part but then this year I decided to come back again.”

Adoro says his family owns horses. His brother also rides.

The Semonkong race, he explains, has been challenging even if his display didn’t betray it.

“It was not easy, but it was enjoyable,” he says. “What was more difficult is that I was riding against people I don’t know. It was my first time seeing them here. It was difficult to prepare because I didn’t know who they were.”

Adoro says jockeying is his passion. He hopes to make it his profession.

“I would like to ride horses on professional basis and earn money from it,” he declares. “Today I got M750. We put a bet that the horse that wins takes all (the money) and I am happy I won.”

Adoro soon finds out he has gained M4 000 for guiding Khang to victories in the tripling and gallop events. In total, that is M4 750 for his day’s work and Adoro understandably goes home with a beaming smile.

The Semonkong horse race in honour of King Letsie III has been organised by Semonkong Lodge with financial support from the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC).

In total, the sponsorship amounts to M10 000.

The race is a success; it has even attracted visitors all the way from France.

They are here to shoot a documentary about Basotho culture and the importance of horses to Lesotho.

LTDC spokeswoman ‘Manchafalo Motšoeneng says the Semonkong horse race is now an integral part of their calendar of events.

“The LTDC sponsored the event with M9 000 and the other M1 000 comes from the Semonkong Lodge. We are promoting domestic tourism and international tourism,” Motšoeneng says.

She adds: “People who will watch this documentary will want to visit Lesotho in future. This activity is for everyone and we are trying to bring it to the attention of Basotho that tourism lives. As we always say, know your country first.”

Echoing her words is Semonkong Lodge owner Jonathan Halse who has been living in Lesotho for two decades.

Halse says his years in the country have taught him horses are not just a form of transport but central to local culture.

“I have been into horse racing for over ten years now, I think. Ever since I came here I have learnt that horses are very important and we are trying to promote tourism in Lesotho by using horses,” Halse states.

“The lodge is linked to the horses. I think we have about 50 horses that belong to the community that stay at the lodge. Some horses are bred here in Semonkong while others are coming from outside,” he says.

As the dust and cheers slowly subside, the departing throng already murmurs on what to expect at next year’s Semonkong showpiece for the King.

All and sundry have clearly enjoyed the spectacle, a day celebrating Lesotho, its beautiful culture and its horses.

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