First, let’s get one thing straight: The horses are sober. It’s the riders who are drunk.
While the practice of drunkenly racing horses may seem cruel to both man and beast, the Mayans living in high altitude villages in Guatemala’s Sierra de los Cuchumatanes mountains consider the sport to be an important expression of their culture—like bull fighting, but with a more even playing field between human and animal, though deaths of both have occurred.
The most famous drunken horse race, called Skach Koyl in the local Mayan language, takes place in the town of Todos Santos on November 1. A snap of it even made the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Guatemala a few years back. In Todos Santos, the annual race marks the end of Day of the Dead celebrations, but races are held throughout the region at various times during the year.
Recently in the town of Chiabal II, near Todos Santos, locals cleared a soft dirt “track” about an eighth of a mile long right through the center of the tiny, dusty town. The course was then lined with a flimsy wooden fence, in an attempt to keep spectators from joining the fray.
Eight relatively healthy-looking horses were gathered at the makeshift starting line as less healthy-looking riders staggered around being fitted with special hats festooned with long colorful sashes.
The mostly male spectators were eager for the race to begin. On the day of the festivities, the men and boys in Chiabal II were dressed in hand-woven red pants with white stripes, blue and purple shirts with wide embroidered collars, and jaunty straw hats with woven bands. But they weren’t decked out for the races: Mayan men in this part of Guatemala dress this colorfully every day.
Once the special racing day hats were in place, three riders lined up on the starting line. A loud whistle blew, and then they were off!
Some riders were so drunk they had to have their hands tied to the saddle by their “friends.” Others screamed obscenities in Spanish and English as they flew past spectators at a breakneck speed. Some were still holding cans of Tecate beer as they raced.
Predictably, a few riders flew out of their saddles, landing with a dull thud in the loose dirt. Others slowly slumped to the side before gently reaching terra firma and giving up, their relieved horses continuing on without them.
The majority of the riders somehow made it to the finish line, but even after several hours of watching, it was never exactly clear who “won” or what the prize might be. Advil? A heating pad? Exemption from next year’s race?
In Todos Santos, it was recently reported that the winner of the annual drunken horse race was given a live chicken and the title of El Capitan.