In a nation that traces its roots to the child of an equestrian, young men on horseback continue a racing tradition.
They’ve carried on the tradition even as their once-peaceful nation has become the epicenter of Islamist extremism in the Sahel.
Leonel Tassembédo, 19, said the security situation in Burkina Faso — where vast swaths of the country are now controlled by Islamist militants — means that importing horses from outside the country has become more difficult in recent years. But Tassembédo, who has loved horses since he was 7, said the animals remain a vital part of the country’s culture and are even represented in its coat of arms.
“The horse is a strong symbol for our country,” said Tassembédo.
“Horses have significant historical value as they helped our ancestors in battles, travel and races,” said Tabsoba Joel, 29, who has been riding horses since he was 9 and who often participates in races.
He said that as insecurity has increased, so has the price of staples used to feed horses, such as millet and maize, making it harder to care for the animals than in the past.
In 2020, the hippodrome hosted an international equestrian festival, bringing together riders from across West Africa. Two years later, the festival’s organizers postponed, then canceled, the festival after soldiers seized power in a coup. Again this year, the organizers decided not to hold the festival.
“Horses are noble and powerful animals that embody the emblem of our Burkina Faso,” said Madi Dermé, whose family led the festival’s organization. “For us, the horse is more than just an animal; it is considered our grandfather.”
Dermé explained that the origin of the of the Mossi people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso, is linked with horses because legend has it that Yennenga, a warrior princess, escaped on her horse to meet her lover after her father told her she could not marry. Their child, whose name means stallion, went on to found the Mossi kingdom.
Today, the horse is a national symbol. The country’s soccer team is called the Étalons, which means stallions in French. Men on horseback, sometimes wearing cowboy hats, can often be spotted passing through the streets of certain neighborhoods in Ouagadougou.
But horseman Abdoulaye Sangaré, a 47-year-old father of three, said that because of the violence, he can no longer take the horses to shows in the countryside, where villagers were introduced to the equestrian world.
“We would travel distances of up to 45 or 60 kilometers [28 to 37 miles] to stage a performance or visit a traditional chief,” Sangaré recalled. “Upon arrival in the village, all the horses we brought with us were provided with millet and well taken care of.”
These days, he said, there is less food for the horses and less work for those who train them.
Trainers here said they are determined to build up Burkina Faso’s equestrian culture and channel the country’s passion for the animals into a more formal industry, with more riders who compete internationally. They know that will take more money and more stability.
But for now, they said, they have their routine. Horses and jockeys start their training most days around 6 a.m., before the sun comes up. Then the horses are fed, watered and rested before being taken out again each afternoon.
Come Sunday, it is time to race.