ULAN BATOR (AFP) – Just before little Baasanjav Lkhagvadorj was lifted onto a horse for a race across Mongolia's steppe last week, he asked his father to bless him with a kiss. Minutes later the seven-year-old was killed in a fall, the latest in a rising toll among the country's child jockeys.
As Mongolia's biggest national festival, Naadam, begins on Thursday, controversy is mounting over the way unprotected young riders are risking injury and even death.
Horses are at the core of Mongolian culture -- there are dozens of words for the colours of an equine coat, and children learn to ride almost as soon as they can walk.
Horseracing is one of the "three manly sports" -- along with wrestling and archery -- that make up the Naadam celebrations, where the races are among the longest in the world, up to 28 kilometres (17 miles) depending on the age of the horse, four times the length of Britain's Grand National.
The contests are a legacy of the nation's warrior past, when Genghis Khan's forces would cover vast distances to wreak havoc on their enemies.
Mongolian horses are sturdy creatures bred for endurance, but the demands are so tough that child jockeys are preferred for their light weight, and around 30,000 ride in competitive races every year.
A health ministry study showed that 326 children were treated for racing injuries at the National Traumatology and Orthopaedics Research Centre in Ulan Bator alone last year, up from 222 in 2010.
But accidents in the countryside, where most of the population live, often go unrecorded.
Lkhagvadorj's death was the third recorded child fatality so far this year, according to Baljinnyam Javzankhuu of the National Agency for Children, adding there had been more than 20 in the past decade.
"Competitions have become very cruel," she said.
As well as the official Naadam races, newly wealthy owners -- reportedly including MPs and state officials -- have taken to organising barely regulated competitions of their own in ever increasing numbers, particularly since Mongolia liberalised its economy after the advent of democracy in 1990.
Private races have looser rules, can be held in winter when conditions are more risky, and now that the country is enjoying a resources boom betting on them is said to sometimes reach as much as $60,000.
But according to child rights defenders children can be hired informally to take part for as little as a bicycle, a set of schoolbooks, or up to 150,000 tugriks ($100).
Horses can be insured for millions of tugriks but their riders are either not covered -- contrary to legal requirement -- or only for a token amount less than $30, said Javzankhuu.
Helmets and protective gear are also mandatory, but the rules are often ignored.
Purev Oyunchimeg, one of Mongolia's three national human rights commissioners, wants parliament, the Great Khural, to class horseracing as child labour, or at the very least improve standards and raise the minimum age for Naadam riders from seven to nine.
"The rich should stop making children victims of entertainment," she said of the private races. "When children die (the families) don't even get any compensation."
Mongolia's culture, sports and tourism ministry is preparing a new law that will ban children under 16 taking part in private events. But no decision has yet been made on changing the minimum age for official races.
"Mongolian traditional horse racing is the most democratic, liberal event," minister Tsedevdamba Oyungerel told AFP. "But when money gets involved the races become fiercely competitive and thus dangerous for children."
Traditionalists, however, defend the practice. Adya Bayarmagnai, advisor to the Mongolian Equestrian and Horse Trainers' Union, and an owner and trainer himself, said that only "a tiny percentage" of children have accidents.
"Children fall from horses -- it's the only way to learn horse-riding," he said.
"A Mongol child is put on horseback at the same time as he or she learns coordination and walking. Thus a child and a horse become one harmonious entity."
Lkhagvadorj's father, a seasonal agricultural worker from Jargalant, 135 kilometres northwest of the capital Ulan Bator, is himself an ardent horse lover and had ambitions for his son to take part in bigger events.
It was an official contest, but the boy was on someone else's animal, uninsured and not wearing a helmet or protective gear when he fell and suffered a fatal head injury.
He had just finished his first year of primary school, filling his notebook with the phrase: "I love you, daddy".
Fighting back tears, his great-aunt Norjin told AFP: "All the right things are only being discussed on TV, but never implemented in real life. If he only wore a helmet..."