Horse festivals throughout the Tibetan plateau take place in early August of each year. Nomads and farmers across the grasslands bring their horses to the track, and the winners leave with some pretty amazing prizes including top-end motorcycles (very useful for herding!). It's a highly organized event, and some groups even set up tents selling various beverages and snacks.
We woke up in the early morning to grey skies and freezing cold temperatures (the peanut oil that we were using to cook had frozen overnight!) and after a tasty breakfast of peanut butter sandwiches and hot coffee, we walked over to the centre of the track where two alters and a prayer flag structure had been set up for religious offerings. As part of the pre-race rituals, jockeys and their 'crew' offer various food and drinks to the gods in hopes of receiving good luck in return. Firecrackers are also lit, and racers walk their horses clockwise around the alter while throwing small pieces of 'lucky paper' into the air. These square pieces of paper are stamped with an image of the windhorse (a symbol of good fortune) and it is believed that the higher you're able to throw, the more luck you receive.
By late morning a sizeable crowd of all ages had gathered by the edge of the racetrack. I really enjoyed seeing the traditional dress of the nomads - thick robes adorned with bright beautiful patterns, tied with long sashes - and found it interesting to see how they differed depending on the region the group was from. We stayed at the festival for about three races, cheering with the friendly people around us. Interacting with the people was such a fun experience, and though we were not invested in any particular horse, we were still able to experience spirit of the festival.
We planned our trip with Snowlion Tours, a Tibetan-owned company based in Xining. Wangden, the owner, is a great guy and I would highly recommend them :)