Villages in southern China ring in Chinese New Year with horse fighting

BY Zachary Treu  February 3, 2014 at 1:32 PM EST

CHINA-LIFESTYLE-NEW YEAR-WILDLIFE-RIGHTSTwo male horses battle on Sunday as part of Tiantou’s Chinese New Year celebration. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

In several small villages throughout the southern regions of China, a grisly 500-year-old tradition kicked off the Chinese New Year last week.

According to a report from l’Agence France-Presse, members of the Miao ethnic group have been holding horse fighting competitions for more than five centuries. These tournaments, which offer prizes of up to 10,000 yuan (around $1,650), are held year-round, but are occurring more frequently as the Year of the Horse begins.

CHINA-LIFESTYLE-NEW YEAR-WILDLIFE-RIGHTSThe horses are pushed to kick and bite each other by the presence of a female. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

“We used to hold horse fights just once a year, but now we do it more often. Because this is the Year of the Horse, we are even more happy,” Zhou Tingyi, who presided over the fights in Tiantou — a village in the Guangxi region — said this weekend.

Two male horses are encouraged to fight over a mare, which, according to the AFP, is “kept metres away from the clashing pairs by a villager armed with little more than a stick.”

The winning stallion is the one that “successfully defends its position close to the female.”

CHINA-LIFESTYLE-LUNAR-NEW YEARHundreds of spectators gather to watch the fights, with little separating them from the action. Above, two trainers attempt to corral a stallion. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

At Tiantou’s New Year competition — which also features costumes, dances and other forms of pageantry — barriers don’t separate attending villagers and tourists from the clashing beasts.

“Without horse fighting, it wouldn’t feel like a new year,” said trainer Pan Jianming, whose horse Little Black won a competition this weekend.

CHINA-LIFESTYLE-LUNAR-NEW YEARMembers of the Miao minority group dress as spirits as part of the traditional New Year events. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

Animals Asia — a Hong Kong-based foundation — has condemned the practice, calling the fighting a “horrific spectacle” that causes “abuse and suffering to animals in the name of entertainment.”

CHINA-LIFESTYLE-LUNAR-NEW YEARTiantou’s villagers, dressed in traditional costumes, dance on Sunday during the New Year celebrations. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

A video of the fighting is available on YouTube.