Lesotho’s mountain jockeys race in the fog

Jockeys from the South African kingdom of Lesotho gathered their horses in the mountain village of Semonkong on Saturday to compete on one of the continent’s highest racecourses.

Horse racing is an important social event in the poor mountain nation of about two million people in South Africa.

“I can go fast, very fast,” said 17-year-old Tsaeng Masotsa before heading to the starting line.

At more than 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level, the high plateaus of Semonkong in central Lesotho are home to a nationally renowned racetrack.

Races are held here during the dry season from May to September, with the most prestigious race marking King Letsi III’s birthday in July.

A few hundred people, most wrapped in brightly colored traditional shepherd’s rugs, gathered on Saturday to watch dozens of riders compete under the pale sun.

“The news spread like wildfire from village to village,” said Jonathan Halse, 52, who runs a lodge in the area and is one of the race’s sponsors.

A lot of things are still organized here by word of mouth.

The horse came to Lesotho with European settlers in the 19th century, and the local Basuto pony is the result of crossing over time. They are medium sized and known for their endurance.

The locals use them for herding sheep and goats or for daily transport. Some villages are only accessible on horseback.

“It is an absolute necessity in everyday life. There are places you can’t go otherwise,” says Motlatsi Manaka, a 45-year-old herdsman.

Before the races, the animals are brushed and their manes braided or trimmed.

They have been training for months or sometimes years.

The prizes up for grabs can reach as much as $130 – about the same as the average monthly salary.

Gambling is widespread, with wads of money being passed among spectators seated on large stones.

– ‘My horse will win’ –

Most horse owners are herders who earn their living by selling wool. The annual shearing season has just started and herdsmen are paid about US$3 per kilogram of fiber.

Jockeys are only allowed to ride a little more and most of them are under 20.

The race is divided into several disciplines depending on the age of the participating horses.

“My horse will win, no opponent can resist him,” some riders chant before launching their horses onto the winding course at breakneck speed.

The dirt track, about a kilometer long, is shrouded in mist stemming from the nearby Maletsunyane Falls, which are among the largest in Africa.

His finish line is marked by a cairn.

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