Horse play: Indonesia's child jockeys

Horse play: Indonesia's child jockeys

Jockeys in Indonesia's traditional races are always children, some as young as four years old. 

Horses are used throughout Indonesia mostly for pulling carts but in the remote east of the country they are a symbol of wealth and status.

Regular horse races are held on Sumba and neighbouring islands.

Recently a race meeting in the regional capital of Sumba lasted 11 days and attracted nearly 600 horses.

The jockeys are always children, some as young as four years old.

Child labour is illegal in Indonesia but local officials claim the practice is an entrenched part of the local culture.

Rebecca Henschke has the story of one of these child jockeys - seven-year-old Ade.

Ade is a professional child jockey in Sumba.

At seven years old, he stands just over a metre tall and is wearing a balaclava so only his eyes and mouth can be seen.

He is also wearing a small helmet but no shoes.

He has a black eye from when he fell off a horse - and he has been doing this job since he was four.

Ade doesn't own a horse, so he is hoping someone will hire him as their jockey.

A man has just come over and asked if Ade can be his jockey.

He just grabbed him by the arm and said, "I want to use him, I want to use him", and Ade's dad said "yeah".

The man says he has chosen Ade because he is small, that all he is looking for is a small jockey, so he is going to take him.

The horses in this first round are also smaller, around 1.5 metres high.

But even so, Ade's Dad has to help him clamber bare-back on to a horse he has never ridden before.

"He has been working as a professional jockey since he was four years old. We started teaching him when he was three and half years old. Now he is seven and is a good rider. 

And they are off.

Ade clings on to the horse's mane and leads it around the bend, coming across the finishing line in second place.

Ade's dad says they get 50,000 rupiah - that's around $5.50 - for each race Ade rides.

"He will race on more than 10 different horses in a day. If he has enough energy he will just keep going but if he is tired, he takes a rest."

Ade has done three laps now and his dad picks him up and is carrying him across because he is very tired.

Ade's mum says Ade and his 9 year old brother Ende - who is also a jockey - are the family breadwinners.

"We can take home around 15 million or 10 million rupiah after being here for seven days at the races."

She says that's around $1,000 for a week's work, when the minimum wage in Indonesia is just $50 a week.

"If the races happen when school is on we ask for permission from the teachers to pull them out of school because they have bosses here who want them to race."

Reporter: "Isn't that a problem, falling behind in their studies?"

"The boys understand that this is their work. When the teacher asks them why you keeping missing school to race horses, he answers: 'Who would look after my mum and feed my younger brothers and sisters if I didn't?' "

It is illegal for children under the age of 15 to work in Indonesia, and by law children must be 18 before they can do hazardous jobs, but event organiser Umbu Tamba says his races abide by the law.

"This is a tradition that has been passed down from our ancestors so we are not breaking the law. Traditional law has to exist alongside the state law. I was a jockey when I was a child and I fell off many times and I am fine."

The proposition is put to him that these children are being forced to do this and it's not right to treat children in this way.

"Whoever says that is just trying to be provocative and cause trouble. No child is forced to be a jockey here and the children aren't doing this for free either. Even though there is no official price that has to be paid to the jockeys, we care about them and we respect them."

It's lunch time and the family sits down in the grass in the middle of the track

Ade's uncle wants to talk tactics, telling him he has to keep the left rein tight around the bend.

But Ade isn't listening.

He is busy boasting about how many races he has won already to the crowd of boys around him.

" I won three times....and came second twice... yeah I won three times, not two times, Dad!"

Ade's mother says she is thinking of the children's future.

"I have bought cows and am building a house for them. I am worried that when they get older they will ask me 'where is the money that I earned?' so that's why I have done this with it... if they want to go high school or university there will be money for that."

Ade will have to do a different job when he turns 15 and he already has some ideas.

"I want to be an army officer. (laughter) I want to fire a gun. I want to use a weapon. Pow…Pow…pow…."


Lunch is over and it's time to race again.


Ade mounts a new horse and as it passes the stadium it takes a sharp turn and bolts off the field towards the entrance gate.

The gate is closed and the horse rears up, throwing Ade off the horse.

His mum rushes over to him.

She appears to be kissing him on the head, but later says she was blowing the evil spirits away.

He seems to have hurt his leg but his mother says they won't take him to hospital.

"No we never take them to the hospital. If the leg is broken we have to use local medicine. At the hospital if they cannot heal the leg then they will straight away cut it off - that's what hospital people do."

Ade pulls himself up.

He can walk - this time he has just bruised his legs.

Ade's dad says they aren't afraid to let him back on the horse.

"We are used to it. This is our tradition and way of life so we aren't scared or worried any more."

Reporter: "Have they fallen off many times?"

"Yes and there have been times when they have broken bones - broken their legs."

But better safety conditions for child jockeys is something the local government has been looking into.

The regional head of east Sumba, Doti Gidion Mbilijora, supports the use of child jockeys.

But says he is trying to get better protection for them.

"I have asked the organisers to pay more attention to the children's safety and also told them they must pay the jockeys a decent fee." 

He is asked what he would do if the central government insists that this has to end?

"If it was outlawed it would make things very difficult for me. I would be swamped by protests from my community because the earnings from the horse racing are a key part of the local economy. Farmers' incomes go up when there is a horse race on."

Back at the races, another horse owner comes over and tries to get Ade to ride again but he refuses for the first time.

He looks exhausted and cuddles up to his uncle.

"I have had enough..."

The day of racing comes to a close.

Ade runs around the middle of the empty field trying to catch crickets while some of the other child jockeys break out in a dance.

Now they are free to be children, at least until tomorrow.

Source SBS Radio

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