On Mindanao’s Lumads and Horse Fighting

South Cotabato, Mindanao, Philippines

Over the past month I have made two separate trips to Mindanao in the hopes to document the ethnic sport of horse fighting that is still occasionally practiced by the areas Lumads (indigenous peoples). My first trip was during Davao’s Kadayawan Festival, which is an annual week long celebration featuring the different tribes from Davao. This festival is like most other festivals in the Philippines, complete with street dancing, beauty pageants and plenty of people walking around the streets. In years past horse fighting was one of the side events at the Kadayawan Festival and was the sole reason I made the trip to Davao. Sadly, the tribal Chieftain, Datu Causing Ogao, who was in charge of this years horse fighting was murdered only three weeks before the festival. This murder was one of three tribal murders in the same time frame throughout this part of Mindanao. The New People’s Army (NPA) took responsibility for these acts, but as of now there still has been no investigation by the government into the matter. Needless to say, the horse fighting activities did not happen. Many of the tribes decided to either boycott the festival or were afraid to leave their homes due to the murders. Because I was already in Davao, I ended up spending my time with the different tribes that did gather for the festivities. Most of them were staying at local elementary schools and I tried to make the best use of my time by taking portraits of the people I met.

A Matigsalug tribal Datu (Chieftain) and a Matigsalug woman from different tribes.

The tribal muse for the Klata tribe and a Datu (Chieftain) from the Obu Manuvu tribe.

An Atta Manobo woman and a boy from the Bagobo tribe.

After returning home from Davao I continued to research in hopes to find a scheduled horse fight. After a short time I found something that looked promising and I made some phone calls to confirm if a horse fight would take place. After some good information I again made my way back down to Mindanao. This time to South Cotabato. I boarded a plane and took a 6 hour bus ride all within 24 hours after I heard of this particular fight. After I arrived at the location all the signs were positive that some type of horse fight was going to take place the next day. The following morning I arrived at the venue only to find an empty field with a lot of students hanging around. It was the founding anniversary for this school so students were out of class and waiting for different activities to happen. A young T’boli man I befriended the night before was with me and he helped me get in touch with the organizer of the event. After little insight from the event organizer there were still no horses in sight and I was beginning to get worried that I may have come all this way again only to go home empty handed. It took some time, but a few hours later a couple of horses started to arrive. Then a mare arrived and a few men started to setup bamboo poles in the middle of the field. This was a great sign.

Two stallions fight over a mare. The mare, who is usually in heat, is tied up between two bamboo poles so she cannot escape. The stallions fight over her until one flees with the winner being the horse that lasts the longest. Without the mare present to stimulate the stallions sexual aggressiveness the stallions would not fight with each other. I was told the average fight lasts about 7 minutes with the longest fights taking up to 40 minutes. This particular fight lasted less than 10 minutes.

From what I have read, horse fighting is a sport thats been happening in Mindanao and other parts of the world for more than 500 years. The indigenous peoples of Mindanao have used and lived with horses for this time period and have practiced this ethnic sport as a form of entertainment for many years. Because horses are herd animals, they naturally engage in battle for leadership and for mating purposes. The sport basically emulates what horses would do in the wild under a controlled environment for the purposes of entertainment. The Animal Welfare Act outlawed all horse fighting throughout the Philippines in 1998, but on tribal lands the sport continues because it is etched into the culture of the Lumads.

Two stallions face off before they start to fight. Once fighting starts, they kick, bite and strike each other with their hooves. Before the two stallions are brought together for their bout they are each given a short one-on-one time with the mare to stimulate their sexual appetite.

The fight begins with the horses kicking and jumping at each other. Spectators in the background are mostly students who were celebrating their school's founding anniversary.

This particular horse fight was more of an exhibition than an official fight where bets take place. During bigger festivals there is usually a temporary fence built to keep people protected from the horses and to prevent the horses from running too far off. Likewise, during the bigger events a lot of gambling happens. This was just a small gathering and no gambling took place. There were only three horse fights that happened and all were less than 10 minutes each.

It was a bit exhilarating to be out in the field up close to the horses while they were fighting. There was nothing to protect me if the horses got too close and it made for a fun 30 minutes of shooting. I was chased once by a stallion and I ran away up into the crowd to escape. The people were all laughing as it was probably funny to see a tall white guy being chased by a horse.

Two stallions fight during an ethnic horse fighting event practiced by the T'boli people of Mindanao.

Eventually the horses start to bit each other going for the neck and body of the other horse. The mare who is unable to escape sometimes gets in the way and is kicked or bit as well by the fighting stallions.

Two stallions fighting with their owners watching from a distance.

I know a lot of people are very much against animal cruelty and I can see how something like this would upset many people. I actually didn’t know this practice happened here in the Philippines until about a year ago. When I first found out I was a bit disturbed, but I think I was more excited in knowing that such an unusual practice still happens. Now after having watched one (albeit a small one) I can say that it really wasn’t that bad. It’s simply an activity that people do in their community and it is a form of entertainment. Sure the horses beat the crap out of each other, but I have seen a lot worse torture of animals throughout my life and there is hardly any blood even drawn during these fights. Likewise, contrary to what many people report, the horses don’t die and their owners take very good care of them afterwards. After all, horses are expensive and they are used for transportation and as work animals in and around the community. This is just something that people have done here for over 500 years and it is a part of the indigenous peoples culture.

A T'boli man treating the wounds of a horse with Colgate toothpaste. By applying toothpaste to the wounds it helps to keep flies away and prevent infection. Often times, injections of antibiotics are giving to the more severely injured horses.

A fighting stallion returns to his normal place of residence where he will continue to work for the family's daily transportation and labor needs. This stallion has won his last eight fights.

After the horse fighting I had a little time to explore the area of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. It is indeed a beautiful area with waterfalls, T’boli culture and peaceful lakes. Most of Lake Sebu and it’s surrounding area is ancestral domain of the T’boli people. However, many of the T’boli have sold off their land for a very low price to outsiders. In the past, much of the land was even bartered away for minimal goods such as coffee and sugar. Today, Ilonggos make up a large percentage of the community and run most of the businesses in the area.

Tilapia fish ponds early morning on Lake Sebu.

Falls Two at the Seven Falls of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.

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Tagged: asia, documentary, ethnic sport, horse fighting, indigenous people, mindanao, philippines, photography, south cotabato, Travel,
Posted on: Sep 18, 2012

  • Emily_comedis

    how i wish this can be made into a book…

  • Merlie Alunan

    I’ve never been to one, but I have heard so much of the carabao fighting in the old town of Carigara, Leyte. You might want to
    explore that. It takes place on Holy Week, usually on Black Saturday. I am not happy about the carabao fight. It was used in the
    early days (the last decades of Spanish rule in the Philippines) as an instrument of protest against the Church’s stringent prohibitions
    on human activities during the Lenten season. Now they hold it just for fun, and I suppose, for the betting that usually accompanies
    these events. This happens in the months of March of April which is when the Lenten season comes about. But Leyte is very much
    mainstream and may not offer as much interesting sights as the tribes of Mindanao.

    • Thanks for the information Merlie. I had no idea that carabao fighting happened here as well. I will have to look more into it. Thanks again for dropping by and for the information.

  • Skyradical

    sorry, I mean Mindanao not Cebu

  • Skyradical

    Yeah, I didnt know what Happened to my previous post. but I think I said something like, I didn’t know that there are horse fighting in Cebu. hehe I meant Mindanao. thanks! hehe

  • Melanie Oca

    your photos are beautiful! Keep up the good work!

  • Mark Gimena

    very nice!

  • are you aware of this? “In the philippines if you have DSLR you are a profressional Photographer.” 🙂 lol
    check that famous line here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKxncpfZLQc
    but i can say your photos are really outstanding, like the face-off photo, the muscle on their cheeks tells me how they really want to fight each other.

  • Hi Jacob, am a photojournalist based in Davao. I wasn’t aware that you were here during Kadayawan, and that you were supposed to cover a horsefight. It has long been scrapped from the lineup of activities in the festivities due to complaints in the past. However, I have witnessed a wild horsefight up in the mountains of Koronadal, in South Cotabato, and was almost ran over by the fighting males because I wanted to get my shot before I get kicked over on the face. Luckily, someone had the sense to pull my arm and jerk me back to reality. Like you, I am fond of capturing the culture and raw beauty of minorities in the islands, and we have so many. I have noticed that we both have captured the same datu of the Ovu-Manuvu tribe. I took portraits of his family as well. I wish you well on your journeys and next time you come back to my islands, just holler. I may be able to direct you to some other beautiful tribal villages as well. Keep shooting beautifully. 🙂

    • Hi Jojie..Thanks for stopping by. I will be sure to let you know the next time I’m in Davao or somewhere in Mindanao. I will likely be back sometime early next year. It would be very nice to meet you and brainstorm some ideas together. A wild horse fight seems like a fascinating event. I think we forget the dangers sometimes when we are in the middle of a moment. 🙂

      • Ah, the adrenalin rush! I think we were born crazy. Am scheduled to fly to Tawi-Tawi over the weekend (hyperventilates). Just finished reading your Tao’t bato adventure. Awesome. Been wanting to see them, but don’t want to risk the “malaria incident.” I do hope to bring you to my birthplace in Davao Oriental. There’s this tribal village up in the mountains, the last of the authentic Mandayas. The children are so beautiful, a mix of mestizo-Asian-Hispanic, their eyes are brown and gorgeous. This area is off limits to rebels and the government. One has to ask permission from the warlord chieftain to be allowed inside. They have very sharp arrow weapons. Am sure they don’t wear Levi’s jeans. Yet. 🙂 Nice talking to you. Fellow photographers tend to foam in the mouth when they chat with somebody of the same passion. Sorry. LOL

        • Have a safe trip to Tawi-Tawi, I hope to get down there myself sometime. Although, I need to be a little more careful I would imagine. I’ll be on the lookout for your photos. I’d love to join you to visit the Mandayas you are describing, it sounds like a wonderful place to visit. Thanks for the offer – I may just have to take you up on it :). I will certainly stay in touch and follow your work. Thanks again and all the best to you Jojie!

  • Suntellmoe

    I’ve heard the horse fight still exist in some part of Negros Oriental particularly in Tanjay City.

  • Robinson1997

    This is disgusting, they are good pictures I will give you that, but to find such a thing ‘fun’ and ‘exhilarating’ is just wrong. This isn’t natural because they have itched the animals tone this way and think of how scared that mare will be. This is wrong in so many levels and the fact that you enjoy it disgraces me. You’re a good photographer but you’re sick.

    • It’s good to know that you think I am sick and I appreciate you going under the radar and not leaving your real name. It takes a lot of guts to tell someone they are a disgrace and that they make you sick and then you can’t even leave your name. I never said I enjoyed the horse fighting itself, I only said it was fun and exhilarating being in the middle of an event like this taking photos. There is a difference. Likewise, I stated that I didn’t see the event as being that cruel because of the way they take care of the animals afterwards. There wasn’t much blood and honestly it was no worse than a cockfight or something similar. That’s my opinion and I was there to witness it.

  • donttorturethehorses

    you are disgusting

  • Angel

    I wish you could cover more about the T’boli Tribe 🙂

  • Paul John Gataber

    Sir I would like to ask your permission if i could used one of your pics as a reference.
    I would like to make a drawing using the picture that you have captured.

    • Hi Paul. Please send me an email and we can work something out. Thanks.

  • sayjo

    beautiful animals, definitely feel for the poor mare stuck in the middle, at least the stallions can get away.

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