Underneath Sumba’s expansive blue skies, a young boy is pulling a balaclava and helmet over his black eye and readying himself for a day of work.
Ade is just seven years old, and is one of Indonesia’s child jockeys. Other jockeys on the remote eastern island are as young as four or five.
The breed of horses in Sumba are characteristically small, so horse owners prefer to hire small, child jockeys. Even to mount the house bareback, Ade needs a boost up from his dad.
“He has been working as a professional jockey since he was four years old,” explains Ade’s father Rais. “We started teaching him when he was three and half years old. Now he is seven and is a good rider.”
One of Sumba's famous races this July lasted for 11 days and attracted nearly 600 horses. Ade’s family doesn’t own any horses, but Ade earns 50,000 rupiah for each race he joins. Like most seven-year-old boys Ade is very energetic, but after three laps he is tired out.
“If he is strong enough he will just keep going,” his father says. “He will race on more than 10 different horses in different races. If he has enough energy, he will just keep going but if he is tired he takes a rest.”
Ade and his nine-year-old brother Enid – who is also a jockey – are the family breadwinners, says their mother Nurmala.
“We can take home around 15 million or 10 million rupiah after being here for seven days at the races,” she says.
The winnings amount to more than $1,000 for a week’s work – in a country where the minimum wage is just $50 a week.
Nurmala says that as the wage earners of the family, the boys sometimes have to miss class. “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."
Her sons understand the important financial role they play in the family; in Indonesia, it is illegal for children under the age of 15 to work.
By law children must be 18 before they can do hazardous jobs, but Sumba race organizer Umbu Tamba says his events abide by the law.
“This is a tradition that has been passed down from our ancestors so we are not breaking the law,” he explains. Tamba, who was a jockey himself as a child, says that traditional law has to exist alongside state law.
While the use of child jockeys has been criticised, Tamba says the children do not become jockeys against their will.
“No child is forced to be a jockey here,” he says. “Yes it’s true that according to national law children under age are not allowed to work but this is our cultural heritage.”
Tamba also says the child jockeys are paid well, and respected for what they do. Ade boasts to his friends about winning multiple races, while his uncle tries to offer him race advice. He doesn’t listen though, he’s hungry, and as the family's earner he can do what he wants.
His mother rushes over with beef sticks in peanut sauce, noodles and rice. Ade eats first – his mother and father eat what is left over.
Contemplating her sons’ future, Nurmala says she has bought cows with the race earnings and is also 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 bought cattle for them and am building them a house and if they want to go high school or university there will be money for that,” she says.
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. I want to fire a gun,” he says, laughing and making mock gun noises.
With lunch over, 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.
Luckily he has only bruised his legs and manages to pick himself up and walk. His parents say accidents are part and parcel of life as a jockey.
“We are used to it,” says Rais, “This is our tradition and way of life. So we don’t have a feeling of being scared or worried any more.”
Ade has fallen several times before, breaking a leg, while his brother Enid has broken his arm in a fall. But Rais says Ade is not afraid. “The more pain he feels, the braver he becomes,” he says.
The local government is pushing for better safety and conditions for child jockeys. Gidion Mbilijora, the regency head of East Sumba, says he has asked the organizers to pay more attention to the children’s safety and pay them decent fees.
Mbilijora acknowledges that the jockeys are underage but he says the government views the child jockeys as part of Sumba’s cultural identity.
“If it was outlawed it would make things very difficult for me,” he says, “I would be swamped by protests from my community because the earnings from the horse racing are a key part of the local economy.”
As the day of racing comes to a close, Ade runs around the empty field trying to catch crickets, free to be a child again – at least until tomorrow.
Listen to Rebecca Henschke's audio story about the child jockeys here.
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