Inside Morocco’s Wild Game of Horses, Riders, and … a Puppet?

By Gwyneth Talley, National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee

In a place that can only be called the remote plains of northern Morocco, a festival of a unique game on horseback takes place every year.

Arab tribes from the north gather to play a game similar to “capture the flag,” but on horseback with the goal being to capture a puppet. They call this game mata. This gentler version of the Afghani buzkashsi draws locals and foreigners alike to see some of the most daring bareback riding in North Africa.

(Photo by Gwyneth Talley)
The annual contest draws locals and foreigners alike to see some of the most daring bareback riding in North Africa. (Photo by Gwyneth Talley)

Morocco’s large Barb horses are normally associated with the tbourida or fantasia, a cavalry display reminiscent of the region’s famous tactic of charging toward the enemy and firing gunpowder rifles in sync. These festivals happen often and are composed of large groups from the north all the way to the southernmost provinces where the horses are replaced by camels.

But mata is a singular event: tents arise in the middle of nowhere for five days and then disappear just as quietly as they were pitched. The herds of various tribes return to the villages and all that is left is the shredded turf and fresh divots from galloping hooves competing for a little white doll that symbolizes the coming of spring and fertility.

When asking Moroccans about the game, most of the time blank stares are the only answer you get from city folks. If you journey around the rural country around Tangier, people have glimmers of recognition but very little knowledge of when or where or even why the game occurs.

This past May however, I was able to witness the mysterious mata firsthand.

(Photo by Gwyneth Talley)
The young men gladly showed off their horsemanship for the camera. (Photo by Gwyneth Talley)

Riders and family from the Beni Arous, Beni Gofet, and Souk Tolba tribes gather their horses and travel to the small town of Zniyed in the foothills of the Rif Mountains.

Similar to the riding style of the Native Americans of the Great Plains, riders ride bareback on thin, young sorrel mares. When walking out to the herd before the games, I offered the young men an impromptu photo-shoot to show me the abilities of the mares. They gladly obliged, scrambling on the horses, standing on their backs, holding onto their manes, having two or three riders walk over the herd without the horse haltered or trying to bolt free from the harassment of their grazing.

During the introduction of the game, all the tribes gather, galloping their horses across the large plain showing their skills and prowess as they race each other bareback, chanting their anthems, some standing shoeless on their galloping mounts.

One group stands out, more resplendent than the others not just because they carry the mata doll, but because they have the only female rider. In her late forties, she wears a black hijab, her hands dyed with orange-colored henna, carrying the doll proudly for her tribe almost like an American barrel racing queen carrying the flag at the opening of a local rodeo. She waves to the crowds gathered clambering between her fellow riders and their mounts.

(Photo by Gwyneth Talley)
The game’s only female competitor rides in with her team, proudly lifting the game’s treasured puppet. (Photo by Gwyneth Talley)

The young men from the tribes are energetic and trim. For them, keeping their balance on their mares is as simple as sitting in Laz-E-Boy rockers—they are at ease in every way, making it look effortless.

The goal of the game is to snatch the mata puppet from your opponent and keep it until the end of the game. Think of the game as a combination of polo, wrestling, and buzkashi. Fortune favors the bolder, trim riders who race across the plains on horses that seem to never tire. If they stay on their horses and skillfully keep the doll safe, they are declared the victors.

The horses from various tribes carry no saddles, but they have red and yellow silk scarves wrapped around their necks. Most of the horses have halters and mellow snaffle bits, but everything is at a minimum. Part of the requirement for the riders is wearing the traditional costume of turbans, traditional djellaba (think of it as an old-timey male nightgown), and saffron yellow slippers made of leather.

Many of the riders lose shoes, and turbans come untied during the ride, but those incidents are minor compared to the spectacular falls off the horses that hospitalize some riders.

Until recently the game was floating adrift in Moroccan culture, occasionally being organized but nothing too official; now there is an organization that sponsors and puts together a program of activities designed to bring more people to the heart of the countryside.

With the game in its sixth year, crowds and news reporters gather to watch the spectacle in the mountains. In the evenings a stage is set for local rap stars and traditional musical groups to perform over the course of the week. With tents available to local cooperatives selling grain, leather goods, argan, and olive oil, the Association Alamia Laaroussia for Social and Cultural Action responsible for the mata festival is aiming for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage status.

The festival is meant to celebrate nature, springtime, and spirituality. With male and female riders, this long-lived game is becoming an example of tradition meets modernity. So as this crazy bareback riding tradition grows in popularity and familiarity, it might just be time to get on the horse yourself, and ride for your pride and puppet.


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