In Indonesia, Where 4-Year-Old Kids Work As Jockeys

A child jockey in Indonesia
A child jockey in Indonesia
Rebecca Henschke

EAST SUMBA â€" The island of Sumba, in southern Indonesia, is famous for its horses and regularly hosts racing festivals. In one such event last month, some 600 horses participated, as did a large number of jockeys â€" all of them children, some as young as four or five and none older than 11.

Among them is 7-year-old Ade, who doesn't even reach my waist. He's putting on a balaclava so I can only see his eyes and mouth. He's also wearing a small helmet and no shoes. He has a black eye from falling off a horse.

Ade doesn't own a horse, but he's here hoping someone will hire him as a jockey. A man has just come over and asked if Ade can work for him. He simply grabbed the boy by the arm and said, "I want to use him, I want to use him." Ade's father consented.

The horses here are small, about 1.5 meters high. But even so, Ade's father has to help his son climb onto the unfamiliar horse's bare back. "He has been working as a professional jockey since he was four years old," the father explains. "We started teaching him when he was three-and-half. Now he is seven and is a good rider."

And they're off …

"How much did you get that time?" I ask. "50,000 rupiah again," or about $5, the father replies.

After the race, he picks up his son and carries him away from the track. The boy looks tired. “If he is strong enough he will just keep going," the man tells me. "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's tired, he takes a rest."

Ade and his 9-year-old brother Enid, also a jockey, are the family breadwinners, their mother explains. "We can take home between 10 million and 50 million rupiah ($705 to $3,525) after being here for seven days at the races," she says.

That works out to about $1,000 for a week's work, a huge amount of money in Indonesia, where the minimum wage 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," the mother adds.

"Isn’t that a problem?" I ask.

"The boys understand that this is their work," she replies. "When the teacher asks them why they keep missing school to race horses, they answer, "Who would look after our mom and feed our younger brothers and sisters if we didn't?"""

Legal loophole

It is illegal for children under the age of 15 to work in Indonesia, and by law children must be 18 before they are allowed to perform hazardous jobs. But the event organizer Umbu Tamba says his races abide by the law of tradition. "This is a tradition that has been passed down from our ancestors, so we are not breaking the law," he says.

I ask whether children are being forced to do this work and whether it's unfair to them.

"Whoever says that is just trying to be provocative and cause trouble," the event organizer says. "No child is forced to be a jockey here. Yes, it's true that according to national law, underage children are not allowed to work. But this is our cultural heritage. They 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 and the job they do."

Looking ahead

It's lunchtime and Ade's family sits down in the grass in the middle of the track. An uncle wants to talk tactics. "You've got to keep the left rein tight around the bend," he says.

But Ade isn't listening. He's busy boasting about his exploits to a crowd of boys around him. "I won three times, and came second twice," he says. "Yeah, I won three times, not two times, dad!"

Ade starts pulling his father, telling him he's hungry. His mother rushes over with beef sticks in peanut sauce, noodles and rice. Ade eats first. His mother and father eat what's left over.

"I have bought cows and am building a house for the boys," says his mother. "I am worried that when they get older they will ask me where the money they earned is. So that's why I have bought cattle for them and am building them a house. And if they want to go to 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," he says, laughing. "I want to fire a gun. I want to use a weapon. Pow, pow pow!"

Local medicine

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.

His mom rushes over to him. At first, I think she's kissing him on the head, but I'm told later that she's blowing the evil spirits away.

Ade seems to have hurt his leg. I ask whether they will take him to the hospital. "No, we never take them to hospital," his mother says. "If the leg is broken, we have to use local medicine. At the hospital, if they can't heal the leg they will straight away cut it off. That's what hospital people do. But that's not our way."

Ade pulls himself up and can walk. This time he has just bruised his legs. I ask his father if he's afraid to let the boy ride again. "We are used to it," he says. "This is our tradition, and way of life, so we don't have a feeling of being scared or worried anymore."

The father explains that Ade has fallen several times and broken various bones. "The more pain he feels, the braver he becomes."

Safety vs. tradition

Better safety conditions for child jockeys are actually something the local government has been looking into. Gidion Mbilijora is the regency head of East Sumba. "I have asked the organizers to pay more attention to the children's safety and also told them they must pay the jockeys a decent fee," he says.

"But according to Indonesian law, getting children under the age of 15 to work is against the law," I point out. "And here you have children as young as four and five working as jockeys."

"Yes, there are jockeys who are four and five," Mbilijora replies. "And yes, it's true that there is that law. But this falls into the category of local tradition. The government has to view this as part of cultural identity and tradition."

I press the official with another question. "I have met with children who have fallen off horses and broken their legs and split their heads open," I say. "What would you do if the central government insisted that this has to end?"

"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. Farmers incomes go up when there is a horse race on."

Back at the race, another horse owner comes over and tries to get Ade to ride again. But for the first time, he refuses. He looks exhausted and cuddles up to his uncle. "I've had enough," Ade says.

The day of racing comes to a close. Ade runs around the empty field trying to catch crickets. Some of the other child jockeys break out in a dance. Now they are free to be children. At least until tomorrow.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!