An Afghan man rides his horse before leaving for the game of "buzkashi," Afghanistan's national sport, at a horse market in Kabul, Afghanistan.
A scrum of 150 horse riders fighting over a headless carcass might look chaotic, but Afghan "buzkashi" players insist their sport demands skill and guile as well as brute force.
At the biggest tournament of the season, held in Mazar-i-Sharif to celebrate the Afghan New Year, riders explained that the best horses understand the rules of the game and enjoy the excitement despite all the dangers.
The action is fast and furious as riders wrestle over the dead calf, trying to grab it and then charge across the dusty pitch, swerve around a pole and drop the animal into a chalk circle.
Players often hold their whips between their teeth, or use them to hit other competitors as much as their horses. The area of play is flexible and spectators flee as they try to avoid getting caught up in the fray.
The game in Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday, the climax of the buzkashi calendar, was set against a backdrop of the snow-peaked Hindu Kush mountains on one side and a huge bakery built during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
"There are a lot of techniques to buzkashi," Mirwais Hootkhil, a veteran competitor who hails from a famous family of players, told AFP.
"For example, this big horse does things that other horses can't do," he said as he stood where the horses are prepared before the game. "When we grab the carcass, he knows what to do.
Afghan horsemen competing for a veal carcass during a game of 'buzkashi' in celebration of Nowruz in northern Mazar-i Sharif, the centre of Afghanistan's New Year. AFP
"But he's so big that he can't be used to pick up the carcass from the ground. So we pick up the carcass with a smaller horse, and we give it to the person who's riding this one."
Buzkhasi players certainly have to be talented horsemen, as they stay balanced at high speeds and must remain onboard despite rivals trying to push them to the ground.
"When I was born, my father took me home on a horse," said Hootkhil. "I married the daughter of a chapendaz (buzkashi rider). I have 15 children and my five boys want to become chapendaz too.
"It's a great sport for us. I'm from a family of chapendaz. It's a great honour for me."
Hootkhil, who is coy about his age, retains the film star looks of his youth, but buzkashi takes its toll.
Afghan horsemen compete for a veal carcass during a game of 'buzkashi' in celebration of Nowruz in northern Mazar-i Sharif, the centre of Afghanistan's New Year. AFP
The little finger of his right hand is badly twisted after many breaks, and he admits that these days he does not ride in the thick of the action, instead shouting advice from the fringes.
"Now I'm a farmer and a trainer for other people," he said. "During buzkashi, I've seen men breaking their legs, their arms, their head. I'm seen people and horses dying on the field, but I have never been afraid."
For Haji Saleh Mohammad, 65, who owns some of the best horses competing in Friday's game, buzkashi -- which was banned under the 1996-2001 hardline Taliban regime -- is the ultimate test of the Afghan male.
"When I look at my horse for just five minutes, it is worth one million dollars." he said. "It's a very tough out there and you need skills.
"This sport is a religion. As a man, you need to have a rifle, a horse and a woman. The last of those three things I would get rid of is my horse."
The New Year game in Mazar-i-Sharif attracted thousands of spectators despite fears of insurgent attack after a suicide bomber killed several people at a game in Kunduz province earlier this month.
Afghan spectators watch horsemen compete for a veal carcass during a game of 'buzkashi' in celebration of Nowruz in northern Mazar-i Sharif. AFP
Players compete for individual as well as team glory, and the overall winner, after scoring five times, was Najibullah, a huge 24-year-old man in a fur hat who is paid to play by a wealthy general during the November-to-April season.
Najibullah's hard-fought victory had required raw aggression, horsemanship and a fierce competitive instinct, but he said the game itself was a symbol of peace and harmony in a nation decimated by decades of war.
"I'm happy. I'm proud but not overwhelmed. I don't show off," he said. "If we can play buzkashi, it shows that there's some peace in the country".