A a remote field in Bradford rumbles as a rider, resplendent in a stark white shalwar kameez, pistachio-coloured waistcoat, turban and fan billowing upwards like peacock feathers, gallops on his horse towards a picket sunk into the ground. As the rider thunders closer to his target, he lowers a long spear, impaling the ankle seconds later with a jubilant roar. “Four points, clap! shouts a commentator in Urdu.
Teams from across the country – all from the Pakistani diaspora – have come together to compete in a nationwide neza bazi, or tent pegging, competition. It is a centuries-old cavalry sport renowned throughout South Asia and becoming increasingly popular in the UK.
“Today you would think so many British Pakistanis have horses,” said Sohail Hussain, an enthusiast. “It’s only because we’re all from the UK and neza bazi is starting to get popular.”
The majority of British Pakistanis in West Yorkshire originate from Mirpur in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Tent picketing is extremely popular within this community. “Back home [in Pakistan], everyone has horses,” Hussain said. “My grandfather, my great-great-grandfather, they were all passionate about horses.”
Some claim that the origins of neza bazi date back to the time of Alexander the Great or the Persian Empire. But historical records identify its practice in the Indian cavalry during the British Raj, when it was used as a military tactic to raid tents.
“They would send in their elite team of tent picket cavalry to take out the pickets, collapse the tents, create confusion,” said Jem Pearce, spokesman for the British Tentpegging Association. “They would all be asleep and stuck inside the tents. Then the infantry would finish them off, and they didn’t know what hit them.
Adopted by the British cavalry in India, it eventually evolved into a competitive sport played in colonial gymkhanas, elite clubs that were once the heart of British social life in South Asia.
Today, tent picketing is an established military sport practiced by the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment of the British Army. It even has its own World Cup, with October 27 designated as International Tent Picket Day by the Oman-based International Tent Picket Federation.
The sport requires skill and practice. “You have to hone your hand-eye coordination, your relationship with your horse,” Pearce said.
Hussain, a fraud investigator for the government, was introduced to the equestrian world by a fraternity of British-Pakistani enthusiasts.
He rents a stable on a farm in Batley which has a riding school for children, including those with learning and physical difficulties. There, Hussain and his friends found support from owners, as well as sanctuary for their horses.
After shoveling manure from his stable, Hussain cheerfully tries to hug his horse Faaris (Urdu for “night”), an imposing Spanish gelding. Summer bleached Faaris’ normally shiny ebony coat a deep brown. “I always wanted a Lloyds TSB horse, and I got one,” Hussain said, launching into the operatic tune of the announcement.
“Animals are beautiful creatures, you get so much peace from them,” he said. “With the way the world is today and all the crazy stuff, you can come here and everything slows down.”
When he first bought a horse three years ago, Hussain and his friends struggled to find stables at the many white British-owned farms around nearby Batley, an experience he says was influenced by subtle racism.
He laughed as he remembered a farmer he was stabled with who viewed him and his friends with suspicion. “A lot of us are hard working guys and we have nice cars,” Hussain said. “But they thought we were doing drugs in there or something.”
For Faisal Qadir, horseback riding became a lifeline for his mental health when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament while playing football almost two years ago. “Horse riding has definitely helped me a lot,” he said. “It put my mind in a better place, and not just my mind. Physically, I’m much fitter.
As he drove a scared horse back to a trailer with a friend, Qadir added, “I’m so much calmer with horses.”
Qadir heard about the tent anchoring seven months ago, from a group of British Pakistani enthusiasts who were worried about his mental health. It was not just his Pakistani heritage, but also the importance of horses in Saudi Arabia 1,400 years ago, when a nascent Islam emerged, that also drew him to horses and eventually the anchorage of tents.
“I didn’t know this sport existed,” he said. “The moment I saw what it was, I decided I had to get involved.”
At the competition in Bradford, the horses shimmer with gold-embroidered saddles and Pakistan-stitched reins, pounding the ground relentlessly as they prepare to gallop. Clogs jingle to the sound of bells as some perform the Spanish trot to the sound of dhol drums and a Tutni flute, while the union jack, the Pakistani flag and the flag of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir flutter in the above the crowd.
“You could literally die doing this sport in a split second,” says Hussain. But for young Anglo-Pakistani men like him, tent-pitching is much more than a sport. “It’s like I unlocked something in my DNA that I was meant to do,” he said.