Here's a Ryukyu tradition straight from horse’s hooves on Okinawa

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

You may be hard press to find the thrill and wagering of stateside horse racing on Okinawa. There is, however, a horse of a different color.

In recent years, the 500-year-old Ryukyu Keiba, or “umaharashii,” has made a comeback. In traditional umaharashii races, horses compete not only in speed but also in beauty and elegance.

The key to this competition is “sokutaiho,” a rhythmic running style in which the left legs of the horse move simultaneously in tandem with the right legs. During a race, jockeys often showcases how smoothly their steeds are running by holding the bridle in one hand and a cup filled with sake in the other without spilling it.

This traditional equine sport was very popular throughout the Ryukyu Islands until its sudden demise in 1943 as a result of World War II.

In 2013, 70 years later, Okinawans were able to finally bring back umaharashii by successfully training five native horses at Okinawa Zoo & Museum in Okinawa City. It’s a rare feat that only a very few horses can master, according to the zoo’s Hajime Onaga.

“It is very hard for a horse to master this running style, and only a couple of horses can do that today,” he says.

According to Onaga, the zoo has so far hosted eight umaharashii races since 2013. Currently, races are scheduled for three times a year in March, June and October.

“We will continue to train horses for umaharashii to keep this important local tradition alive for the next generation,” Onaga says.

For more information on Umaharashii, call Okinawa Zoo & Museum at 098-933-4190 or visit:

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