The hus is a pre-Christian ritual tradition, formerly held to ask the deities for rain, a good harvest or other bounty. Horseman sport the distinctive tilangga hats and ikat cloth, and the horse’s mane, tail and head are decorated; these days with crepe paper and strips of plastic. A woven pandan mat is used in place of a saddle and there are no stirrups. Originally the riders would circle a large tree that was believed to hold secret powers, while today they circle a dusty oval with a few sticks and string to mark the track. Horsemen representing different clans would approach the arena from each cardinal point (representing specific powers) and circle the tree at a fast pace. While riding they whipped their horses and themselves with the thorny young shoots of the lontar palm until blood was drawn. Drawing first blood was considered highly auspicious. Each clan would present a young coconut to be split by the priest, with the coconut water hitting the earth representing coming rains.
With the domination of Christianity on the island, the hus has become a spectacle rather than spiritual tradition, held at any time and place. The breaking of the coconut tradition is forbidden as “black magic”and the flagellation has been replaced by a less bloody test of speed and form. The rules appear very loose, and the winners of each round are difficult for the uninitiated to distinguish. Races are based on maintaining a specific gait or outright speed, with prizes awarded for best decorated horse and rider. Lively gong music is played to arouse greater speed and bravery, and the crowd cheers with high pitched yips and yodels that western men find impossible to replicate. Tourists are encouraged to have a ride, with inevitable spills into the dust as six foot Aussies drag their feet beside the squat Timor ponies. As far as I am aware, there has never been a female rider, and with my complete lack of horsewomanship, I won’t be the first.
Thanks for Libby House of the Lualemba Indigo Foundation for organizing this year’s local hus and providing information about the tradition.