BIMA, Indonesia, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Bareback jockey Herman Sarifudin guides his horse into the starting box for a race on Indonesia's Sumbawa island. The gate springs open and the horse bolts with Sarifudin clinging on for dear life.
Sarifudin is eight years old.
He's one of dozens of children taking part in the races. The horses are small, often standing just 1.20 metres (4 feet) tall. But even so, fathers have to help their children clamber on to them.
Sarifudin competed this week in a race against five other children around a dusty, oval track of 1,400 meters (nearly one mile) near Bima town. His reward, if he wins, is a handful of cash for his family, and the glory for him.
He was nervous before the race but once it got going, he and the other barefoot riders looked in control, urging their horses forward with a flick of a switch to the flanks.
In the end, Sarifudin came in third. He told Reuters he felt drained.
Mohammad Amin is a district government official who keeps horses as a hobby. He has 12 of them.
The children are light, that's why they're the jockeys, he explains.
"Children learn to ride horses from the age of five," he said.
About 2,000 cheering spectators crowded around the track and no one let laws against gambling spoil the fun.
Hami, a grandfather, was desperate to sell off his nearly new Nokia mobile telephone phone so he could put some money down.
Hajji Sukri, 45, chairman of the race organising team scoffed at the danger. The children were all skilful riders and none had been killed, and none seriously hurt, he said.
One child toppled off on to the dusty track at a recent race. His father quickly picked him up and carried him off, in tears.
"It's OK to fall off a horse," said taxi driver Irwansyah.
"My concern is that they should be in school, not racing horses. They can miss school for 10 days for just one event."
The races have been held at the end of the rice-harvesting season ever since anyone can remember.
Horses are used throughout Indonesia, an archipelago of about 17,000 islands that straddles the equator, more often for pulling carts and buggies than for riding.
This year, the races near Bima lasted for 11 days and attracted nearly 600 horses, many from the nearby islands of Sumba, Bali, Lombok and Flores.
The grand prize was one million rupiah ($100). Those who win their groups get two cows.
One of the young stars this year was 11-year-old Mohammad Endiansyah, known as Endi, who has taken a two-month break from school for the racing season.
The punters say he's a great rider, an expert at handling the horses. His father, Asikin, said he earned 15 million rupiah ($1,500) in the last two months from different races.
"A horse is like a friend," Endi said. "I've fallen, been sick and cried but no horse has ever stepped on me".
Endhi said he wanted to be a policeman when he grows up.
"But I'd also like to be a professional jockey," he said. ($1 = 9,633.0000 rupiah)
Editing by Matthew Bigg and Elaine Lies