National spirit: The Azerbaijani sport that makes horse sense

    CNN's On the Road series brings you a greater insight into countries around the world. This time we travel to Azerbaijan in the lead up to the European Games to explore the culture of sports in the country sitting on the Caspian Sea.

    (CNN)It's the Azerbaijani national sport, recognized for its rich cultural significance and inextricably linked with the country's favorite animal -- but playing it is not for the faint-hearted.

    Welcome to Chovgan, a forerunner of polo. Its roots can be traced back to the middle of the first millennium, and it doesn't have any frills.
    Although the basic rules are pretty much the same as those of polo, there are no helmets or safety gear for players. Chovgan is a game of skill but, more than anything else, it is one of courage.

      Karabakh stallions

        Players ride Karabakh stallions -- mountain steppe racing and riding horses noted for their speed and stamina and unique to Azerbaijan -- often without saddles.
        Pickup games between village teams remain common, with working farm horses taking a break from their labors to do a little sporting duty.
        But the key trait of Chovgan, those who know and play it say, is the sort of attitude and bravery that are needed to shine.
        "People who are a little bit afraid of some action in life cannot do this," Bahruz Nabiyev, the head of Azerbaijan's Equestrian Federation, says.

        A long history

        Nabiyev explains just how deeply the sport is embedded in the life of the country. "This is part of the history of Azerbaijan," he adds. "Every Azerbaijani person has a kind of love for the horses because of the history.
        "It was a hobby for the people --