Sur­viv­ing the Mon­gol Derby

Prac­ti­cal Horse­man’s as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor’s once-in-a-life­time quest to com­plete the long­est, tough­est horse race on the planet: the Mon­gol Derby

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Jo­ce­lyn Pierce

Prac’s As­so­ci­ate Ed­i­tor Jo­ce­lyn Pierce set out on a once-in-a-life­time quest to com­plete the long­est, tough­est horse race on the planet and lived to tell about it.

My short-necked chest­nut mount darted left around a tuft of shrubby grass, then right, to­tally out of con­trol and gain­ing mo­men­tum. He stum­bled in the soft earth, fell to his knees and grazed his nose on the ground. With­out miss­ing a beat, he picked him­self up and was off and run­ning at break­neck speed again. It was at that mo­ment that I re­al­ized my girth was loose. Grit­ting my teeth and silently curs­ing, I grabbed mane and clung for dear life onto my fifth horse of the day. Even­tu­ally, the ground flat­tened out and, by main­tain­ing equal weight in my stir­rups, I was able to keep the sad­dle cen­tered. His fre­netic gal­lop soon be­came an easy can­ter. In the fad­ing light, I glanced at my watch and squinted at the hori­zon. We needed to find a place to stay for the night, and we needed to find it now.

It was the third day of the Mon­gol Derby, and al­ready I had bro­ken my GPS de­vice, been dragged on the ground by a barely 13-hand stal­lion, out­run vi­cious dogs and found my­self fall­ing in line with an un­ex­pected group of rid­ing com­pan­ions.

The an­nual Mon­gol Derby is known as the

long­est and tough­est horse race on the planet for good rea­son. Some 40-odd com­peti­tors ride semi-wild horses over 600 miles across moun­tains, flood­plains and open steppe, us­ing their own nav­i­ga­tion. Loosely based on Genghis Khan’s horse mes­sen­ger net­work, which con­nected the largest con­tigu­ous land em­pire in his­tory, rid­ers swap their tired horses for fresh ones roughly every 25 miles at horse sta­tions, or ur­tuus.

Af­ter my ap­pli­ca­tion to com­pete in the race was ac­cepted, I delved into the par­tic­u­lars. I would carry a vet card de­tail­ing when I ar­rived at and left each ur­tuu, as well as each of my 29 horses’ heart rates and over­all con­di­tion. Equine wel­fare is para­mount in the derby. Every horse must reach a heart rate of 56 beats per minute or lower within a half-hour of ar­riv­ing at the ur­tuu. Horses are also checked for lame­ness, sad­dle sores and hy­dra­tion lev­els. If one of my mounts failed to meet these re­quire­ments, I would serve a two-hour penalty for the first of­fense, three hours for the se­cond of­fense, four hours for the third and dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion for the fourth. I could also rack up time penal­ties by get­ting help from the race crew or go­ing be­yond the pre­scribed rid­ing pe­riod be­tween 6:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. I would be limited to car­ry­ing 11 pounds of gear. With the ex­cep­tion of those few rules, I would have the free­dom to do as I chose: bunk down at the ur­tuus or sleep out un­der the stars; fol­low the sug­gested race route or try my hand at that “short­cut” through the moun­tain pass; carry all my gear on my back or shove it into a sad­dle­bag.

I pre­pared for the derby over the bet- ter part of a year. Grow­ing up rid­ing at a small breed­ing and train­ing barn, I learned at a young age to sad­dle-break ba­bies and re­train prob­lem horses. But in re­cent years, the ex­tent of my rid­ing had been a daily hour-long ride on my even­ter. I knew I needed more sad­dle time, so I took up en­durance with some Mary­land lo­cals. My regime also in­cluded run­ning up moun­tains and a re­li­gious at­ten­dance of spin and barre classes. When I wasn’t train­ing or pick­ing the brains of past derby com­peti­tors, I ob­sessed over gear re­views and ex­tra med­i­cal cov­er­age. Even so, upon ar­riv­ing in Mon­go­lia and look­ing around start camp, I re­al­ized that, like me, none of the 40 of 44 com­peti­tors tak­ing a stab at the derby for the first time knew what lay ahead, and noth­ing we had done could ad­e­quately pre­pare us.

We spent three days at start camp, sit­ting through med­i­cal brief­ings and mem­o­riz­ing pro­to­cols. More im­por­tantly, we were in­tro­duced to the Mon­go­lian horse. Though small, Mon­gol horses are scrappy, shrewd and not to be dis­counted. They’ve re­mained largely un­changed since Genghis Khan’s time, liv­ing in huge, semi-feral herds and sur­viv­ing an un­for­giv­ing land­scape and cli­mate, where win­ter tem­per­a­tures can plum­met to -40F. Though tough, they are flighty. Be­cause they have lit­tle hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and must fend for them­selves, their re­sponses to stim­uli are more in­tense than those of a do­mes­ti­cated horse. Things that we take for granted in the U.S., like a

sim­ple pat on the neck, can send Mon­gol horses into a com­plete frenzy. Mount­ing and dis­mount­ing may be the hard­est part about rid­ing them—you never quite know what’s go­ing to hap­pen as you put one foot in the stir­rup and swing your leg over. They tend to be on their own agenda, and so once you are on, you’re bet­ter off just go­ing along for the ride and try­ing not to con­trol them too much—or at least that was my ap­proach.

And We’re Off!

As I waited at the start line, ev­ery­where around me horses were spin­ning and shoot­ing for­ward. I strug­gled to keep my stout geld­ing quiet be­tween the white start flags flap­ping in the wind while Mon­gol Derby Chief Katy Willings re­cited some “in­spi­ra­tional” quotes about the ad­ven­ture we were about to em­bark upon. “Ev­ery­body has a plan un­til they get punched in the mouth,” Katy stated point­edly in her usual wry tone, cit­ing Mike Tyson.

I thought about how we’d al­ready been “punched” once—be­fore the race even started. The day be­fore, on the of­fi­cial start date, all 44 rid­ers had fi­nally mounted and were head­ing to the start line when the race was sud­denly post­poned. Later, we learned that the last-minute call-off was for good rea­son: The satel­lites that com­mu­ni­cate with the SPOT track­ers the derby crew uses to keep tabs on rid­ers had sud­denly, and for the first time ever, cut out.

Once the start­ing gun was fired, my horse soon be­gan mak­ing head­way from the back of the pack, weav­ing in and out of the oth­ers and gal­lop­ing along with a man­nerly pro­fes­sion­al­ism that I did not yet fully ap­pre­ci­ate. Dur­ing start camp, derby veteran Mad­die Smith, of San Fran­cisco, Cal­i­for­nia, and I had made a plan to ride to­gether, and we quickly set­tled into a rou­tine of breez­ing through ur­tuus, fill­ing up our wa­ter packs and shov­ing hard bread rolls into our pock­ets. For the most part, our first day went smoothly and, as it quickly came to a close, we set­tled on stay­ing with a fam­ily about 2 miles short of ur­tuu 4 with fel­low derby com­peti­tors Michael Turner, a na­tive Cal­i­for­nian who now leads African sa­faris in Botswana, Irish­man J.D. Moore and the youngest rider, 18-year-old Saif Noon, of Pak­istan. Feel­ing the pain of hav­ing rid­den 85 miles that day, we hob­bled into the ger, a por­ta­ble, round-shaped dwelling, and still soaked from the af­ter­noon’s thun­der­storm, did some pa­thetic stretches in the tight quar­ters. Al­ready, my 10-year vege­tar­ian diet was out the win­dow as our hosts handed us bowls of soup, which I ea­gerly slurped down, chunks of goat meat and all.

The next morn­ing, on our way to ur­tuu 5, Mad­die pulled out her GPS, and her seem­ingly docile horse swerved to the side and bucked, throw­ing her and bolt­ing for the hills. Ini­tially, Mad­die thought she was fine—noth­ing but a lit­tle bump and a brush with derby dis­as­ter. But as the adren­a­line wore off, she re­al­ized she wasn’t and pressed the help but­ton on her SPOT tracker to get checked out by the med­i­cal crew. Af­ter re­luc­tant good­byes, Mike and I car­ried on and con­tin­ued rid­ing to­gether through the se­cond day. Days later, we learned that Mad­die suf­fered a dis­lo­cated shoul­der and frac­tured ribs, end­ing her goal to com­plete the derby for the se­cond time.

Dogs, Dawdlers and Mon­go­lian Hos­pi­tal­ity

The wind blurred my vi­sion as I un­know­ingly ca­reened to­ward a bog. I glanced over my shoul­der at the sharp teeth snap­ping closer and closer to my right foot, as Mike shouted to me just in time, “Turn right!” Yank­ing on the rein to­ward the frothy-mouthed ca­nine tow­ing 4 feet of heavy­duty chain be­hind him, I man­aged to skirt the bog in a flat-out gal­lop, gain­ing enough speed to out­run the dog that made Cujo look like your granny’s bi­chon frise.

Mike and I were mak­ing good ground through the se­cond day, and it didn’t take long for me to re­al­ize that hav­ing a rid­ing com­pan­ion def­i­nitely has its ad­van­tages. You can look out for each other—for in­stance, let your friend know her horse is about to go into a bog, help catch your part­ner’s horse af­ter he is bucked off or just

serve as some­one to laugh with about the to­tally un­be­liev­able predica­ment you just sur­vived.

On the morn­ing of Day 3, Mike and I had our first en­counter with the most frus­trat­ing cat­e­gory of Mon­gol horses—dawdlers. (Sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, I knew we were bound to get a mix of first-rate mounts, cer­ti­fi­ably in­sane ones and, worst of all, dawdlers.) Mike and I could barely get our horses to move much faster than a slow jog. This might be de­sir­able for a leisurely hack around the sta­ble yard, but in the Mon­gol Derby it is noth­ing short of pure agony. Twenty-five miles of coax­ing, kick­ing and “choo-choo-ing” (the Mon­go­lian equiv­a­lent of a cluck) takes a toll on rid­ers quickly. Luck­ily, an­other group of rid­ers caught up to us: the Aus­tralian polo­play­ing Archibald broth­ers—Rob, Ed and Jack—and their cousin Henry Bell. This thun­der­ing herd of horses gave our two plod­ders the in­cen­tive to get go­ing.

The six of us con­tin­ued with­out a hitch through the rest of the day, and with about 45 min­utes left on the day’s clock, we cruised in and out of ur­tuu 11, pass­ing sev­eral rid­ers serv­ing vet penal­ties. Af­ter a fren­zied, 10-mile gal­lop on my new “flyer” (the one with the afore­men­tioned loose girth), we came across three gers by a river. Our good luck con­tin­ued as we learned that the gers’ res­i­dents owned three of our six horses. The fam­ily took over their care and set us up in a ger, where we spent a serendip­i­tous even­ing eat­ing, laugh­ing, mim­ing and drink­ing Mon­go­lian vodka with them.

Days 1 and 2 had been a learn­ing curve on how to move through ur­tuus quickly, which horses to se­lect and how much you could push them. By the end of Day 3, the Archibald clan, Mike and I got into a rhythm. We stayed in can­ter as much as pos­si­ble, read­ing the horses and giv­ing them walk breaks as needed, de­pend­ing on their fit­ness and the ter­rain. We spent as much time in the sad­dle as rid­ing hours al­lowed. This meant if we got into a sta­tion with at least 45 min­utes left on the clock, we would ride out again in the hopes of find­ing a host fam­ily along the way. Not only was this a suc­cess­ful rac­ing strat­egy, but stay­ing with the fam­i­lies we chanced upon re­sulted in some of my fa­vorite derby mem­o­ries.

One of the things that struck me the most about this coun­try was how, time and time again, the Mon­go­lian peo­ple came to our res­cue with a true will­ing­ness to help to­tal strangers. In what other place in the world could you walk up to some­one’s house, not speak the lan­guage, look to­tally dif­fer­ent and know that, with­out a doubt, they would gladly take you in, feed you, feed your horses and let you sleep un­der the same roof? It’s truly mag­i­cal. And I’m not just talk­ing about the four fam­i­lies who hosted us overnight dur­ing the derby; we re­ceived help all along the way—that we didn’t even ask for. Like on Day 6, when Mike had, as he called it, “a bit of a slide and a dis­mount” when his horse stepped in a mar­mot hole and stum­bled, break­ing

the girth in the process. We all dis­mounted and were stand­ing on the side of the road while Mike tried to re­pair his girth with zip ties, when a fa­ther with his three young sons (driv­ing past with two horses in the bed of a pickup truck) stopped to help us. He wanted noth­ing in re­turn other than a hand­shake and a pat on the back.

A Race to the Fin­ish

On the night of Day 7, ly­ing only part­way on my sleep­ing pad, I woke up to the sound of a down­pour with a pit in my stom­ach from a dream: I was mounted on a sil­verygray geld­ing, and we were som­er­sault­ing down a big, grassy hill. Rolling over on the sleep­ing pad in a ger at ur­tuu 28, I drifted back into fit­ful dreams of crash­ing with just the fi­nal leg—a mere 18 miles—to go.

The next morn­ing, my gloves couldn’t grasp the slip­pery suede reins as my horse gal­loped down a steep and slick slope in the rain, throw­ing clumps of mud be­hind us, his neck out­stretched, his nose nearly touch­ing the ground. I shut my eyes tightly for a mo­ment, think­ing back to my dream just hours be­fore. Then I took a deep breath, pushed my legs way out in front of me and leaned back. I was on a naadam, or race­horse—one of my best horses of the whole derby—and we were in a dead heat against an­other rider to the fin­ish line. We hadn’t seen any other rid­ers for three or four days when Va­le­ria Ariza, of Uruguay, caught up to our group com­ing into ur­tuu 28, the last sta­tion be­fore the fin­ish line, at the end of Day 7. We’d had an ami­able even­ing, swap­ping sto­ries and shar­ing a ger. But now, Va­le­ria and the six of us were in a heart-pump­ing dash to the fin­ish.

From the out­set of our fi­nal leg, it was clear it would be a rac­ing fin­ish be­tween our team and Va­le­ria. This leg’s horses were so fast and fit that we cov­ered the 18 miles in about an hour and 15 min­utes. For me, it was an hour-and-15-minute white-knuck­led ride up and down hills with plenty of op­por­tu­nity for som­er­sault­ing. Right up un­til the end there were four of us close to over­tak­ing Va­le­ria, but two of the horses in our group weren’t quite as fit and fell be­hind. We pulled up and waited so we could cross to­gether. Well—ac­tu­ally—I couldn’t pull up, but Jack turned his horse sharply to the left in front of me, caus­ing my horse to slam into his like we were in a de­mo­li­tion derby. This, for all in­tents and pur­poses, got the job done. Rob, Ed, Jack, Henry, Mike and I fin­ished in equal ninth place—at 8 a.m. on the morn­ing of Day 8, 170 hours and 28 ur­tuus af­ter be­gin­ning this ad­ven­ture—and later re­ceived the Best Team Award.

Tom Mor­gan, the man re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing the Mon­gol Derby in 2009, told us dur­ing pre-race train­ing that the derby was “an ad­ven­ture first, com­pe­ti­tion se­cond,” and he was right. It was a race with a lot of un­knowns and what-ifs, and I couldn’t be hap­pier with the way things turned out. I left Mon­go­lia with the sat­is­fac­tion of fin­ish­ing the derby in the top 10 with no vet penal­ties, but more im­por­tantly, with five new friends, a greater un­der­stand­ing of Mon­go­lian horse cul­ture and no­madic life—and a lot of wild sto­ries to share.

Friends, fam­ily and ac­quain­tances have asked me if I would do it again. I’m not so sure about that, but there’s a ru­mor that a sim­i­lar race in Patag­o­nia is in the works, and I cer­tainly have my eye on it.

Thanks to Mane ‘N Tail and Smart Pak, who spon­sored the so­cial-me­dia cov­er­age of Jo­ce­lyn’s Mon­gol Derby ad­ven­ture.

A Mon­go­lian man and his three sons stop to help Michael Turner re­pair his bro­ken girth.

ABOVE: From left: Ed and Jack Archibald, Michael Turner, Jo­ce­lyn, Henry Bell and Rob Archibald.

LEFT: It is the rid­ers’ re­spon­si­bil­ity to wa­ter and graze their horses dur­ing each leg, and vet­eri­nar­i­ans check for gut sounds and hy­dra­tion lev­els at every ur­tuu.IN­SET: A Mon­go­lian fam­ily pre­pares a meal for rid­ers.

TOP: The team of six cross the fin­ish line to­gether, ty­ing for ninth place.

ABOVE:Jo­ce­lyn and Ed cel­e­brate com­plet­ing the Mon­gol Derby on Day 8.

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