Wild ride is just the beginning Heading back to tough race
SHORT hooves, a kind eye and something that looked like it was ready to run.
Those were a few of the features Kathy Gabriel looked for when picking a semi-wild horse for the Mongol Derby – a 10-day race that stretches 1000km across the vast country.
“But basically… I was just looking for something that wouldn’t kill me,” she joked.
This year, Kathy, who is the rural personality behind popular, and often humorous, Facebook page Experience Australian Agriculture, pooled much of her resources into competing in the iconic race.
She was injured on day three, after a fiery ride on a bolting horse that only came to a stop with the aid of two handy Mongolian horseman, and eventually pulled out by day five from a shoulder injury.
Despite this, she is determined to save again for the $18,000 entry fee and take the risk riding half-broke foreign horses.
She has been accepted for the 2020 race and she thinks she can win it.
“Bloody oath I think I can win it,” she said.
“There is a lot of ifs and buts to this race and anything can happen, but people have won it who you wouldn’t expect. I think I have every chance of winning it. That’s what my aim will be when I head over there.”
The last time the Rural Weekly caught up with Kathy she was working on Eva Downs Station in the Northern Territory.
She has dedicated most of her life to working with horses, and now manages a cattle property near Benambra in the Victorian High Country.
She first heard about the race when she was working in the northern beef industry and word spread that Will Comiskey, a horseman from Dingo, Queensland, won the race.
“Through Facebook I learnt of a few Territorians who competed in the derby – one was Jodie Ward from Katherine,” she said.
“I looked into it and just knew it would be mind-blowing to be part of.”
Kathy is crowd-sourcing some of the fees needed to compete. She is also hunting for a major sponsor, and when she reaches that target, her race will then fundraise for a Mongolian charity dear to her heart.
She is already hard at work prepping for the 2020 race, and thinks the skills she gained from this year’s competition, which commenced in August, will give her an edge.
“Anyone who has done the derby will tell you the most difficult part is picking a horse,” she said.
When riders complete a race leg, they walk up and down a line of about 40 horses to choose their mount. During the race they will ride between 25 and 28 horses.
“The basic thing you look for is a horse that looks fit,” she said.
“I would look at their hooves, because they don’t shoe their horses or trim them, so the shorter their hooves means they have been ridden more.
“If they are fitter they will be able to go further and faster, and, hopefully they will be quiet.”
Kathy also heeded advice she learnt from campdrafters and looked for a mount that had “a kind eye”.
It became a balancing act – trying to select a horse that looked both safe and fast. Her main goal was to complete the next leg as quickly as possible.
“If you pick a fat, quiet one, you might end up walking the whole leg, so instead of it taking two-and-half to three hours, it might take you six or seven hours.”
All horses are vet checked before they have a run, and vetted again when they reach the next checkpoint; strict penalties are given to competitors if their horses don’t pass the vet’s requirements.
Kathy said she rode some “absolutely beautiful” horses that were smooth and responsive to her directions, but she also had some wild ones.
On day three, the last horse she rode proved to be a handful.
“I picked the horse, they
saddled it up, and one of the Mongolian herders jumped on it for me and it rode around beautifully,” she said.
“So I kitted up, swung my leg over and it was like the fear of god was injected into this horse.
“We just bolted straight out of that camp.
“Maybe he didn’t like the way I looked or smelt, but this particular leg was 36km long and this horse did not stop once.”
It was a wild ride. Kathy said the horse bucked, shied, fell in holes then bolted – on repeat – the whole way.
It sounds terrifying, but she was laughing recalling the tale.
“I came into the next horse station with a cloud of dust behind me and two Mongolian herders had to chase after me to stop my horse,” she said.
Her adrenalin was pumping so it wasn’t until the next day she realised there was pain in her shoulder.
Day four went well, and she picked a fantastic horse that was a smooth ride, but her pain only worsened.
It wasn’t until the medic, who she describes as an experienced “Bulgarian military man”, examined her that she conceded she would have to withdraw.
“I had a football-sized swelling on my neck and shoulder blade,” she said.
Although it all sounds crazy, and Kathy has been told she is mad for re-entering, she stressed the race was conducted in the utmost professional way.
Riders are fitted with state-of-the-art GPS technology and can hit a button that will shut the race down and alert authorities if they need to be rescued.
She also praised the vets, medics and translators as being second to none. And although the horses are half-wild, she believes she has the skills to handle them.
“Their horses are between 12 and 13 hands,” she said.
“Because they are quite small, it gives you a better sense of control and safety. So with all of them, I felt I was able to pull them round into a one-rein stop.”
Kathy also said competitors could request a Mongolian herder to ride a horse before they stepped on themselves.
“If the horse does carry on and buck with them, they think it’s great fun,” she said.
“They are truly brilliant horse people.”
After her withdrawal, Kathy grabbed her big camera, and on a good dose of painkillers, and travelled with a crew following the race to capture pictures.
This experience made her fall in love with the Mongolian people and culture.
“They are the most warm, accommodating and friendly people – and this whole race benefits the Mongolian herders,” she said.
“They are not rich people, but they live rich lives. They aren’t poverty stricken because they are so good at making do with what they have.
“The thing you have to understand with the entry fee is, all the money goes back to the Mongolian families. So every horse you pick, they get paid a fee. So if a herder donates 10 to 15 horses into the race, from that, he might earn more than a year’s salary.”
During the race, competitors eat traditional food and Kathy said the dishes mostly consisted of eating goat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The other thing we were given was mare’s milk. If you were lucky you would get cow’s or goat’s milk, but most of the time it was mare’s milk.”
She describes it as being a bizarre-tasting white substance you just had to force down.
“It was really salty,” she said.
“When you have a cup of tea it was like having a teaspoon of salt in it, instead of a teaspoon of sugar.”
The charity Kathy has picked is the Veeloo Foundation, a registered non-profit helping orphans and disadvantaged children, as well as running the Narnii Huuhduud Kindergarten in Mongolia.
Armed with experience, Kathy said her training for 2020 would see her hit the gym more often, complete weight training for her legs, and step up her overall fitness.
If you can support Kathy, visit Experience Australian Agriculture on Facebook for more information.
INCREDIBLE RIDE: Kathy Gabriel during the Mongol Derby.
Herders waiting at a horse camp.
A Mongolian herder’s saddle.
Grazing hobbled horses.
A Mongolian stallion.
Typical horses that are ridden – strong with amazing stamina.
In good spirits despite injury.
Will Gunning and Kathy Gabriel during the Mongol Derby.
A Mongolian herder.
A Mongolian herder’s horse.
A start camp at the Mongol Derby.
A traditional Mongolian bridle that was used in the race.