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Mongol Derby: how hard can a 1,000km horse race actually be?

Most of the horses and ponies co-opted for the Mongol Derby are "wild, or at least semi-feral", says Camilla Swift
Most of the horses and ponies co-opted for the Mongol Derby are "wild, or at least semi-feral", says Camilla Swift

What makes a person want to sign up to the “longest and toughest horse race in the world”? Even now, having ridden the Mongol Derby myself – a thousand-mile trek across a barren steppe on a succession of wild Mongolian ponies – I’m still not sure I know the answer.

But I have a better ideas of what drives others to put themselves through the equestrian endurance test that's equivalent of an ironman that lasts for the best part of a fortnight.

After Lara Prior-Palmer, niece of British event rider Lucinda Green, won the race in 2013, aged just 19, she described the experience in her memoir, Rough Magic, as akin to doing “the Tour de France on unknown bicycles”.

It’s an annual event, but it’s time-restricted rather than strictly timed – because it’s more a question of getting to the end post in one piece. This year’s is currently underway, with an exhausted winner expected to cross the finish line in Jargaltkhaan, in the Khentii Province in eastern Mongolia, imminently.

So why put yourself through it? When I rode the second-ever Derby (the first was held in 2009), one competitor told me she’d been left some money with which to buy a horse but couldn’t manage the logistics of ownership, so had signed up for this instead. Another, a professional endurance rider in his native Texas, simply wanted to win it – which, to his credit, he did.

Camilla Swift with her companion on the Mongol Derby Credit: Camilla Long

For my part, I just thought riding for around 12 hours a day might be fun. You have ten days in which to complete the ride, which stretches a thousand kilometers across what was once the Mongol Empire, and is based on Genghis Khan’s postal system that united the nomadic tribes across the vast plateau – only, in our case, without the mail bags.

Strategically placed horse stations, or Örtöö, were dotted every 30km to 40km throughout 13th-century Mongolia, where Khan’s postman could eat, drink, sleep and swap onto a fresh steed, ready for the next leg of the journey. The aim of the Mongol Derby was to recreate the route through remote and unmarked territory, but with the addition of a GPS system to flag up the stations.

Sounds easy enough. But the first thing to remember is that this isn’t like horseriding in Britain. The landscape isn’t nothing like here; there are few paths and even fewer roads. The towns are few and far between. The majority of Mongolians who live on the steppe are nomadic, moving their gers (the Mongol equivalent of the trendy yurts now used for glamping), animals, motorbikes and TV satellite dishes as the seasons change. Most of the animals are wild, or at least semi-feral.

The Mongol Derby was described by former winner Lara Prior-Palmer as like doing “the Tour de France on unknown bicycles”

Even the ponies we rode were semi-feral. They spent most of their time wandering the steppe, to be lassoed back to camp by the men and young boys of the family when they were needed. If you fell off one, or got off for whatever reason (use your imagination...), they wouldn’t stand nicely by your side. They’d head for home before you could knew it, disappearing into the distance.

By name, it was a race. But all I wanted to do was reach the finish line. That might sound like an easy ask, but 1,000km in 10 days means pretty much riding every day from dawn til dusk.

With the ponies only semi-trained, and all manner of hazards in our way – marmot holes, wide rivers to cross, rocky crags, not forgetting the wolves that roam the steppe, the ferocious (and often rabid) guard dogs at many of the gers and any other number of potential dangers – it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. One competitor didn’t even make it over the start line, after breaking her collar bone on our first afternoon during a practice ride.

Nothing can really prepare you for riding more than 70 miles a day, which is what I ended up doing. To see me through, I stuck to a few hard-and-fast rules. I made sure not to fall off, or even get off, my pony, which turned out to be a sensible tactic. It was cenrtainly more comfortable to stay on all day than to get off. At the end of day four, my knees gave way as I slid off my pony, and it was all I could do to stay standing.

Members of the Mongol Derby Pony Club, who crossed the finish line together

Not that things were more comfortable after dark. I spent one night sleeping under the stars with my horse, nervously worrying whether every howl was a wolf or a wandering guard dog.

In time, my body gave up telling me that it hurt, knowing that to complain was fruitless. My hair was matted into a big clump, and I had even started to enjoy the local fare of noodles and unidentifiable boiled meat. “Choo, choo” is the Mongol equivalent of “giddy-up”, and I caught myself saying it in my sleep.

Over the course of the race, a comradely rather than competitive spirit developed among a handful of my fellow riders; we decided to call ourselves The Pony Club.

On one occasion, I turned a corner to see Anya slowly sinking into a bog together with her pony. Fortunately, the horse decided to calmly nibble at the surrounding grass rather than pani and, with the aid of a local herder and a wooden plank for leverage, he made his way out. I decided not to follow her chosen route…

On our final day, the five of us who crossed the finish line together. With 1,000km behind us, what was a 
few metres of difference between friends?