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Lessons learned from the Mongol Derby

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

Experiencing the semi-wild horses of Mongolia has changed the way I ride and train horses. It is no longer about making the horse to do what I want - it’s about building a partnership by going with the horses, instead of controlling and micromanaging them. It's also about the importance of being present when around horses, and doing less.

Not same ever again

When you cross the finish line to the world's longest and toughest horse race, you are not the same person as when setting off. The Mongol Derby exceeded my expectations in terms of how tough it was, but also in relation to how much I learned as a rider and horse trainer. What surprised me the most was that the Mongolian horses trained me - it wasn't me who trained them, like I had planned.

I became very aware of how natural it was for me, as a European rider, to take control of the horses and micromanage them. But my needs to control was met with rears and bucks, by the mongolian horses. If you held them with tight reins and wanted to decide everything, they were quick to throw you off.

In addition, micromanaging the horse was dangerous. In a landscape characterized by endless grass plains, with millions of rabbit holes hidden in the ground, the horses needed space to jump over, or to the side of the holes. If they didn't get their freedom to move, the dream gallop on the steppe would quickly end in a somersault.

Mongolian horses are very clear on how they want to be ridden, and not be ridden. Photo by Laurence Squire.

Caring for your horse en route

The most important factor in getting through the Mongol Derby with life and limbs intact is to develop trust and cooperation with the horses you ride. You are hugely dependent on your horse for the leg. In the enormous, unforgiving and wild Mongolian landscape, you will not get far without a horse.

It’s also about taking care of your horse - by giving the horse time to drink and eat along the way, you avoid dehydrating your mount. The horses on the stations were tied up on a horse line. Caught and ready to be saddled and ridden, but due to the many unpredictable factors of the race, the horses sometimes waited on the line for a while before riders arrived.

Mongolian gers does not have running tap water. All the water is carried to the camp, manually. It was not costume to give horses precious water when tied up at the stations, as they could find water themselves when roaming about. The horses could be fresh and eager to get going, but also thirsty. Taking the time to give your horse a sip of water at the nearest lake or stream was a wise move. To allow your horse to eat a little gras as well, even wiser, as they stay hydrated longer with food in their stomach.

The horses being un-shoed, made allowing them to move slower on rocky surfaces, to prevent sore hooves, a good move. I found that caring for the horses was not only important to get through the strict veterinary checks, but also an important factor in building a partnership with the horses.

With every change of horse, which is about 30 as each horse only goes one leg of about 30 km, you need to deliver your mount in excellent shape, before getting a new one. Vet. Campbell Costello has checked heart rate, hydration, lameness and sores, before signaling "All good!"

First you go with the horse

The horses knew what was needed to survive in Mongolia and, as a rider, I had to learn to respect that and trust the horse. The Mongolian horses had their flight instincts in order, ready to escape wild dogs and even wolves. Attempts to hold and control the horses, made them feel uncomfortable and insecure. In order to build a partnership, it was wise to first join the horse where the horse wanted to go. After a while, when the horse understood that I was not a threat to their survival, I could bring my ideas to the equation.

I, therefore, tried to ride in a way that did not disturb the horse. To follow their movements and give them space by loosening the reins. I tried my best to ride like a Mongolian child - exhilarated by the horse's strength and speed; in an expression of total freedom and joy.

Tough love!

Surviving as a horse in Mongolia means being alert and quickly fleeing potential hazards, such as predators. It also involves finding food, water, and shelter on your own. If a Mongolian horse becomes too tame and dependent on humans, it will not survive. The Mongolian nomads have neither stables, fences, or winter forage. The horses must manage themselves, outdoors, all year round. The strong bond that the nomads have with their horses, despite the horse's total independence of humans, was fascinating and instructive to experience.

The process of taming a Mongolian horse is anything but pedagogical but, on the other hand, the Mongolian method does not alter the horses natural instincts. The Mongols showed what you call “tough love” for their horses. They caught them with lassos often followed by bareback bronc riding, which the athletic riders of Mongolia hugely enjoyed. Talking baby language to a horse and petting them was seen as a great insult to the horses strength and stamina.

I soon discovered that petting and praising Mongolian horses, to tell them I appreciated their effort, did not have the intended effect. The best reward you could give, was being quiet and leave the horse alone - this made me reflect deeply on how I handled my horses back home in Norway.

Back home, my horses were constantly bombarded with praise or messages; there was always something happening. I assumed that my horses liked this - but they also like to do nothing with us, which is something that rarely happens.

To just be present and breathe, until the horse relaxes in my presence is something that I have used with great effect, since coming back from Mongolia. Anxious horses relax and dull horses become more responsive. To just be with them, is something horses greatly appreciate. Because we become present in the moment, like they are. Showing that we can be present, by actually being present, makes them trust and listen to us.

All horses are flight animals and herd animals

It doesn't matter which breed of horse you ride; all horses are flight animals and herd animals. As flight animals they like a way out. Being a herd animal means that they are social and capable of cooperating. In a way, the Mongolian horses are horses in a more original and natural form. They are very horsey, and not as domesticated as the horses kept in Europe. That is why I learned a lot about the nature of horse's by riding the Mongol Derby. Much more than from riding well-trained mounts that accept things they do not enjoy and, and for that matter, should not enjoy.

Simple changes in the way we ride and handle horses makes a big difference in our relationship with them. To tell horses what to do as opposed to tell them what not to do, seem to work pretty well. Although I never got the hang of enjoying a wild bolt or bucking session like the mongolians, I quickly learned to say do, rather than don`t.

I also learned the actual meaning behind the Tom Dorrance saying; "first you go with the horse, then the horse goes with you, then you go together". My riding and horse training prior to the Mongol Derby was never about first going with the horse, it was about making the horses to do what I wanted. Stirred together with a good dose of preventing them from making mistakes. Shamefully, I realized that I had been busy controlling the horses, rather than controlling myself.

Who knows, if it hadn't been for the Mongol Derby I would probably still ride and train horses this way. On most riding clinics and courses I have attended, controlling the horse and "working" the horse is something that is encouraged by the riding instructor. Very little time is invested in figuring out what the horse wants. This might be because European horse riding has strong roots in the military, and the military is all about discipline and control. Someone further up makes the decisions, to be followed by the soldiers below, without questions. I believe the ancient way of riding horses, was not about discipline and control, but about building a partnership with a wild animal.

Allow your horse to make mistakes - and Ride Like a Viking!

To realize that the way I had trained horses was based on control rather partnership was though, and acquired a long period of me correcting myself when falling back to old habits. A simple task of riding a straight line without preventing the horse from zig zagging, required months of training myself to not correct the horse from doing wrong. But to first go with the horse, then use a signal the horse responds to, and then get back on track.

The down side of this method is that it takes time. It is much quicker to just make a horse go a straight line, than it is to allow a horse to go a straight line. To be with the horse on a straight line.

The upside, is that it makes horse riding very easy and natural. Not correcting or preventing wrong things from happening, gives me plenty of time to think before I act and to recognize the response from the horse. A sense of awareness that comes from doing less.

A training method based on awareness, where horses are allowed to choose, rather than to command or micromanage them, has greatly changed my relationship with my horses. Which again has inspired to the foundation of Ride Like a Viking.

Ride Like a Viking, is about teaching practical techniques that builds a better relationship between horses and humans. Based on the notion that horses can carry themselves functionally and use their hindquarters actively without the rider micromanaging or controlling the horse to do so. When a horse is motivated, relaxed, and responsive, a good posture and hind-leg engagement comes from the horse's self, not the rider`s efforts. What I learned in Mongolia is now available for others to try. You don't need to go to Mongolia, get thrown off and experience this the hard way.

Thank you so much for reading! If you are interested in learning practical horsemanship based on what I learned n the steppe, check our free training at bottom of the page👇

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