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Mongol Derby - the ride that changed me

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Midlife crisis and boredom - Mongol Derby is the solution!

When I turned 40, I found myself on the edge of stagnating as a rider. Having lived for 10 years here on Myrvangen farm and trained horses, one riding trip began to look very similar to the previous one. I also felt that my method to teach young horses how to become riding horses, was more like a riding horse factory than individual and inspiring education. The magic thrill I felt when riding horses as a young girl was gone - and I couldn’t find it anywhere near.

A dangerous mix of a midlife crisis and boredom made me apply to take part in Mongol Derby - the world's longest and toughest horse race. Attending would force me out of my comfort zone and provide a unique opportunity to experience a completely different horse culture. The combination of fear, joy, and excitement in signing up for something I was not sure I was going to manage, immediately changed my perception of life. I encourage anyone who can, to do just that. It does not have to be a Mongolian Derby. It can be anything, as long as it's outside your comfort zone. At the time, something new, unknown, and a little crazy was exactly what I needed to move on. That the race would change me as much as it actually did, I didn’t really understand until now, 4 years later.

Facts about Mongol Derby

Every year, riders from around the world compete to win the Mongol Derby - the world's longest and toughest horse race. The race is 1,000 km long and must be completed in 10 days. Mongolian nomadic families provide horses and shelter; the rest you carry yourself, as long as it's within the weight limit of 5 kg luggage you are allowed to bring. There are no marked paths, and only about half the riders reach the finish line, in what is also known as the "Hunger Games" of the equestrian sports.

The Mongol Derby is based on Genghis Khan’s legendary long distance postal system. With a system of horse stations, hardy messengers could ride from Kharkhorin to the Caspian Sea in just a few days. In the same way, the participants of the Derby ride from station to station where a new and fresh Mongolian horse awaits. At each station, there is pulse control and veterinary check. If the horse you arrive with has a heart rate above 56 beats per minute, is dehydrated or injured, veterinary punishment is given. Riders who incur more than 3 penalties are disqualified.

The importance of preparation

Immediately after my application to participate in the Mongol Derby was accepted, my lifestyle and horse training changed dramatically. I stopped smoking. Who can afford smoking when you have a 10 000 Euro starting fee to pay? I also bought a membership at the local gym. To survive the Mongol Derby, I needed to be fit, strong, and have endurance. I, who had never trained other than riding, quickly noticed that the path to better fitness goes through max pulse, and that max pulse really hurts! I participated in Zumba classes, spinning, and strength training.

In addition to strength and fitness, it is important to have excellent rider’s balance. The Mongolian horses are semi-wild and can do acrobatic stunts, that the riders must be able to handle. That's why I did the best thing anyone can do for their riders balance - throw away your saddle! In the beginning, I rode slowly to be safe and find my rhythm on the horse but, after a while, I could ride gallop and jump small obstacles bareback.

I also got hold of a couple of horses that bucked because I wanted to get some experience with broncs. During the training, I fell off a couple of times. As a mother of 3 children, I could not remember the last time that had happened. But, from this, I learnt that it’s not the end of the world to fall off.

This preparation time was all about getting out of my comfort zone and not just riding the horses I knew in the way I was used to. I built up a sense of mastery by gradually challenging myself. To be better equipped to cope with any new and unexpected situations that could arise in Mongolia.

Packing and learning to navigate

The Mongol Derby has no marked trails, the participants have to find the way between the stations themselves. There are also no accompanying support vehicles with supplies that assist along the way. The clothes you wear at the start, are the clothes you wear at the finish line - that is, if you reach the finish line. One can only have 5 kg of luggage distributed in a backpack and a saddlebag. My luggage consisted of:

  • Lightweight sleeping bag

  • Sunscreen

  • Woollen underwear

  • Electrolytes

  • First aid kit

  • Garmin GPS and lithium batteries

  • Knife

  • Energy bars

  • Camel-back drinking system

  • Rainwear

  • Sunglasses

  • Sun brim for the helmet

  • Dowe jacket

  • Headlights

  • Gloves

  • Woolen neck

  • Derriere padded underpants

  • Western cigarettes, stickers, and balloons as gifts for the nomads.

Writing this down is no big deal - it's done in minutes, but I spent a good 6 months figuring out what to bring and what not to bring. A good weight comes in handy, when packing for the Derby. On the starting line everything is weighed! I had to leave my busserull to bring the mobile phone with me. They both weigh 200 grams, mobile phone being in my pocket and all, still counted as luggage. My plan was to take pictures, keep track of time, update Instagram and maybe even call home. None of this happened as I ruined the phone by sweating so much, it died from saltwater damage - On day 2...

As part of my preparation, I rode a 3-day trip alone in the wilderness. Probably the most important thing I did to get ready for the race. On the trip I learned how to navigate and tested my packing system.

The adventure begins… and so do the fears

After months of Zumba, bareback riding, and wilderness training, I finally got to the start of the world's longest and toughest horse race. Before the race, my biggest dread was to fall off and break my neck - a not uncommon injury that the participants incur in the Derby. This horror was quickly replaced by the fear of being eaten alive by dogs. Small flocks of wild dogs could emerge out of the blue and chase the horses with great zeal. It was extremely nerve-wracking to think: “If I fall off now, I will be torn to bits.”

My first encounter with Mongolian horse traditions

During the training camp for all participants, ahead of the race, a traditional Mongolian horse race was arranged. The riders were children, who raced over a 10-mile stretch.

These children were incredible! They effortlessly flew over the steppes with their horses as a manifestation of freedom. “This can’t be so difficult,” we thought… when it was our turn to try.

We were handed traditional Mongolian bridles, horses, and saddles. The saddles were of the stock type with horns in front and attachment for the saddlebag behind. The horses were not easy to catch - lassos and teamwork was needed to haul them in.

Fortunately, the nomads helped us saddle up, get on, and catch the horses again when we fell off. And we did so in great style! When we approached the so called "children’s horses" with crackling Gore-Tex jackets, Go Pro cameras, and glossy helmets, they turned into wild animals. We quickly learned to keep a low and quiet profile when around the Mongolian horses.

Different riding disciplines assemble

The 40 riders who participated, came from all corners of the world and riding disciplines. The professional jockeys had a clear advantage: they were lightweight, hardy, and accustomed to speed. But, they leant forward when riding, which made them fall off the Mongolian horses that had low whiters and short necks. The same tendency to lean forward was also apparent among the jumpers. The endurance riders were good at sitting naturally on the horses and accustomed to riding far, but became shocked by the uncontrollable speed and unpredictable nature of the Mongolian horses.

As an Icelandic horse rider, I had an advantage because the size and gait of the Mongolian horses were quite similar to that of the Icelandic horse. All the tricks I had learnt over the years as horse tamer also came in handy.

There were many riders who surprised me because they did the race quickly and efficiently, even though they did not have many years of riding experience. Adventurists with good balance and excellent physical fitness seemed to hit it off with the Mongolian horses. Participating in the Mongol Derby is not only about being able to ride, it's also about surviving in the wild and daring to let the horse just go.

Meeting the nomads

The greatest joy of participating in the Mongol Derby was getting to know the nomads and their horses. As a Mongol Derby rider, you support their lifestyle. Mongolian nomadic families contribute with horses and stations to the race. For this, they receive payment that correspond to a large proportion of their annual income.

Each station consists of a small collection of Gers (Mongolian round tents) and fresh horses. The riders get shelter over their heads as well as local food and drinks. It was wonderful to experience the Mongolian culture and their way of life. I was only there for a few weeks in summer, when the grass is green and the water flows in the streams. It is truly amazing that the nomads live out in nature all year, in such a relentless climate.

Getting to know the horses

Understanding the Mongolian horses was a big challenge. But, after a while, they could be sorted into 4 categories: lazy, skittish, bucky, and fast. The Mongols could not speak English and I could not speak Mongolian, but thanks to a common horse knowledge and sign language, I learned a lot about the horse I had chosen, or received.

The first horse I rode was quiet and easy. That's why I had a safe but not very quick start- and turned out to be the last to arrive at the first station. Horse number 2 launched off like a rocket and I lost both my sunglasses and the sunshade on my riding helmet because of the high speed. With horse number 2, I got ahead of many of the other riders. Whereas horse number 3 ended up refusing to move on, when the co-riders for the occasion left me behind.

I was forced to seek shelter with a random Mongolian family. Hospitality is one of the ground pillars in Mongolian nomadic culture. Because of the hospitality of others you can as a nomad, travel long distances alone on horseback. To let a stranger into your tent is just as natural for the Mongolians as it is for us to take a bus. Both the horse and I were welcomed with open arms. The next day I joined up with other Derby riders and my previously stubborn horse was, when not alone anymore, eager to move forwards.

Hitting the wall

The wall was elegantly greeted on day 2. Extreme heat and 177 km on horseback made all the muscles in my body ache. I had simply no energy left. In 40 degrees of heat, roasting sun and not a single gust of wind, I consumed electrolytes and water in a steady stream. Despite this, my body was about to collapse. Totally exhausted, I asked myself: how far is it to the finish line? The GPS showed - 823 km! The next thing that struck me was, “I am never going to make it! If I am exhausted now and not even halfway to halfway, how can I possibly reach the finish line?” The reality of the Mongol Derby being the world's toughest horse race hit me with full force. How did I, as a mother of three in my 40’s, think that I was going pull off something like this?

Fortunately, it was only about 15 kilometers to the next station. I pulled myself together and decided to at least ride to the station before throwing in the towel. Somehow, I managed to get there and went straight to rest in my sleeping bag on the floor.

After a serious talk to myself, along the lines of: “It does hurt now, but it can only get better,” my outlook on life was brighter the next morning. I also decided to put the entire finish line on the shelf. How far it was to the finish line was of no importance. I was going to ride this race one station at a time. Until only a few kilometers were left, it was not about reaching the finish line, but about getting to the next station, that kept me going.

The heat was eventually replaced by cold rain, which made everyone situated underneath the great Mongolian sky, very cold and wet. It was as if 20 degrees and a light breeze did not exist. The weather changed from one extreme to the other. Some riders experienced dehydration in the heat and others got hypothermia in the cold. Half way through the race, I sprained my ankle when mounting a horse. After that I could not walk, but I could still ride! Which was fortunate. Many riders got lost, and one rider fell off and broke his back. Everyone who reached the finish line hit the wall, at one point or the other - but once we had climbed over it, nothing could stop us.

Reaching the finish line

Because the race is so long and lasts for so many days, most riders paced themselves and did not push themselves to their limits to reach the finish line. Except for one rider who was transported directly to Ulan Bator, with ambulance. The rest of us were pretty fresh and had anyone asked us to ride a couple of legs more, we would have managed.

It was surreal to reach the finish line, after 10 days being busy with nothing but riding and surviving. It was like nothing else existed, except your aching body and your horse for the leg, in the enormous, unforgiving and wild Mongolian landscape. Chewing kilometers, one by one, out of 1 000, you feel very small. I had enough on my plate to not think about stuff that didn't matter. Knowing that a slight misstep, could bring me out of the race in a split second, made me live and cherish the moment.

The 10 days we had available to get through 1 000 km was over. We were sad to say goodbye to Mongolia, but at the same time delighted to be among those who had completed the world's longest and toughest horse race. We all danced victoriously. I, at least, danced as vividly as possible, with one good leg, holding the medal in one hand and a bowl of airag in the other.

Home sweet home!

I was incredibly happy when I came home and saw my family again. I found myself greatly appreciating the comfort we surround ourselves with, which we tend to take for granted. Sleeping in a house, in a bed, running tap water and the toilet not being a hole in the ground, was suddenly very luxurious.

For several weeks after the Derby, I dreamt of riding Mongolian horses on the steppe. It also felt unfamiliar to ride my own horses again, who stood still when mounted - stirrups and girth could be adjusted, without jeopardizing life and limbs.

My horses were the same, but I had changed. Experiencing the semi-wild horses of Mongolia had given me a very profound knowledge of how horses really are. Which again inspired me to the foundation of Ride Like a Viking.

Last but not least I want to say; thank you so much for reading! If you want to receive monthly blogs on e-mail, check out offer at bottom of page👇

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