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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

The Mongol Derby Day 1: The Race Begins

Updated: May 21

All Photographs by Kathy Gabrielle, Shari Thompson and Bayarsaihan Ochiroo

The previous related blog post for training on the steppe can be found here

Mongol Derby 2023 start line stampeede
And they are off!!!!! The start line gun goes and horses charge out of the start camp.
Start Camp:

“HAPPY RACEDAY!” sounded around our Ger as we lay in bed drinking in our last morning in a cocktail of fluffy pillows and heavy duvets. We would not see a bed for 10 days and everyone was all too aware of this. We dragged our heads off our last glimmer of comfort and adorned ourselves with the layers we had included in our 85kg rider weight. Glancing out of the Ger door at 7am, the sun was covered in a shroud of fog, but it was already warm. Begrudgingly I wrapped myself in fleeces and waterproofs regretting my life decision of wearing so many clothes off the start line.

 

Excitement, nerves and all the emotions were swirling around the camp. The joyful, fun atmosphere of the previous two days had dissipated and had been replaced with concentrated silence between the serious competitors and a nervous faffing amongst the happy-to-be-there people, of which I was one. I unpacked and re-packed my kit over and over that morning trying to keep under the 5kg weight allowance yet ensuring I had everything required to survive on the steppe. Each rider in turn would queue and have their kit weighed by Maggie. Slightly over the weight and items were to be removed. A bit of weight spare and you could add a protein bar or other creature comfort, but you could not change your riding kit you were wearing off the start line.

Mongol Derby bags being weight before the start of the race
Maggie weighing our 5kg bags to ensure we were not over weight
Packing the Mongol Derby back pack
Packing over and over again to make the most of 5kg.

Bag and kit check at the Mongol Derby 2023
Final bag weigh in at start camp.

Eventually, my kit was packed, and the temperature began to drop. “Well, at least I shouldn’t pass out on the start line now”. I swiftly thanked whatever God I was haphazardly worshipping that day. Maggie was on the hunt for the first volunteers to go and mount their steeds in order for the the 10 am start gun to sound on time. “ANYONE!?” she shouted across camp. Riders hastily buried their noses in their packs claiming to not be ready. I had been told by previous riders to try and be one of the last on, so you aren’t wandering around the start line for ages, especially in case you get a spicey horse that isn’t calm. I stayed quiet hoping that others would come forward first.

Mongol derby start camp
Riders at start camp gradually being ready to get started

No one came forward and out of nowhere, I had an epiphany. What has mentally got me through all my previous events? Self-belief, a degree of cockiness and eternal blind optimism that everything will just be okay. I grabbed my kit without thinking, walked with determination to Maggie and was ushered down to the horse line with the first few riders. “Overthinking is the thief of all progress, after all, and this is meant to be fun!” It was from this moment that having previous endurance event experience helped. This did not have to be ultras or horse rides, however, being used to taking myself out of my comfort zone previously gave me precedence to draw from.

“What enabled me to finish previous events?”

-        Preparation physically, check.

-        Acknowledging that things will go wrong so when they do you are mentally prepared for this to happen, check.

-        Knowing that when things go wrong there is a resolve eventually, check.

-        Understanding that you just have to keep moving forward no matter what, check.

 

The only part I had not experienced before was the potential serious injury by a horse in the middle of nowhere. However, I had ridden horses most of my life, racehorses had been great for getting used to unpredictable equines and as for the environment I just had to suffer through the weather and try to not get lost. Easy!?

 

I had done all I could. I was prepared for this event, and I needed to start acting like it rather than living in fear that something bad was going to happen. To top the pep talk off I reminded myself that horses are flight creatures, if I am a nervous wreck they aren’t going to want me near them and I will be making the next 10 days rather hard. “Fake it till you make it,” I thought as i approached the horse line. This was something I uttered to myself many a time over the next few hours.

Mongol derby horse line
Herders attempting to get horses off the horse line for tacking up.

I laid my tack out in a nice open space away from the horse line as I had done on my first test ride. Step 1 of the Derby is complete, make it to the horse line in one piece! All of the horses had large numbers written on their hind quarters today in bright colours. Grasping my bridle, I marched over to the station steward who was holding a small pot of paper strips, each with a number corresponding to a horse on the line. I dipped my hand into the pot, wishing for a calm but fast horse, did these even exist? Riders were beginning to tack up and mount around me, some of the horses displaying typical Mongol horse behaviours. The rule of no help tacking up and getting on was certainly a spanner in the works. I watched the riders around me to see how they dealt with things going wrong, and to see how the horses responded to them. Most riders were relaxed and laughed when a horse took off, some just stood still and waited for the horse to calm down. It was apparent that these little warriors were indeed like any other horse. Flap and panic and they will become worse, be calm, confident, and kind and they should be okay, at least that’s what I told myself to feel better.

 

“32!, Potts”

“Over here” I waved to the translator. Determined to keep my tacking up space away from any drama. The only game plan I had was to try not to worry about everyone's problems. A plan that faded rather quickly once the Derby devoured me.

A beautiful palomino horse was brought fourth. “Wow, you are stunning” I murmured. I asked the herder in my best broken Mongolian if the horse was good, and nodded and looked at the floor. I began to understand as the race progressed that asking if a horse was good was asking if it went quick to the Mongolians not if it was well-behaved, a miscommunication that went a bit wrong a few times through the race. This horse was very good by my standards, but not by Mongolian standards. He was well behaved but not the quickest it turned out.

 

Barbie as I called this horse, was a real gentleman. He let me tack him up with no issues, he just watched all the other horses and called to them as one by one they made their way to the start line.

“Any problems with the horse?” the vet said.

“A small rub but that’s it” I replied as Barbie buried his head in my armpit. “I am not sure these horses are as wild as their reputation suggests” I laughed nodding towards my soppy horse.

Man, lady and horse stand under hills in Mongolia at the Mongol Derby
Barbie being very relaxed at the vet check out of the start camp.

I jumped on and trotted over to the few other riders at the start area, letting Barbie graze while chatting to the other riders. Most on horses seemed calm and as if they knew exactly why they were there. Livia's horse was a little bit lively, I hoped that Barbie would be a little bit more energetic when we set off.

 

As each rider joined the start line group my stomach butterflies increased from gently Waltzing around my tummy to a full-on rave.  After what seemed like hours of waiting at the start line for all the riders to congregate we were ready to go. “RIDERS!” was yelled from the line up of jeeps flanking the start line flags. A hush descended amongst the camp, all the laughs and jokes stopped. This was it.  

 

I positioned myself towards the rear of the group at the side so I could see the chaos that was about to ensue. Getting through the first leg safely and sensibly was the aim in a bid for confidence to build. I also was determined to look after my horse and was also keen on not personally dying.


After an ego boosting speech from the crew about how amazing the countdown from 10 began. Each countdown eating away at my insides. Each countdown making my grin bigger. By the count of three I was as giddy as a love struck teenager, as happy as a pig in poo and felt as sick as a dog.

4 medics standing in the Mongol steppe during the mongol derby
The Derby medics waiting patiently to see if everyone makes it past the start line. Historically the startline can be chaos with some riders becoming injured before their race has even begun.

Start – HS1

BANG! A loud noise went off and Barbie suddenly started moving as if he had received a hot poker to his bottom. Everyone in front galloped off into the distance and I was following suit without much encouragement to my horse. There were cheers from the crew, whoops from the riders, jeeps tearing off alongside us with shouts from the drivers and medics, thundering hooves all around and an enormous amount of laughter from my mouth. I wish I could bottle up the first hour of the Derby for life. No one knew what was going on. 43 people had been let loose into the wilderness on feral horses and it was madness. Some horses vanished in a plume of dust Erin, Livia and Beca were in this crowd, others bolted off in various directions, some napped towards the horse line, but most had their heads down diligently galloping on knowing exactly what was expected of them. It was clear at this point, Ger 21 would not be riding together and that when push came to shove you were only worried about you and your horse. I briefly saw Liz during the chaos and noted her location so I knew to wait at the next horse station. Barbie galloped and galloped without any easing up. Izzie and I jumped over puddles upsides, Arthur's horse and Barbie challenged each other nose to nose, Hannah and I shouted and yelped in elated cheers. It was magic, everyone was having the best time drinking in the spirit of the race. I relaxed into Barbie, trusting he knew his feet and was indeed safe to canter down hills and over potholes. The Mongol horse laughs in the face of any adverse terrain, and these holes were nothing compared to what I was going to ride over in the coming days.

After laughing and shouting for 30 minutes the terrain changed. The dirt tracks became smaller and the hills became larger. I had blissfully travelled back in time to being a 12-year-old, playing ponies that I had forgotten the need for navigation. The field of riders had thinned out around me with various riders making different decisions. A group up ahead had taken a wrong turn and were scattered over the hillside retracing their steps, another group had taken the road around the hills and a few like me were going straight over. I had forgotten everything I had learnt the day prior. Barbie marched up the hillside following a few other riders, I knew the other riders were not going to be around me forever and I needed to start navigating on my own. The GPS came out and I followed the arrow, checking the riders around me and their decisions. “Do not follow anyone and trust your instincts” was golden advice from Maggie on the UK navigation day. I decided now was the time to put this into play.

Sure enough, the riders that went around the hills made good time, but I was too busy drinking in the view to worry about anything. The landscapes from the top of the hills were beautiful and up ahead I could see the mountain pass we were aiming for with horse station 1 hopefully just on the other side. I tried to stay on the roads for the next few kilometres seeing as this was safe from marmot holes and kinder on the inclines and decline for the horses. Riders swapped positions repeatedly as we all became acquainted with our horses and their limits. As a group of us approached the mountain pass it was evident this race was not going to be straightforward.

There was no water for the horses at the water stop location on the maps and the road that was supposed to go through a mountain pass stopped. We were met with a dried-up river bed instead and a rocky hillside. There was a road that went around; however, this was not on our maps, who knew how far off course that would take us? Not wanting to slow down and cause my horse to seize up I headed for the crow flies route, over the side of the mountains, where the pass was supposed to be. Three riders followed me, Arthur a UK rider in Bloodstock, Seb a UK polo player and Jessie an American endurance rider. They shortly wished they had not.

Riders head towards the hills of Mongolia in the Mongol Derby
Arthur and I heading towards the mountains

In the distance on the opposite side of the pass, there were two riders leading their horses down shale at the top of the hills. “Phew we aren’t the only ones lost then!” I figured. Arthurs's horse decided now was a great time to have a snack and attacked a thistle hedge with his face, getting one stuck in his bridle and decided to have a bit of a rodeo re-enactment. Arthur jumped off and removed the spikey culprit from his horses face, he decided to stay on two legs for a bit and walk.

“This isn’t the right way,” Jessie said to me after 10 minutes of clambering up the scree “We’ve gone wrong”.

“Do not follow me!” I laughed “I have no idea what I am doing, you are free to go your own way”.

I stopped laughing once we stopped climbing up and were met with a steep, rocky descent, followed by another climb. I had gone very wrong. We were stuck in the folds of the hillside with our only option being to go all the way to the top of the mountains or to traverse around the hill side following the contours. After a few ups and downs and Arthur's very red face telling us this was indeed hard work for any creature, we decided on the latter being the least energy-sapping and prayed there would be no sudden cliff faces causing us to retrace our steps. Every turn around a hill contour I would breathe a sigh of relief that we did not have to retrace our steps, slightly feeling the pressure of leading people wrong and having to get us out of the mess I had landed us in.

All riders were back-mounted, and after a while of winding around hills we saw the end of the mountain pass, it did exist! “I think that’s where we were meant to go!” I chuckled, pointing to the nice flat straight road down below. Seb saw the funny side, I am not sure the other two did, but hey, I didn’t claim to be Mrs navigation to anyone.

 

Once out of the hills and mountains, we found a road and off we cantered closing in on horse station 1, the four riders dispersed at the varying speeds of their horses. Jessie and Arther vanished ahead and Sebs horse was a little bit slower than mine. The road became flat and stretched on for as far as the eye could see and up ahead I could make out a jockey in bright racing colours, “MARTIN!” I shouted once we had caught up with him, “Everything okay?”. He was standing next to his horse laughing. “Bloody thing tried to run off whilst I was going to the loo!” he laughed. He hopped back on and off we galloped, 7km to go.

“When shall we start to ease off?” I asked the delightfully chipper Irish Man after a couple of kilometres of riding together.

“Perhaps now is a good idea, other riders are cooling down” he smiled nodding to people we were overtaking.

We slowed to a walk and decided that like other riders we should hop off and walk our horses in, allowing us to practice our bridle to headcollar change. We were still 3km out, but I had no idea how long it would take for a horse to cool down that had been galloping for hours and scaling hillsides. I did not want a vet penalty if I could help it. It was here that Barbie began to dig his heels in and stop every few steps, fortunately Martin was on hand to chase him up with his horse, my first lesson in how having another rider with you can really help. We walked and walked for what seemed like an age, Barbie stopping every few steps, dwindling on the end of his lead rope, still no horse station in sight. “We can’t have gone wrong,” I thought, “Everyone else is nearby and heading this way”

 

Eventually, around a small hillside out of sight, there was a condensed huddle of Gers “Horse stations may not be in obvious places” Ben the route planner had mentioned during training. “You might need to go around the terrain to see them”, I recalled and made a mental note for future Ger hunting.

Barbie was by this point walking deathly slow, and Martin was walking behind, urging him on constantly. “I am not going to pass this vet check! He is so tiered" I worried. We arrived at the horse stop just as Reid was charging out of horse station 1 for his next leg, he looked to be focused but having a great time with the biggest grin.


Walking into the first horse stop was the most confusing and manic experience of the whole Derby. I stood on the edge of the stop for a few minutes taking it all in and trying to get my bearings. Vets were at the back checking horses, water trough at the front near the crew member checking us all in, Gers over to the left, horse line to the right, "Here I am stuck in the middle with you" I said to Barbie. Sense of humour failure was yet to arrive.


Carnage was ensuing in the middle of the horse stop, the horse line was full to the brim with horses a lot livelier than the ones we had encountered so far. Many riders had failed the vet check and were stood with their horses waiting out the penalty. Some riders were still within the 30 minutes and having a breather with their horse, ready for a heart rate re-check. I took Barbie to the quieter end of the water trough and untacked him, checked his feet and legs over, washed him down and let him have a pick of grass for 5 minutes. He seemed happy and I wanted to keep moving. “No harm in seeing where your heart rate is boy” I whispered as I led him over to the vets.

 

Whilst navigating through the hoard of riders and horses at this horse stop, I was frantically looking for any of the Ger girls from the start camp. Imagine being 6 years old again and you have lost your parents in the supermarket. Everyone seems huge, everything is loud and frantic, and you just want to find a familiar face. This was that feeling but with the addition of horses kicking out, people sat with their heads in their hands and shouting echoing all around. It was utter chaos.

I queued for the vet check patiently, letting people cut in who seemed to be in more of a rush “marathon not a sprint” I thought. After all a few minutes at Horse Stop 1 were surely not going to be the difference between finishing or not. Eventually, Barbie had his heart rate looked at.

“Wow, he is well under! Well done, you are only the second rider to pass the heart rate check the first time” The vet cheerily said. “Get him back to the herders and you are free to pick your next horse”

I received a big smiley face on my vet card and strode with confidence down to the horse line to return Barbie. A small cuddle and thank you later and that was one of 29 horses done. Barbie was the best horse in the world then, he was a perfect start horse and I was so thankful to have been broken into the Derby gently. That is where my breaking-in stopped.

 

HS1- HS2 (horse stop 1 to horse stop 2)

After Barbie, I was full of confidence in completing the Derby. The first leg had flown by, and I was convinced this whole experience was going to pass in a flash. I thrust my hand into the selection bag, ready for horse two. The translator smiled and shouted the number over to the herders. A young boy who cannot have been over 12 years old, beckoned me over to a horse that was not on the horse line but was tied to a truck a few meters away from the other horses.


“Sain Mori?” I asked the young boy. He nodded and grinned a knowing smile. I knew what that meant, this was going to be a speedy leg. This horse I called Nip, mainly because he bit me any chance he got, but it turned out he was also rather nippy (word for fast in the UK). The young lad handed me Nip and sat down on the back of the truck watching me tack up. Again, the horse was okay to work with on the ground, provided I stayed on the correct side and moved with confidence. He was, however, much sharper to get on. I thanked the boy, signed out with the vet and the crew and led my horse away from the chaos, down towards the road to mount away from the carnage.

 

“Livia!” I shouted on seeing one of the Ger girls as I walked down to the edge of the station “Are you okay!?” She had been one of the people who took off in a cloud of dust at the start and I was quite shocked to see her.

“Yes I am okay thanks, I have a vet penalty though so have to sit here for 2 hours, a lot of us received penalties”

I was in shock; her horse had looked so fit and willing on the start line and had bolted with the others as soon as it could. She also walked in like the rest of us. So how on earth were we meant to know if our horses were fit or not if a seemingly fit hose didn’t pass the heart rate check? I put it down to just being another thing we had to worry about and there was not much I could do apart from take each horse as I found them. A lot of the Derby was, after all, luck.  

 

I had a look around and could not see any of the other Ger girls. After a few conversations with other riders, I stopped putting off the inevitable and mounted my new horse Nip, alone. He jolted to the side as my leg went over and I flopped onto his neck like a rag doll.

“That was not graceful!” Fahad laughed. He was one of the lads in team Pakistan who were so full of life and fun. Every time I saw Fahad I wanted to give him a big hug and each time I encountered team Pakistan I could not help but grin. They were all about having fun.

“I am not a graceful person!” I grinned back. Nip was a bit more receptive than Barbie and had only first and sixth gear. I gave him a nudge to walk on out of the station and he bolted off. Typically, I had not set my GPS route for the next stop, sometimes you think you have learned a lesson until you realise you have not. After this HS1 exit, I never forgot to input co-ordinates before I mounted.

horse galloping across Mongolia during the Mongol derby
Nip and I cantering out of Horse Station 1

Nip charged down the dirt track with his head between his legs, snorting like a possessed dragon. I hastily tried to find the coordinates to the obligatory checkpoint North of the mountains. This checkpoint was to stop people from cutting over the mountains down into HS2 as the other side was composed of sheer cliff faces that no Derby human nor horse could scale. After a few minutes of trying to slow Nip down in vain and picking the wrong coordinates, I decided to focus on one thing at a time. Nip was buggering off with me, but he seemed happy and we were on a track so we were okay, right? I decided to ignore him and let him do what he liked until the GPS situation was resolved. Trying to press small buttons when you are galloping along is not easy but thankfully, I was well versed from texting when bombing over fields on my horse back home. GPS issue sorted and it placed back in its little pocket, I had a rough idea of where to aim so I sat and enjoyed the ride. Nip was ace, effortlessly weaving down the narrow track allowing me to take in the views around us. Eventually, there was a rider up ahead, white t-shirt, long blonde hair…”ERIN!” I yelled. She didn’t hear but Nip did. Startled at the screaming banshee on his back he took off faster.

 

Just as we were approaching Erin, her horse heard our thundering hooves on the dry earth and took off, she turned around and shrugged her shoulders laughing, sucking on an energy gel, dead casual like she was a travel advert for the Derby. Now we could say we were doing the Derby! Both of us had succumbed to the fast horses and were relaxed and smiling. As soon as I came anywhere close to Erin's horse he disappeared, Nip could not keep up but he continued to chase Erin down. We both steamed past Sam up ahead who looked like she was having a lovely time on her horse cantering down the track with some form of control and after playing chaotic cat and mouse for some time Erin's horse tiered and slowed. I couldn’t believe I had caught up with someone and bonus points for it being Erin. We chatted briefly and decided to utilise these two pocket rocket horses.

 

Off we galloped in a plume of dust and after some time Jessie caught us up and took the lead ever so slightly, her horse's nose out in front of Erin's and mine. Checking the GPS I thought we should have been following the powerlines through the hills so I peeled off the road into the bush, to see if this was the case. In my mind Nip and I were going to weave around all the low-level foliage and see if this was the correct route before turning around and calling to the others, Nip had other ideas. Once I peeled off, he put his head on the floor and took off along the power line route. I turned to shout to Erin and Jessie that it was this way, but I was too far gone up the hillside for them to hear. This portion of the race was met with 3ft high hedges, bush and foliage-dense land, there was more foliage than clear ground. It was certainly a swift introduction to the horse's persistence. Nip launched himself through any hedge that stood in his way, not over, through. My legs became spoiled with thorns and my pockets full of leaves. I turned to Erin, desperate to have a friend for this leg, fortunately, she and Jessie had started to follow me. I continued to charge full pelt up the incline and through the bushes with no control until we reached the saddle of the hill. Here the ground abruptly changed to sand with low-level trees.

 

Jessie trotted off finding her own path down whilst Erin and I shouted “tree!” to each other over and over to stop us from getting knocked off our horses, laughing at how ridiculous the whole thing was.

“Hoofprints!” I shouted. “We must be going the right way!” I was however a little concerned that there were only a couple of tracks rather than the tens there should have been. Surely there were lots of riders out in front?

Sandboarding the horses down the hillside the ground changed again, this time to wetlands. It was almost as if the horses knew this ground would be trickier, Nip slowed down to a steady canter as if to say “I’ve got this”. My trust in these horses was growing exponentially.

 

Jessie re-joined our little pack at the wetlands and questioned the location of the checkpoint.

“It is around here somewhere” I pondered. Looking at the GPS we were sat right on top of it.

“I was expecting a fanfare to be honest” Smiled Erin

Alas, there was no fanfare, not a bean. We assumed we had reached the check point and continued our journey, making our way down the valley admiring the sheer cliff faces we had dodged to our left and the hillsides of boulders to our right.

“Good call to the organisers for not letting us throw ourselves off that cliff!” I pondered, in awe of the scale of the landscapes around us, whilst enjoying the splashing of the horses hooves in the marsh.

 

The three of us boldly strode on through the valley’s river, admiring a family watering their horses and the children swimming in the river. They all looked so happy with the simplest of lives, no one around as far as the eye could see apart from these crazy Derby riders. I wondered if I would be as happy if I stripped back my materialistic life. We would soon find out! The children shouted and waved, the families horses being watered called to our trusty steeds and the guard dogs charged along the riverbank barking, threatening to kill us if we came any closer.

“We do not want to get near any dogs on duty, I do not fancy being dog food” I whispered to Nip.

“Let's stay away from Dogs whilst we are riding, I have heard stories” Jessie informed us. Erin and I nodded in agreement. Turns out no one wanted to be Pedigree chum.

 

Once back on a track and out of the marshland the horses bolted off again, devouring the ground with their short strides. We were seriously covering ground here and were looking at a 2-hour leg for 30km. The horses continued to gallop even when spooking at boulders in the grasslands as if every moment of their life had amounted to ensuring we arrived at Horse Stop 2.

“These horses are incredible” Erin shouted to me with the biggest grin plastered across her face.

“Agreed, I love this horse” I replied, “I hope they are all like this!”

 

“After some time of galloping full speed down weaving valley tracks, we heard a faint voice coming from behind. We slowed to a trot to assess the navigation and to see who it was.

“GUYS!”

The three of us turned around and saw a dot in the distance charging towards us. It was Reid.

“How on earth are you behind us?” I asked, once he had caught up “You left the horse stop as I was arriving”

“Yer I got stuck in the marshlands, got a bit lost and then chased by a dog” He replied.

It appeared that you really could lose mammoth amounts of time and ground in just one leg of the race.

 

Reid joined our team of three and we continued to gallop. I attempted to cut down through a hill and was met with a steep, deep ravine.

“Emmelia!” one of the others yelled. “ROAD!”

Nip slammed the brakes on fortunately just as his front feet met the ravine edge and he turned on a six-pence to avoid our pending doom, without me asking, to follow Jessie who had sensibly taken the road over the ravine.

“Stay on the roads Emmelia, Stop trying to save time, you’ve got 9 days of this,” I thought to myself. "Plan A is stay alive"

 

“How far do we have to the horse stop and when do you want to start walking?” Jessie asked us all after we had galloped down the entire valley an into an expanse of grassland. The horse stop was not far off.

“We are about 4km out” I responded, “I think 3km was too much last time, my horse clocked in well under 56 bpm so maybe 2 km out we walk?”

It turned out that everyone had walked their first horse in with about 3km to spare and had varying results. Erin's had taken a while to pulse down. We realised it was not a one-size-fits-all method when it came to cooling these fire cracker horses down and we just had to do what felt right with each horse. We trotted for another kilometre contemplating walking distances, that is when we heard a bark from a Ger about 100 meters away.

“Uh oh” I said to the others “I think we need to get going”.

However, no sooner had the words escaped my mouth the dog was charging towards us, teeth bared, snout peeled back, he meant business.

“RUN!” Jessie yelled “Go go go!”

It had been made clear to us time and time again that these guard dogs were not pets, they were there to protect and they would bite and potentially more. The horses were already ahead of our thoughts and took off across the grasslands.

“Choo Choo!” (The way Mongolians get their horses to move quicker) we were all yelling at our horses, willing them to carry us away from the snapping unrelenting beast. We all flapped, and we all shouted as the dog snapped at our horse's heels, no empty threats were present, this dog meant business. We galloped around grass tufts up to the horse's knees, and the dog followed in hot pursuit, we lent forward in vain willing for the horses to speed up and the dog to stop the hunt. Erin's horse took off, followed by Reid and Jessie. I was strung out at the back, I was the sacrifice based solely on the speed of my horse.

“Please don’t catch me” I repeated over and over in my head.

 

After a good kilometre or so the dog eventually decided we were no longer a threat to his family and turned around. I glanced over my shoulder and could no longer see the Ger. Our horses continued to gallop; I suspect out of terror. These horses knew the score with the local dogs.

“STOP! Erin!?” I shouted, “The dogs are gone!”.

“Trying to!” she shouted over her shoulder.

Jessie, Reid and I eventually pulled up, Erin's horse was wired and took a bit longer to slow down. Once we had all calmed down and nervous laughs spread around the group we glanced at our GPS’, just up ahead was Horse Station 2.

“Excellent” Laughed Jessie “A dog chase just before heart rates are checked, perfect”

Three riders on horses stop in the Mongolia Steppe
Realising the horse stop is just up ahead after the dog chase.

All our horses were panting and stressed. Fortunately a rogue river appeared in front of us that was not on the maps, offering us some reprieve of time. We wandered up the river bank looking for a crossing point, taking it a bit slower than we would have done without a dog chase perhaps. Once over the river we hopped off and walked into the station hoping by some miracle we would not get a penalty after our rendition of Fast and Furious on horseback.

 

“Hi All! Welcome to station 2, well done!” the vet cheerily said.  

This station was a lot quieter, there was still a buzz of excitement from the crew but a serious lack of riders as the horses tied to the horse line lazily basked in the last of the afternoon sun. All our horse's heart rates were unsurprisingly high so we stood for some time to let the horses graze, washed them down and generally took some time to process the last leg.

“How was your horse?” a member of the crew asked. (You provide a comment on each horse you have ridden so comments can go back to the herders). I automatically went into racehorse trainer feedback mode as if I were telling the trainer about a horse I had just worked.

“Incredible. So fit and healthy, bold, sure-footed, responsive. An amazing little horse full of willingness”

The lady laughed and replied, “I will put incredible, thanks”.

I turned to Erin who also rode racehorses, “I guess they aren’t looking for an in-depth riding work analogy then!” She laughed at me and shook her head.

 

Eventually, after much praying to the horse gods, all our horse's heart rates came down. I gave Nip a soft pat and thank you and ran off to the food Ger for nibbles and hydration. It was also rather hot, so waterproof jackets were coming off and being crammed into my saddle bag. “Let's hope I don’t lose my horse at any point, I need those” I mildly worried.

Girl walk horse across grass in the Mongol derby
Walking Nip into the horse station

Jessie, Erin, Reid and I agreed to ride out of Horse Station 2 together with just an hour to go until we had to be off our horses, mainly to avoid a rehash of the chaos at Horse Station 1 and to give ourselves some breathing space in the morning. We knew camping was on the cards. On leaving the Horse station Ger we were met with all the photographers and Erik streaming videos on socials. Why were all the media teams near us? It turned out it was because we were near the front pack. I chuckled and thought to myself that I did not want to be near the front, that was too much pressure. But a dormant competitive streak had awoken and suddenly I believed I could do quite well in this race. Do not worry, I was humbled fairly quickly!

 

HS2 – camping overnight.

My next horse was huge by Mongolian horse standards, at least 15hh compared to the 13-14hh machines we had been riding.

“I like him, he will take you anywhere” Kathy the photographer smiled at the grey horse. She had ridden in the Derby before and had returned to take amazing shots of us all.

“He will be amazing if I can get on him! He’s quite big!” I squeaked. Stiffness and soreness had already begun to leer over me after 6 hours of riding that day. I was not as nimble as I had been at the start of the day.

He was a pleasure to tack up, and a very gentle horse that was obsessed with rubbing his face on anything. Not ideal when you are trying to pass vet checks but I noted them with the vet on sign-out and was allowed to ride him.

 

Getting on Mungo (my name for horse 3) was a challenge, it took every ounce of strength to haul myself upon this relatively large animal. “Oh dear, it's only day 1 and I am struggling to get on the horses. This does not bode well”

All riders mounted, GPS locked into horse station 3 (despite knowing we would not make it) and we were off just as riders started flooding into the horse station behind us. “That was the right decision” Reid announced. “That horse station tomorrow will be busy”

We all agreed and cockily rode on with our confirmed correct decision.

4 riders leave a horse station during the Mongol Derby
Leaving Horse Station 2 with Jessie, Reid and Erin.

Mungo was a big and strong. Rather than being quick, he felt as if he would carry you into battle, a firm steady and forward gallop. Due to his size in comparison to the other three horses he led the herd, and I was therefore navigating us all. I was leading a string of riders confidently, GPS in one hand, reins in the other, not worrying about the horses being too quick or sharp, I was doing it. I felt like an official Derby rider. However, I would occasionally shout “What does everyone think?” just to make sure people were happy and so they knew I was not a self-proclaimed leader. I did not want that title after getting people lost in the hills on leg 1.  

Rider and horse in the Mongol Derby
Mungo striding on whilst i keep an eye out for marmot holes on the ground

A jeep hurled up alongside us with the film crew and media team. “You need to stay where there is water when you camp! You are cutting it quite fine” Shari one of the other photographers shouted from the jeep.

“Yes, no worries!” I called back with all the confidence of a very confident thing.

“Bugger, water!” I thought to myself. I had forgotten about that small detail. Fortunately, there was a river up ahead, but we were likely not going to make it before 7 pm and there were not any guaranteed shelters there. Sparsely dotted around us in the hills were Gers of local farmers, this was guaranteed shelter and potential water. I ran the options past the group and they agreed to start scouting the Gers.  

“Let's start asking people if we can stay” Reid suggested “It's 6:45 so we only have 15 minutes”.

We wandered up a hill to the nearest Ger and were met by a barking dog.

“Sain uu!” (Hello in Mongolian) Reid shouted, hoping that someone was home to stop the dog snarling. I looked at the tracker clock, 10 minutes until our time was up.

“Just stand still and stop walking towards the dog” Jessie explained “It should calm him down and he won't attack us” Jessie had been to the Derby academy the week before so we took this as gospel. The dog stopped walking towards us but did not stop barking and growling.

Riders on the steppe of Mongolia during the Derby
Looking for a place to stay for the night.

“Is that the herder over there?” Erin pointed to a man on a dirt bike rounding up some cows in the distance, they were heading towards the ger.

“Yer probably” Reid replied “We do not have time to wait though, and he could still say no”.

Attempting to find a place to stay at the first Ger on night 1 of the Derby
Attempting to find a place to stay at the first Ger on night 1 of the Derby

“There is a Ger on the next hill” I jested to a white dot about a 500 meters away “We can make It there and there are two Gers so it might be a family” Riders were encouraged to stay with families where possible as these posed less of a threat. Single men, groups of men and bachelor Gers were advised to be avoided. 7 minutes left.

 

We took off towards the second option. “There are Hannah and Rolo!” I shouted. They were heading to a goat shed on the hillside, "dam that would probably be perfect" I thought. However, they soon galloped off out of the goat shed and into the distance. Maybe there was no water there, it was comforting to see that it was not just us struggling to find a home for the night. 6 minutes left.

 

We trotted up the track to the second Ger, slowing to a walk on the crest, nervously shouting hello again, hoping for a small miracle. A lady and two children appeared. Jessie attempted to converse with the lady, trying to explain what we were doing and who we were. After some group charades and broken translating the lady eventually shook her head and pointed to the children. “I think she is saying she needs to ask her husband” Jessie explained. 

“Ah Dam! This place is perfect it has a horse line and water at the bottom of the hill” Erin said, crestfallen. 4 minutes left.

 

“Let’s camp at the bottom of the hill under the stars next to the water trough and hobble our horses” Reid suggested. I was not happy with this suggestion. The horses were going to disappear, the clouds were beginning to close in and none of us had tents due to weight allowances. However, we had no other choice apart from receiving a time penalty for riding late and hoping someone further down the track would take us in. If you were over 30 minutes late past 7 pm you were disqualified due to safety reasons. Every minute between 7 and 7:30 you were penalised. 2 minutes left.

 

We turned and wandered down the hill to the water trough, mentally preparing ourselves for a long night with no sleep ahead. TOOT TOOT! A horn sounded and an old, spluttering, white jeep appeared full of laughing Mongolians. “That might be the husband! Let's ask him to stay!”, hoping to not be under the stars and rain on the first night.

The car slowed, we played charades again and the driver nodded, smiled, and pointed to the Gers, gesturing for us to follow him. We were saved. 30 seconds left.

Four riders in the steppe of Mongolia during the Mongol derby
Thrilled to have found a home for the night at the last minute

A message was sent to HQ that we had found somewhere to stay with a family, so they knew we were settled for the night and had just made the time cut off. 10 seconds left, message sent.

 

Four very happy riders, four very big smiles, four happy unhobbled horses grazing away contently. “I do not want to camp again if that’s how stressful it's going to be” I nervously laughed at Erin.  “Lets stay at horse stations”.

lady grazes horse in Mongolia
Grazing Mungo at the end of day 1 with a beautiful view

We grazed the horses for an hour on the hillside, watching the most beautiful blood-red sunset, playing further charades with the family, and waiting for the crew to come and check we were safe for the night. If the medics and vets check on you and the spot is unsafe or there is no water, then you are penalised and moved on.

 

I had the most scenic, wild wee in my life, halfway down the hill, in a fold of the terrain watching the blood-red sunset light up the clouds like night lights. No noise apart from the wind gently lapping around my bare bottom and the distant laughs of the Mongolian family we were staying with. Nothing apart from the rolling hills and grasslands for as far as the eye could see. No humans, no animals, nothing. “This is incredible,” I thought to myself “This is how we are meant to live, not all the rubbish back home” For the first time in forever the penny dropped, life back home was not a life it was existing on a conveyor belt. A lie of always thinking you need more, never happy when you have bought the latest thing or had the latest promotion, because guess what, you are nurtured and conditioned to believe you always need more. This wee was a life-changing moment. I bid anyone reading to have a life-changing, thought-provoking wee.

After a quick inspection of the general crotch area, checking all was okay after 70km, I sauntered up the hill breathing in the clean, crisp air. Each breath on the steppe was almost as if breathing for the first time.

 

“My turn!” Erin bounced handing me our grazing horses

“That will be the best wee of your life” I laughed

After an hour the crew turned up, and did some translating to the family to properly explain why we had turned up unannounced. Not many nomads have heard of the Derby so riders knocking on their doors in strange kit, with horses is a bit of a shock. Riders asking for a place to stay even more so. We took it for granted that people would welcome us with open arms but this first night was a reality check. Why should we feel like the Mongolian people should let us in for no reason, Western entitlement, that’s why. Being turned away made me check myself and realise that if four people knocked on my door at home asking for a place to stay out of the blue I would have said no, you’d likely get stabbed in the UK after all. Why should the Mongolians act any differently? A mental note was made that camping was not as straightforward as I had been led to believe it would be. The mental notepad was getting rather full!

Mongolian and westerners walk around the steppe together
The men of the local family showing us around and giving our horses somewhere safe to stay for the night.

After the translator had discussed everything with the family, they welcomed us into their house with open arms. The men took our horses from us and tied them up safely for the evening, the ladies and children set to work on feeding us. It will always amaze me how giving the Mongolians were in relation to how much they had. Before we could sit down in the Ger there was a Sheep’s head buffet laid out in front of us. Our first taste of Mongolian hospitality.  We all nervously smiled at the tongue and cheeks being torn from the skull and thankfully received the body parts when handed to us. It turns out that all the areas of sheep we do not eat usually in the UK are pretty tasty.

Mongolian local offers western women food
Receiving food from the men of the local family on day 1

Two women eat food in a local Mongolian Ger
Famished after a 70km ride on day 1

four Mongol derby riders on night 1 in a local Ger
Full stomachs, horses safe, shelter for the night, four very happy Derby riders.

Stomach full, hearts brimming with thanks and eyes heavy with sweat, dirt and tiredness, we all rolled out our sleeping bags ready for night one on the steppe. The family huddled onto the two beds in the Ger, the children on one single bed to our left, husband, wife and newborn on the single bed on the right. Four riders huddled together on the floor space, like sardines in a can, comforted by newfound friends. We dosed off to Reid’s heavy breathing, hushed Mongolian whispers and the distant sound of cows approaching.

Women packs a bag in Mongolia with the sun set behind
Packing my kit bag for the next day and making sure everything was in order
Day 1 Derby Lessons:
  • Take some bits and pieces to add to your bag at the weigh-in in case you are underweight, saving running back and forth to the Gers.

  • Get on the horses quickly and get them moving. The less faffing the better.

  • Be quiet around the horses, they are not really any different to horses in the UK apart from being a bit more skittish. Treat them as you would a young horse that has not long been started.

  • You will not be able to alter your stirrup length on the horses, do it before you get on.

  • Make sure your saddle bag is tight to the saddle. You want no movement at all. Movement = bronking.

  • Always set your GPS to the next stop before you get on

  • Always know the rough direction you are going before you get on

  • Do not expect to ride with the same people all race, you are going to get split up immediately and will ride with lots of different people, this is a good thing!

  • Just because a horse bolts off and charges the entire leg does not mean it is fit.

  • Just because a horse is not galloping off all the time does not mean he is unfit.

  • Horse station1 will always be utter carnage as 43 riders descend. The horse stops become quieter the further into the race you go.   

  • The start line is crazy, if you are worried stay at the back to the side.

  • Practice texting on your phone and galloping around fields at home, (in a safe private field with no traffic!) Perfect for when you need to do some GPS work whilst being run away with!

  • The horses levitate over holes in the ground, just let them sort their legs out and try not to interfere. 80% chance you won't end up eating dirt. Maybe.

  • Don’t get off to wee between stops if you can help it. You are asking for trouble.

  • Around hills and mountains is usually better than over, unless you have a powerhouse of a horse. These do exist.

  • Nothing about the next few days will be graceful!

  • Learn Mongolian for thank you, goodbye, hello and good horse at the very least. It helps and the herders appreciate it.

  • The start gun is literally a bang. Hold on tight! Even on a quiet horse, it is going to run with the group.

  • If your start line is near the horse line, be ready for your horse to hang and nap, Barbie was quite determined to go back to the horse line.

  • Mandatory checkpoints are there for a reason, sheer cliff faces and river rapids are not the dream. Unless you are a goat or in a rubber boat.

  • Dogs are dangerous, if you see or hear one get your horse moving asap away from its Ger.

  • Trust your horse. Don’t ask questions just do it.

  • Camping requires water. Plan your camping around water on the maps. Do not forget and then panic like I did.

  • Write down on a piece of laminated paper who you are and what you are doing, in Mongolian. This can be used to hand out when you are looking for places to camp. Much easier than charades!

  • Pay attention to the Ger etiquette lessons at start camp training. Especially if you are camping out. The herders that are involved in the race at horse stations might be a bit more forgiving if you walk into the Ger incorrectly and do something unintentionally offensive but the nomads who are not involved in the race will just see you as being rude and ignorant.

  • If your horse starts to scratch away its face with its hind feet through itching tell the vets on the tracker so they can give you advice. If you do not tell them and the horse turns up to the vet check with sores over its face you will receive a penalty for tack rubbing. My third horse Mungo had an itchy face and was scratching an awful lot to the point he started to take off his fur. I told the vet and they advised me on what to do. I cleaned it and held a cold cloth for soothing which seemed to help overnight. If I had turned up to the next horse station with a rubbed face though I would have received penalties.  


The next related blog post "Mongol Derby Day 2: Dog Chases, Alone in the Dunes and More Unusual Wees." can be found here.

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