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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

The Mongol Derby Day 3: Three Very Different Horses.

Updated: May 28

All Photographs by Kathy Gabrielle, Shari Thompson and Bayarsaihan Ochiroo

The previous related blog post for trace day 2 can be found here

women giving a thumbs up whilst riding a horse in mongolia
Tiger and I on day 3
Camping – HS6

I was awoken by Jessie entering the room around 5 am whispering in panicked tones. “There are only 2 horses tied up outside, one Is missing!”.

I rolled over, not having registered what was said. “Yep be out in a minute”

“Guys there are only 2 horses!! One of the chestnuts has gone” She tried again.

That was it, Lucy and I were up, it was one of ours that had decided to take off in the night, bugger. “Please do not be mine,” I thought as I grasped around in the dark for my boots.

The three of us walked out of the house into the brisk morning air, a faint red glimmer of sunlight highlighting the edges of the mountains afar. Three riders walked with haste towards the round pen, we could faintly make out two equine silhouettes with a stark gap in between. I squinted through the darkness with every step through the dewy ground, begging for a glimpse of my horse with a green bridle and the correct number so I could relax. A few meters out from the round pen I could see that there was no green bridle and there was no correct number. It was my horse that had vanished during the night. With nothing but a strand of goat skin bridle left tied to the fence, my heart sank and my stomach churned with the uncertainty of what the day would now hold.

“It looks as though he snapped the lead rein that was tying him up” Lucy confirmed tugging at the remainder of my bridle. I looked around in the hope that there would be a horse nearby grazing away. In the distance, there was a herd of horses, just visible in the morning haze as the sun began to break through the mist.

“We have got some time before we can ride out, Jessie can graze the horses, let's go see if we can find your man” Lucy smiled. “That could be him over there” she pointed to a horse walking away from the house over to the herd of horses about 1km away. We walked with haste through the boggy ground to search for my needle in the Mongolian haystack.

“That could be him!” I called up ahead to Lucy, "It looks the right colour but I can not see a number” One of the perks of all the Derby horses having numbers on their hind quarters was it was easy to spot them amongst none racing horses if they did escape. However, this horse did not look to have a number or a bridle on him. We continued to walk over to the herd, as close as they would let us, to see if he was dwelling here. Trying to make out a horse in a herd of 40 in the dark of the first-morning sun is not easy, especially when the horses will not let you near them. “ I do not think he is here” I announced crestfallen.

“Let's try that herd up there” Lucy replied pointing to a herd back towards the house up the hillside. “He is either in one of the herds we can see or he has gone back to the horse station given it is not that far away”.

We marched back to Jessie, updated her and diverted off to the next herd of horses. However, I was aware that time was ticking, Jessie and Lucy would have to think about riding out soon and I would be left alone with no horse, in the middle of nowhere. Lucy and I attacked the hillside, in search of Houdini, at this point I just wanted to know he was safe so I could tell the herders where he was. There was no horse with a bridle or number.

“Lets try that herd up there!” Lucy optimistically pointed to another in the distance.

“It is okay Lucy, thank you so much for trying to help but I think I need to accept I am walking back to the last horse station to get a new horse. Even if we find him, we will not catch him”

She agreed, we were very much on a wild goose chase that was not serving any purpose apart from using up valuable energy we did not have. To begin with I was quite chipper about the whole thing, we were warned that things would go wrong, and this was my thing and there might even be a great story out of it! However, as the girls tacked up and I got my saddle and bags together to start the 6km walk back to station 5 a growing sense of sadness crept over me. I had enjoyed Lucie's company, she was a great laugh, crack on and have fun sort of horse woman, very much like my friends back home. After sending a message to HQ to explain I was okay but lost my horse overnight, I helped the girls onto their horses and at 7am they were off, galloping towards the sand dunes and mountains in the distance, their shadows dancing on the ground. I turned around, observed the path back and embraced an almighty sigh. “Come on legs, let us get trekking!” I lugged the saddle and bags onto my back, trudging through the bogs towards the dirt track in the distance.  


After walking and whistling for about a kilometre, another living soul appeared on a motorbike, coming towards me. Dreading another 5km of walking with all my gear I shouted and waved to the local man speeding in my direction. He slammed on his brakes and smiled at me asking me various questions in Mongolian. I dropped my saddle and bags, whipped out the GPS and pointed to the last horse station, pointed to me, and then pointed to him with a massive smile and prayer hands. He nodded and patted the seat behind him on the bike. I assumed he understood that I wanted to go to this location. So I hopped onto the motorbike, saddle pinned between the man and me with my bottom hanging off the back. Off we went, but he started to head back to the house I had just come from. “NOOOOO” I thought, this is not right. However, my lack of Mongolian meant I had to cuddle the man over his shoulders and hope pointing at the GPS over and over would be enough. The man smiled over his shoulder at me and nodded again, but pointed to last nights accommodation and said something.


Back at the origin of the morning drama the man hopped off the bike, went into the house, picked up a jiffy tank of fuel, gave it to me to hold and off we went again, this time back towards the horse station. “Phew he just needed fuel” I thought as I clasped onto my saddle, bags and now also the flammable liquid spilling from the top of the open container. Thank goodness I had my waterproof trousers on. He hurled the bike through the bogs, splashing the cold, stagnant water into our faces, and suddenly veered the bike down towards a river where a herd of cows were grazing. There was no braking. He took the bike straight over the edge of the steep river bank into the herd of cows. I clung tightly to the stranger who was now in charge of my life, my eyes closed hoping that he had a low death rate of passengers. After a few minutes, his driving calmed down. We drove down the river, through the cows, water lapping around our ankles. I checked the GPS, we were heading to a group of Gers nowhere near the horse stop. I showed the man the horse stop marker again over his shoulder, and yet again he smiled and nodded. He revved the bike up the riverside out of the water and over to a single Ger surrounded by goats and cows. He shouted towards the Ger in Mongolian and a lady emerged. She waved and ushered us in. I sat on the bike confused, this was not the horse station…


The man took the now half full, tank of fuel off me and walked up to the Ger gesturing for me to follow. In all my Englishness I automatically thought that I might get murdered so happily sat on the bike and patted my saddle at him. He disappeared for 10 minutes. I sat on the bike wistfully looking out to the direction that the horse station was in, wondering where all the other riders now were. Long gone I imagine, I would be riding on my own for a very long time. The man and (I assume) his wife, emerged from the Ger with something in their hands…food! He had gone to get his breakfast, murder was not on the cards at all. Internal celebrations occurred. He came over to the bike and handed me a small pasty-like object and mimicked to eat. I ate it and it was delicious. My mood change must have been obvious as they both grinned at me and he hopped back on the bike. The lady waved at us as her husband threw the bike into gear with a judder, finally heading back towards the dirt track to the horse stop.

Fed and on the right path I was suddenly a different person. I beamed as the man tore through the rivers this time, shrieked with glee when he chucked us off the side of the river banks, and even waved to the riders heading in the opposite direction and now overtaking me. I shouted to Reid as our paths crossed, him heading towards the sand and mountains I had woken next to. He looked a little confused as I took off past him on the bike. I checked the GPS, we were not far now, 7 riders had overtaken me, not ideal but I was loving this bike ride. The man, once again veered off course heading back towards the river flanking the dirt track. Down into the water and straight back up the other side we were now back at the Gers I had passed before I entered Horse Stop 5 the previous day.


Looking back, it was clear that the man was trying to avoid the bogs Lucy and I had ridden through the previous day. I assume his bike would not manage. Therefore, he had to go around the river and find a road. To do this he had to ride past some Gers with guard dogs. I assumed he knew what he was doing, and that we would be fine. So, when two dogs started charging towards us, I did not think much of it. Eventually, they caught up with us and were snapping at my ankles. The man waved his hand at them nonchalantly and shouted something. They did not stop but instead tried to bite his outstretched extremity. He was relaxed all the while I was sitting watching these dogs millimetres from removing his hand or sinking their teeth into my legs. They continued to chase until we went back into the river. The man laughed and said something in Mongolian, all I could muster as a response was a nervous laugh.

Bombing down the last bit of road near Horse Stop Five a crew jeep was heading our way. It was Maggie. “We were just on our way to find you after your message to HQ!” She said, “Looks like you are way ahead of us though!”

She waved me off into Horse Stop 5 as I clung to the driver for the last few hundred meters of chaotic fun.

Mongolian herder drives female rider back to a horse stop on the mongol derby
Arriving back at Horse station 5 on a motorbike

“POTTS!” Erik Laughed “Tell us how this all happened!” He gestured to the bike and driver whilst videoing for socials. We had arrived back at Horse Stop 5 in one piece.

“Urmm I lost my horse overnight and chanced thumbing a lift because the thought of walking 6km with my saddle didn’t sound like fun” I relayed honestly. “I've been for breakfast with this lovely man and had quite a fun morning on his bike!”

Man and women stand by a motorbike in the middle of the Mongolian steppe
My amazing rescuer in the middle of the steppe

After some back and forth on storytelling, I was eventually informed that my horse had come back to horse station five in the night and returned to his herd. My bridle and horse were gone. I needed to redraw. However, praise to the horse gods Erin was at this station now safe and sound and with a few other riders to ride out with! I ran over to Erin, hugged her and asked to ride out together with a few others, I had a crew again.


The replacement horse station 5 horse I named Min, he was the tiniest horse I had ridden since I was about 10 years old. He was barely13hh and did not look overly up for the journey ahead. However, the other riders were tacking up and I did not want to get left behind so I embraced a quiet, easy-looking horse and decided it would be nice to be able to fully relax, especially given the drugs for my hip flexor were running out. I was given an old bridle from a herder to use given mine was on my horse back in the wild somewhere and there was no time to wait for it to be retrieved. I mounted and rode out with Erin, Maddie, Ashlin, and Martin.

“Take 2” I thought to myself.

girl riding a horse in mongolia
Take 2, leaving horse station 5 on a new horse, Min

I navigated the team through the rivers and grassland with ease given I had ridden the route the day previous. Little Min was already beginning to flake and we were only 7km of trotting into the leg, I was going to have to take this leg slowly. We stopped for water frequently as a team, paddling our horses in the river just before the mini Gobi desert entrance, aware that we had a large expanse of arid terrain in front of us. After Min had recouped we wandered through the sand dunes to find the pass we had been advised to take. We roamed through the beautiful golden dunes, towering above our heads, diligently following the maps. “Drink!” I squawked at everyone. It was another very hot day already. To get a feel for the dunes below is Maddie's video of the team riding.

”We are heading over there, has anyone got a preference as to whether we go steep climb over the mountains or a slightly longer, more gradual route?” I asked.

The latter was deemed the preferred route as we crept out from the sandy slopes and into another expense of grassland, the mountain range we sought to climb was in the distance.

“Lets get going!” Maddie yelled at us all in her fun and vivacious manner. We all took off in hot pursuit across the flat grasslands. It was here I began to see just how tough this leg was going to be on Min. He struggled to break out of a canter to keep up with the other horses galloping off across the countryside and I would frequently slow him down and let him have a breather. Erin hung in limbo between me trailing out the rear and the rest of the group.

“Go on without me Erin, I can't be holding you all up” I explained.

“No, you are our navigator and have looked after us this far so we will make sure you make it to the next stop with your little horse” She smiled.

It was at this point I knew Erin was a special person, the type of person you wanted alongside on a journey such as this. Honest, determined and fair.

We trotted slowly alongside each other having a catch-up whilst the others bombed off a little way ahead.

“I wonder where Liz is?” Erin asked. We pondered where she could be, hoping she was okay and safe. None of us had seen her since the start line. Christ, we hoped she was safe and was only a few horses behind us. We had yet to hear anything of riders not being in the race anymore and had assumed that everyone was still okay and racing. However, the odds were that by day three people would now be dropping out or be injured.


After a stop-and-start approach to this grassland zone ride with Erin we caught up with the others who had stopped to graze their horses. “That way” I pointed, over to the lower of the mountain passes. “I think I am going to struggle to get this chap up there quickly so I will take my time. Go on without me if you need to though.

The team all said they would wait as I had navigated and we were a team for this leg at least. Off we all trotted so Min could keep up. He maintained a good pace until we hit the bottom of the mountain and started to climb. All the horses marched up the hillside, riders stayed behind me to encourage Min to keep going. He seemed to be managing well but was just tired. “No more trotting for you little chap, this is you cooling off now, you can walk the rest of the 8km back” I whispered to him.

As we climbed, the mountain faces next to us became sheer, the path becoming rocky and treacherous underfoot. Gone was the dirt track. Above us mountain goats looked down and the occasional horse seeking refuge in the mountains' shade appeared alongside. We trudged up and up, looking back occasionally on the beautiful views over the steppe with the desert from the early hours now a distant memory. “There is the pass we need!” I shouted to the front rider as we encroached on a small gap in the ridge line some hundred meters up ahead. Erin's video below of the climb shows the beautiful views.

We reached the top and let the horses graze on the little weeds that were popping through the stones. Min did not want to graze and just stood with his head hanging low. “Bugger, that’s not a good sign,” I thought “I need to get him to the horse stop”

I spat some water over his neck to try and cool him down and loosened his girth a bit for comfort. It was all downhill from here to the horse station so Min could start to cool down. The terrain on the descent was steep and unstable so I opted for staying on board to let the expert navigate the footing. Min carefully meandered down the mountainside, ensuring we made it to the base in one piece. From there on in it was a straightforward track right into the horse stop. We all wandered down the road to the horse station and I hopped off Min to walk him back in, he didn’t seem to be any happier as we arrived at the horse stop. “I am not sure you should be doing this race little man; you do not look as if you have enjoyed yourself”.  


Going through the motions at the horse station the other riders all flew through the vet check with low heart rates. I stood and waited my turn with Min. He stood, head still hung low, not drinking or grazing. “What is up little chap?” I whispered gently stroking his neck, willing him to drink in the once again overbearing morning heat.


“Oh dear, he doesn’t look too happy, lets see where we are at” The vet said as we approached her for our heart rate reading.

“He has been quite a slow horse all the way and has walked and trotted most of the leg, we have walked from the top of the mountain to the horse stop, I am not sure he was cut out for the race so we took it easy” I explained, hoping the rules didn't apply if you were a nice person who filled the vet in on every last detail.

The vet nodded and smiled. “He is only just over 60, give him his 30 minutes to settle and we will re-measure, try to get him to drink and eat”


I spent a heart-wrenching half an hour bathing Min in cold water in the mid-day sun, willing him to drink and eat. He picked at the grass reluctantly and snorted at the water trough, he was just not interested in anything. The others had all gone into the Gers to fill up with water and have a snack. Erin filled up my water for me, convinced that my horse would pulse down. Eventually, they all started to pick their next horses. “Guys go without me I do not think this little chap is going to pass the check, he isn’t happy”


The vet walked over, stethoscope poised for a final heart rate reading, this was it. “Come on little man” I muttered into his mane, giving him a gentle pat.


The clock ticked and ticked, the vet moved the scope a few times and eventually stood up straight. I knew the moment she looked at me that Min had failed the vet check. “I am so sorry but he is still just above the heart rate limit. It’s a fail and you will have to wait here for 2 hours as a penalty”


“Okay, do you know what might be wrong with him and what I can do to help him?” I asked.

“Keep doing what you are doing, I suspect the heat is not helping” She replied “I am sorry”.


“Alright to go Potts?” Erin asked.

“Nope, we’ve failed the vet check, I am here for 2 hours, hopefully, see you this evening!” I mustered, holding back a stinging in my eyes. In hindsight crying over something so trivial seems ridiculous, however in the moment you feel as though you have let the horse down. I tried so hard to look after Min, cooling him down with my drinking water, not pushing him and ensuring he had regular breaks. However, despite all of this I had still not looked after him to the level required and that felt awful.


The other riders mounted and charged off as a group without me. I watched them disappear up the valley between the mountains and felt a stomach-churning sadness that I was alone and also slipping further behind the time cut-offs required. With no idea where you are placement-wise during the race, every rider that goes past you seems like a massive failure, as if the blood wagon is about to sweep you up at any minute and announce you are too slow to carry on. 


I stayed with Min for a further 20 minutes, walking him around the horse stop and chatting away to him about the journey so far, washing him in cold water regularly and taking him over to the lushest patches of grass. Eventually, his heart rate reduced further and he started to munch away, he finally was able to be returned to the herders. I gave him a soft pat farewell and wandered over to the Ger to sit the remainder of my penalty out. As I approached the Ger more riders were approaching the horse stop, 9 riders rode past me whilst I idled at this station. I had underestimated how far ahead I had been and was becoming increasingly disheartened with every rider overtaking. Was I going to be strung out at the back for the next 6 days on my own with the threat of being swept up looming over me daily?


I sat staring into my bowl of noodles thinking about the day so far. It had been a bit of a mess. There was an hour left to wait until I could draw a new horse. An hour where I could wallow in self-pity or an hour where I could make a plan.

“What is done is done girl, you need to finish this race, you were never here to try and get placed, just to finish” I reminded myself.

This is where I very much drew on previous ultra marathon event experience and resilience. Over the years I had adopted the “lets see what happens” approach to events which had left me in a few tough situations. However, due to this I had learnt to dig myself out of holes and how to carry on in tough times. This previous experience is what got me moving out of this horse station and through the remainder of the day.


I dug out my GPS and mapped the next two legs out, carefully planning my route. If I wanted to make up time I could cut up and over the mountain passes as the crow flies to Horse Stop 7. All the other riders seemed to be headed around the mountains when they left this station, flat yes but much longer. I would be able to tell what sort of horse I had when I was on. If they were a bolter I would go around, if they seemed steady I would go over, this was the pact I made with myself. Assess the horse and pick a route accordingly. The leg after this I also studied, much easier, following the electric pylons as the crow flies, the terrain was not too horrific along this route and following an obvious landmark would mean I could focus on riding a quick leg to try and catch up. The goal was to make It to Horse Stop 8 for the evening. This would need two very quick legs. Filled with noodles, a plan and buckets of hope I strode out of the Ger with half an hour to spare.


HS6- HS7

Kit laid out, long drop visited, a quick wash from the water trough to cool down and sun cream reapplied I lay in the baking sun for time to pass. A few herders came and sat with me. Talking amongst themselves they pointed and laughed at my boots and chaps. I took my footwear off and gave them to one of the young herders who studied the clothing in every last detail, laughing and then pointing to areas, discussing my strange shoes with the other men. We then all lay in the sun together, the men chatting amongst themselves. I felt so at peace in a group of men who I could not communicate with, just basking in the sun and existing, waiting for time to pass. I was almost thankful for the vet penalty.


“Are you ready to pick your next horse?”

I jumped with a start out of my tranquil sunbathing position and nodded to the vet. The gaggle of men all dragged themselves up from the floor and wandered over to the horse line ready for me to reveal which equine I would be taking for a 30 km jaunt.


A stocky, athletic grey was pulled from the line and handed to me. I named him Grey whilst riding, my brain was too fried to be conjuring names by this point. Grey was a bit of a nightmare to tack up and it took me a while, but once I had managed to haul myself onto his back he cantered off at a steady pace. He was solid, sure-footed and did not appear to have a desire to run off at pace. “You are an over-the-mountain horse” I declared. With that, we headed off up the valley road in our solid canter whilst I kept my eyes peeled for the road that would splinter off into the mountains, hoping it would catch us up to the groups ahead.  


Once the mountain pass road became apparent, we crossed a river and started our ascent at a decent trot. A farmer and his flock of sheep came across our path, so naturally, I slowed so as not to cause too much commotion to the animals. The herder waved and I waved back, but he continued to wave. “He is calling us over,” I thought. “Why?"

Grey and I trundled over to the man, who held onto the reins and patted the horse, saying something in Mongolian to me. He gestured over to a small stream running down the mountainside and guided Grey to the water. Grey drank enthusiastically and the man smiled at me and continued to stroke him. “This man knows this horse” I thought “Possibly it is his horse?”

“Sain mori (good horse)?” I smiled at the man.

The man looked at me, smiled back and nodded. He then turned Grey around from the water and pointed to the top of the mountains, my destination.

I nodded to the man and he said something else in Mongolian. Looking back on it he was probably telling me to go that way because he knew the horse.

I nodded and thanked the man, but just as I was about to ask Grey to canter off, the man slapped the horse's rear end with a flat, solid palm and that was it, there was no hope of stopping. I was somewhere between disbelief and excitement. Grinning like a child. I was back on a horse with oomph!


Grey galloped for some time up the track to the mountain track and gradually came down to a steady canter when the incline became steep. This horse meant business, he never felt tired, rather just a well-oiled machine that knew which gear to be in. After 10 minutes of solid cantering up the incline, we reached the top of the mountain pass. We stood for a second to breathe in the view and the fresh air.

“You are a machine!” I shouted at the top of the mountain as the wind lapped around my ears, a welcome reprieve from the scorching heat. I could see for miles into the distance, including the dirt track weaving down the hillside into a valley “That track takes us to the horse stop” I told Grey. However, Grey did not care for navigation talk and was already becoming unrestful, this horse needed no breather. I kicked on and off Grey went at a rate of knots down the mountain, all I could do was sit and enjoy the view and trust this horse's feet. He needed no interference from me whatsoever. At moments like this I would wonder about the other riders, how was Erin getting on? Where on Earth was Liz? I was worried I had not seen her still. "Hopefully, I will see them both and other friendly faces soon." I pondered over and over as I rode silently down the hillside, longing for some company.


Once in the valley, we were met with a river flowing alongside the dirt track. I took Grey into the river for a drink and a splash around, the heat was unbearable for me so I dreaded to think how hot he was after his mountain dash. He drank briefly and turned to head out onto the dirt track again. This horse seemed to be pre-programmed into my GPS. I was not riding at all, I was merely a passenger upon a mountain goat. We continued to canter through the valley and eventually were met at the mouth of the dirt track with an opening into a bleak and vast expanse of grassland. “There is the horse stop!” I cried to Grey “You total legend!”


I knew we had made good time, but it was not until we reached the horse station that I realised just how much. The riders that overtook me at the last horse stop about an hour before I mounted Grey were only just mounting up. Martin was coming out of the food Ger and I automatically knew I had to leave with him. It was looking less likely time-wise that I was going to make it to the next horse stop before 7 o'clock and I did not want to camp out on my own.

“Martin!” I shouted as Grey was checked by the vet “What are you still doing here?!”

“We had an accident on the last leg and one of the girls got chucked from her horse, she is having a rest in the Ger”

I had not taken this information in, I was laser-focused on getting on the next horse and leaving with Martin. It was not until later I realised who it was that had fallen.


“He has passed the check and can go back to the herders” The vet gestured to Grey. “Are you going to stay here for the night or head out with Martin?"

“I am going to head out with Martin if that’s okay with him…” I replied. Martin nodded and went to tack up his next horse.

“Thank you chap, you were incredible,” I told Grey as I handed him back to a herder, giving him a cheeky pat without the herders seeing.


HS7- Goat Shed

The next 5 minutes were a bit of a blur and a mad dash to catch up with Martin. I drew the next horse, gulped down some of the vet's water and organised my tack. A chestnut horse with no mane and tiger stripes down his four legs was presented to me. The herders would not let me take him off them.


“I thought I needed to tack him up alone, why won’t they let me” I asked the translator.

“You are near the back of the racing pack now, I do not think that rule is an issue” The vet explained.

“You may tack the horse up, but the herders need to keep hold of him” the translator clarified.

Not thinking anything of this I tacked the horse (I named him Tiger) up and signed out with the vet. Martin had vanished and I saw him bolting off up the hillside in the distance. I needed to catch up with him.  The herder that was holding onto Tiger was now joined by two other herders. Big strapping men who looked as though they could knock Darth Vader out in a flash.

One of the herders called out to the translator and said something to her.


“You need to mount quickly and hold on,” The translator told me.

“Excellent! A quick one!” I squealed with glee. Just what I needed to catch up with all the other riders!


I approached Tiger and he snorted and bucked around the man holding him, nearly pulling him to the floor. One of the Mongolian hulks laid across Tiger's neck with his arms and chest. I approached again, Tiger snorted, reared and managed to get the man off his neck. The third man approached, Tiger was in essence pinned to the floor for me to mount by two men on his neck and a man holding him.

“What the hell happens when these men get off this horse?” I thought. "Lets find out!"


Martin was now nearly out of sight, I panicked and threw myself onto Tiger without a second thought. The men jumped back away from the horse and the herder threw the lead rope at me and jumped out of Tigers path. Tiger exploded like nothing I had ever seen before. Head between his legs, snorting, back end in the air whilst trying to gallop at full speed. It was as if I were sitting astride a tornado. I hauled Tiger around to point in the direction of the power lines and where Martin had disappeared, that was all that was required. Tiger, bolted off, his small legs moving at a million miles per hour over the shrubland stretched out in front of us. The little blob in the distance was our target, Martin.

Women galloping horse on the Mongol Derby
The tornado that was Tiger.

Tiger crashed through shrubs, jumped over small hedges, hurdled across dirt tracks and ruts in the ground, fell down marmot holes and stumbled out of them again, all at a full pace gallop for at least 20 minutes. There was no slowing and no concern from the little horse that he could not conquer all that was put in front of him at full speed. This horse was my favourite ride of the entire Derby. I was terrified, to begin with, sure certain death was on the cards with his brazen approach to tackling life head-on. However, as he cleared every obstacle on his path, never veering around, always through or over I began to trust his instincts and his talent. He was quick, he was bold, and he was the most sure-footed creature I had ever had the privilege to ride.

After a short time, Martin was no longer a speck in the distance. He was still being bolted with and hurtling towards the power pylons. This did not deter Tiger, just as I thought I was going the quickest I could go on a horse he locked onto Martin's horse and sped up. It got to the point where I could not tell which foot was striking the ground, it felt as if I were on a cartoon where their legs were on one big wheel. The closer we got to Martin the keener Tiger became, until we were upsides and racing. It was apparent that Martin's horse was similar to Tiger, neither of us was stopping any time soon!

“These horses have one hundred legs don’t they!?” Martin laughed at the top of his voice. “They just don’t fall”

“THIS IS INCREDIBLE!” Was all I could muster back, a massive grin plastered across my face, laughing at the top of my lungs, yelling "good boy" to Tiger every few seconds. I was in total awe. It felt as if I was in a dream, floating, watching someone else have the best experience ever. Nothing around me counted, nothing in the world mattered as we galloped towards the pylons. I forgot everything, why I was there, where I was, and even who I was. I just recall grinning like a fool, this was freedom, this was what life was about.

We were racing two rapid, bold horses at full pelt through the undergrowth and over thousands of holes. I could not wrap my head around how we were still alive. The racehorses back home would have been in the vets with broken legs if I had asked them to do a fraction of the pace for a moment of the time over this ground. These horses were everything, they were Gods.

After the initial lack of control, the two horses gradually began to listen to our hushed “Woah’s”. Tiger reluctantly came back to a trot whilst I checked our location. It was short-lived though, as soon as either Martin or I ended up in front the other horse would take off to catch up. “These must be Naadam racing horses” Martin laughed.

We galloped over the hills, and along valleys, the horses never slowing. We both had the biggest smiles across our faces for the entire leg. Shouts of “what amazing horses”, “This is amazing!” and “I want to take him home!” filled the air. We were on cloud 9 and I forgot about any pain or soreness that was pulsating through my body.

We were making excellent time but had not seen any other riders. During the Euphoria, I had forgotten that we were indeed in a race and had to think about finding somewhere to stay for the night, given it takes so long to convince strangers to let you into their home. We had an hour, we were 15km away from the horse stop.

“We could make this Martin!” I yelled. “We are well over halfway and it has only taken just over an hour”

We slowed to a trot for a tactic talk. We checked the route and agreed we were on the correct path, then discussed time. We could make it if the horses carried on at the speeds they were. “Mongolian horses do not get tired from 40km” I recalled seeing on a Derby promo video with an interview with a local herder.

“Lets do it” I nodded at Martin “Lets try to get to the horse stop” The horses tore off as if they had not already galloped 15km.

Two riders in the Mongol derby on the steppe with large rock formations
A brief pause with Martin to talk tactics of the potential of camping

We continued to make great time but were cautious of cut-offs and vet penalties. After some navigational errors on my side, we realised that the horse station was not the white Ger we had been heading to, it was 4 km past it. We had 20 minutes left until 7 o'clock. The horses were still galloping off and not tiered, however we now had heart rates and penalties to think about.

We opted to try and camp out in a nearby Ger. After some miscommunication (and 15 minutes later), the owner's son appeared and spoke very good English. He explained that this Ger and their neighbour could not take us for the night and that to get to the horse station we needed to follow a road for 4km and then we would be there. He gestured to the direction of the road and drove off on his bike. We were stuck. There were no other Gers in sight, just the promise of the horse station being on the top of an isolated hill in the far distance. Our options were as follows:

  1. Gallop to the horse station and accept we would get a vet penalty and time penalty. Mine would be 4 hours, Martins would be 2 hours as he was yet to receive one. We would both then receive a minute for every minute past 7 o'clock that our trackers were moving.

  2. Camp underneath the stars where we were. At least then we were near Gers that had water and no time penalties at all. However, if it rained we would be in trouble and there was nowhere for the horses to be tied.

  3. Keep walking and hope something turns up. This would mean the likelihood of a 30-minute time penalty was high and possible disqualification if our trackers were still moving after 30 minutes past 7 pm.

We opted for the latter, there was 4km between us and the horse stop, so there could be a shelter on the way and we could use the 5 free minutes and the 30 penalty minutes before disqualification to walk the horses off to get their heart rates down. We figured that a 30-minute time penalty was better than all the other possibilities and vowed that if nothing turned up we would just have to sleep under the stars.

two riders alone in the middle of the Mongolia steppe during the Mongol Derby
On our way trying to find somewhere to camp for the night

We continued to trot and walk towards the horse station. Tiger was pulling my arms out, eager to get moving. “No no chap we need to get your heart rate down now as you'll be checked by the vet even if we camp out and I can not have a 4-hour penalty” I thought.

7 o'clock came and went and we started to skirt dangerously close to the disqualification time. 5 minutes to spare and we stood and looked around for water, that was the main element we needed to stay out for the night. As the sky darkened and the weather began to close in, a shimmer on the floor up ahead appeared.

“Water!” I shouted at Martin, “We can camp over there by the water.

“There is a goat shed just over there too!” Martin replied, “It's going to rain by the looks of it, lets stay in there”

2 minutes to go. We trotted over to the goat shelter and I hastily messaged into HQ to tell them we had camped out for the night. We had done it, shelter and water achieved with only a 30-minute penalty in the morning.

We dismounted and untacked the horses, becoming familiar with our home for the night. It was a basic open goat shelter with a sloped roof on one side. It leaked, it was full of soggy mud and poo but there was water nearby and a small area we could turn into a pen for the horses. I chuckled to Martin “This is a hell of a hotel you’ve found us!”

We took the horses over to the water for a drink and graze whilst we waited for the vets to come and check the horses. It was here I turned my mind to the other riders.

“Did Erin leave the last station before you?” I questioned

Martin responded with a grave expression “No she was in the Ger when we left, she fell off her horse before that last station and hurt her back. She was resting when you and I left".

I suddenly felt awful, all that rushing and I had darted right past Erin. I could have just gone and waited with her instead of panicking! Martin explained that she was okay but just needed a rest.

"God I hope she is okay, hopefully, she will catch up and we can ride together, then we just need to find Liz!" I thought optimistically.

Eventually, the vets came down from the hillside to check our stay for the night was safe-ish. It turned out that the horse station was 400m away on the hill ahead. “Ah if only we had not stopped at that Ger to ask to stay!” I exclaimed, kicking myself that we didn't just plough on.

“The horses would not have passed the vet check,” Martin said “We would have ended up sitting around for 2-4 hours in the morning, we have made the right decision”

The horses just about passed the vet check with their heart rates and we breathed a sigh of relief that we had indeed made the right call.

As we strolled back to the goat shed the weather closed in and the sky became heavy with black clouds. The daytime heat had been swept away on a tidal wave of ice-cold, damp air. We knew what this meant, a storm, a very big storm.

I explained to Martin that I wanted the horses in the enclosed part of the shelter to avoid another horse escaping on me. He agreed and we tied the horses inside the shelter and put up timber posts so they were fenced in. We then decided to sleep next to them on the open side of the shelter, under the leaking roof. Martin had the genius plan of putting down some old timber panels on the floor so we were not sleeping on the mud and poo, so we set to work laying a timber floor to sleep on from the farmer's stockpiles of timber at the rear of the shed. With each plank of wood we moved between us the rougher the wind became, the rain surfing upon its crest. The last plank of timber saw Martin and I yelling to each other over the howl of the gusts, grasping on for dear life to our flooring material. Without warning the heavens opened and the winds crashed through the shelter. We leaned into the storm determined to get the final plank down so we were warm and dryish for the night. After re-creating scenes from Noah's Ark we marvelled at the handy work of our small cramped sleeping area. The horses nickered, the loose timber slats on the shelter clattered and the rain started to drip onto the timber floor we had laid. “This is as good as it is going to get” I reflected.

Rapidly we unpacked our sleeping bags and waterproofs ready for a long night. The thunder ripped across the sky and the lightning lit up the atmosphere. Martin was out for the count as soon as his head hit the floor. I lay in silence running the day through my mind. What a mix of highs and lows. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag, watching the storm rage above us, cocooned up to my eyes in most of my clothes. I listened to the wind howl, the horses rustle around, Martin snoring and the water dripping onto the back of my sleeping bag. It was the best seat in the house for storm-watching but at the cost of being exhausted the next day.

Day 3 Derby Lessons:
  • Hobble the horses! Even if they are tied up it is not worth the heartache of them not being where you left them the next morning.  

  • Chances are you may end up riding alone, brush up on all the skills required in case you are. I really did rely on other people for translation which was a nightmare when alone.

  • Dogs are just as scary and quick when chasing motorbikes. They run mighty quick!

  • If your horse does not feel right, chances are they are not

  • If your horse feels tired, get off and walk them into the horse stop earlier than you usually would.

  • Head hanging low, not eating or drinking means your horse is not a happy chap and you need to get him to take on board fluids quickly. Spit water from your supplies onto him worse comes to worse to try and cool him down.

  • If the terrain is sketchy you are best to stay on your horse. Nothing worse than trying to navigate bogs and scree on two unexperienced legs.

  • If you get a vet penalty have a wallow or cry and then put a plan together. You have 2-6 hours, depending on what number penalty it is use the time wisely. Also use this time to refuel properly and cram as many calories into your body as possible.  

  • Plan your route and look at all your options. Until the vet penalty, I was very much looking at one route for all legs, but on this day I saw the benefit of having a couple of route options and picking the best to match your horses capabilities.

  • Never get disheartened, even when you think you are at the back you can catch up. The Derby is a marathon not a sprint, anything can happen. 

  • If three men are pinning your horse down so you can get on, chances are you are in for the ride of your life.

  • Trust the horses.

  • You might need to get clever with timings and where to stay. Weigh up the pros and cons of camping v making it to a horse stop. Vet penalty risks v time penalty certainties etc etc. The goat shelter situation made me realise that this race was more than just riding and navigation. It was weighing up your options with penalties too and tactics.

The next related blog post "Mongol Derby day 4: The Day It All Went Wrong" can be found here.


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