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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

The Mongol Derby day 4: The Day It All Went Wrong

Updated: May 21

All Photographs by Kathy Gabrielle, Shari Thompson and Bayarsaihan Ochiroo

The last related blog post from day 3 of the Mongol Derby can be found here.

two people and horses walk across Mongolia
Martin and I walking our horses into the horse stop 8 after sleeping in the goat shed.

Goat Shed - HS8

The crisp morning air accompanied neighbouring snorts as heavy eyelids peeled open. I lay on the waterlogged timber we had laid the night previous, watching a breathtaking sunrise through the small opening in my sleeping bag, wishing I could stay curled up forever. I was exhausted and in pain. No amount of laying on hard floors and popping painkillers was going to make me feel ready to take on the world now and we were not even halfway. Martin was still asleep and I wondered what the time might be, 5:45am the tracker read.

“Martin! Time to get up!” I muffled from under my cocoon.

I shed the layers of sleeping bags, liners and clothes, ecstatic to see that Tiger was still in the shelter next to me. No chasing horses down this morning! Result.

“Morning boys” I grinned at the little horses still tethered to our makeshift pen. Martin's horse snorted at me, eyes wide as I sat up. Tiger gave me a side eye, disgruntled at being a stabled horse for the night.


It was now clear where the horse station was, we were not far at all, it was about 1km up a hill. Soggy kit bags packed up, we hauled our makeshift timber floor back onto the pile outside the shed and guided the horses to the water hole for a graze. Kit bags checked, happy horses, we started our walk up to the horse station. The hill was steep, so we decided it was kinder for the horses to not ride them, they had done all their hard work the day before. I chatted to Tiger about how much I loved him and if I could, I would take him home, he was an utter privilege to ride.


Conversations eventually progressed on to the next leg and my and Martins tactics.

“I hope we have two more quick horses and we catch everyone up” I said to Martin, excited about the promise of the day. “I also need someone to look at my crotch from the medical team, and my rub and my hip flexor” I was beginning to notice pain significantly more and only had one packet of painkillers left to take the edge off.

The crotch situation was now dire, and the inner thighs were covered in white pimples that were bursting. I needed a medic to have a look or I was going to end up with an infection. I feared that my leg was also infected from a small open wound having a bathe in a river. Perhaps that wash was not the best idea . I looked at Martins's saddle, he had thick leather buckle guards on his saddle, “How the hell did I forget buckle guards!” I chastised myself. That could have saved a whole world of pain.

man and women walk in Mongolia with horses
Martin and I talking about our next leg.

On arriving at the horse stop Martin and I explained that we were going to sit our 30-minute penalty out here whilst having breakfast and seeing the medics. It also meant the horses could go back to the wild sooner too. Tiger passed his vet check with a non-existent heart rate, Martin’s horse was on the cusp just from walking up a hill, so it was a good idea to not bomb into the horse stop the night previous.

“How was your horse?” The translator asked

“The most incredible ride I have ever had” I replied “If I could take this horse home I would, he was the quickest, most sure-footed, out-of-this-world creature and so lovely to deal with. I love him”

I was so glad I had got on Tiger, and that I had not bottled it whilst he was being pinned down by the Mongolian herders. He was the ride of a lifetime, and I will never, ever forget the feeling of being on him. After giving Tiger the biggest hug (which he was not too keen to receive), I handed him to a herder reluctantly. People say you will bond with some of the horses, but I never thought I would love one to the point I had a tear in my eye saying goodbye.

As I watched Tiger saunter calmly off to his herd I was brought back to reality by a ‘pop’ occurring between my legs. I needed to see the medic. Pronto.

man and women untack their horses on the Mongol Derby
Untacking the horses at horse station 8

After tracking a medic down, everything seemed to suddenly hurt with nothing taking my mind off the various ailments. “What seems to be the problem?” The medic asked. “I have a seeping leg from my lack of kit planning, a spotty crotch from a pre Derby wax, my knees are beginning to go and my hip flexor has gone” I explained taking down my trousers and bearing all “The hip flexor and knees I think I can deal with for the time being I have pain killers left for a couple of days, the other areas I am a bit worried about”.

Fortunately, this was the female medic, and I was quickly beginning to lose the English stick up my arse when it came to getting my crotch out for strangers. After a quick consultation, I was sent off with some creams to apply and a stern warning not to bathe in dirty water with open wounds and freshly waxed skin. I had infections all over the place. Aliments resolved and noodles consumed, I looked at the maps, sorted out a route and went outside to find Martin. On the horizon there were a number of riders coming into the station as we sat out the rest of our time penalty. We had made-up time on that last leg, overtaking a lot of riders. I wondered about Erin and asked the riders as they came in if they had seen her. No one had.


“You went fast on that last leg!” someone cheered, “we overtook you ages ago!”

“I had a mountain goat of a horse and then a bullet” I explained “I was very lucky yesterday afternoon!” I was beginning to realise the Derby was just that, luck.

I meandered over to the vet and asked about other riders and if he had any news on who was out of the race and if everyone was okay. He had no specific information but confirmed that a few riders had dropped out or been injured. I was worrying about the girls from Ger 21 at training camp. Three I had not seen all race and one had a damaged back. “Please let them all be okay” I wished, raising my face to the sky and soaking in the start of day 4. Another morning of already overbearing heat.

women stands with horse in Mongolia
Standing with Tiger at the vet check at horse station 8

HS8 - HS9

“We are good to go!” I yelled over to Martin, buzzing with anticipation for the day. A horse that looked just like Tiger was pulled from the horse line and therefore I named him Junior. He was easy to tack up, easy to get on and easy to ride, to begin with. I trotted him around the station waiting for Martin, the herders all laughing as I passed them. I was beginning to learn that the herders had subtle ways of letting you know what sort of horse you were on. The fact I had been left on my own with this one and they were laughing made me think he would be safe but slow. Little did I realise how slow.


Women checks GPS on a horse in Mongolia
On Junior checking out route before we left the horse station

Martin tacked up and we were off. The first thirty minutes were quick, and I thought we had another great and quick leg ahead of us. The two horses raced side by side up the hills across the sand tracks and around crevasses in the hillside, urging each other on. “We've got another good pair here!” I shouted like a giddy child.  

A third of the way through the leg we became lost. The roads on the maps disappeared giving way to sudden cliff edges and old, vast river beds. We wandered around the landscape trying to find the best way through, our old maps not being overly helpful. Eventually, we recovered the correct route, using a different road. However, the horses had decided they were now finished and would not move forward.

“Perhaps they are thirsty,” I said to Martin “There is a water point up ahead, lets give them a drink and see what happens”


The sun was unbearable on this particular day. In true Mongolia style, there was no shade in sight and the haze of the heat bounced off the stark landscape of rocks and shrub around us. I was drinking water quickly and the strangling heat was beginning to get to me. I could feel my skin cooking underneath the sun cream and clothing.

Trotting across the Mongolian steppe
The horses jogging on before they decided to stop altogether

The horses were also hot and this leg of the race had no natural water sources to let them bathe and splash in. The race organisers put a temporary water point on the back of a van in position to ensure the horses were not without hydration for too long but this was in vain. We approached the water truck and neither horse was interested. Junior kept trying to turn around and head back the way we had come, Martin’s horse decided to join in. After their drink rejection we agreed it was best to just keep them moving forward.

Just after halfway, Junior decided he would not trot anymore and slowed to a saunter. Part of me felt bad as I was convinced, they were hot and tired. However, Junior fought every step of the way to go back to the last horse station. “You can’t be that tired with this attitude!” I mused. “Put that energy into moving forward please”

A few minutes of trying to urge Junior on turned into an hour. We had covered a measly distance since the water stop. Every kick was sapping energy. I was becoming increasingly exhausted in the heat, and as a result, my patience was waning.


Both horses were not interested in continuing this leg any further, slamming their breaks on every few steps, refusing to move. This was nothing like my horse Min on the previous day, he had been genuinely tired, these two horses were full of energy and did not want to channel it forward. The vast expanse of land opened up in front, taunting us with the distance left to travel. I looked at the GPS, we still had 10km left to go and our horses would not move. I was prepared for horses to trot or walk legs, but I was not prepared for a horse to refuse to move. I gave up. I stopped kicking and shouting choo choo in the gruffest mans voice I could muster and I just sat, head lowered, wondering why the hell I was here.

“Don’t give up girl!” Martin cried “They are being buggers don’t let them win, they will move eventually”

“I do not have the energy Martin, I am exhausted and melting,” I said chucking my reins down onto Juniors' neck. He stood statue-still and let out an almighty sigh.

All the excuses and ranting poured from my mouth for a few minutes, and tears started to well up in my eyes. Martin gazed at me perplexed. Seeing his face I realised how ridiculous and spoilt I sounded. I had a drink, wiped my face, spat some water on Junior’s neck and reluctantly picked my reins up once more. I was just tired, hot and hungry “Get on with it Emmelia” I muttered to myself. It was quite frightening how quickly your mood out on the steppe could change.

Somehow Martin managed to get his horse to walk a few steps forward and Junior followed, once they both started to walk we vowed to not let them stop again or we would have another stalemate. Instead, we took it in turns to have a horse at the front for the other to follow. This seemed to work well, and we moved along the barren landscape towards Horse Station 9 at a glacial pace. Thank God for Martin, I am sure I would still be out there if I had not been with him!


After four and a half hours to do 30 km, we arrived at horse stop 9.

The vet laughed “That’s taken you a while! Why were you so slow?”

I shrugged, and gave a half smile, not in the mood to talk to anyone about how long that leg of the race had just taken us. Both horses' heart rates were exceedingly low, as if they had not exercised at all. They had been having us on the entire time. I handed Junior back to the herder with a brief pat on the neck, ecstatic that I did not have to do another leg on him.

“Awesome to start and then planted himself” was the verdict to the translator. “Can't win them all I guess!”

I headed to the Ger to top up my water and chomp on more noodles. Martin and I sat in the reprieve of the Ger shade taking comfort in the soft cushions beneath our bottoms. It took a lot of willpower to leave this beautiful, ornate, cosy setting and trade it in for the burning heat, mosquito-filled skies and the potential of another dangerously slow leg.   

 “New leg, new mindset” I mumbled, finding myself wishing for a total nut case of a horse that would at least move forward. Painkillers popped, supplies replenished, we emerged from the Ger into the blinding mid-day sun.

 

HS9 – HS10

The horses at this horse stop were agitated. The air was heavy with a dark filter of mosquitos overhead scouting for their next meal. The horses nodded their heads ferociously to prevent being an all-you-can-eat buffet. Ample bug spray and sun cream applied I marched through the swarms to the horse line as I resembled a melting Wellington boot. I looked up, taking in the surroundings and that is when I saw her.

“ERIN!”

The Australian delight was just pulling into Horse Stop 9.

“How are you?! How is the back?! What happened?! Have you seen Liz?! Lets ride out together, I will wait!” I gushed, so happy to see one of the Ger girls.

“Mate I have had a hellish 24 hours!” She grinned through gritted teeth. “Boy, am I glad to see you!” 

She filled me in on how she had fallen off yesterday between horse stops 6 and 7 and cracked her back on the rocky valley floor. I suddenly began to panic about whether not wearing a body protector was the right decision for this race. Erin had been dosing up on painkillers but was in severe pain and soldering on. Martin and my hellishly slow last leg had given her time to catch up.

Whilst Erin vet checked her horse Martin and I agreed to wait for her. We filled her water up and got her some food so we could all set off together. I had planned our next route out and it looked to be a simple ride consisting of a dirt track through a hillside mostly to the next stop. A slight detour for a water stop halfway to then backtrack and find the road again. Simple.


Three new horses with three tired but happy riders set off, we were full of hope at a straightforward leg on fresh horses. The first half of the ride to the water stop took no time at all. All the horses were quick and easy. I had a nice little black and white coloured horse, slender in build but keen to get the job done. I did not name this one, there was too much catching up with Erin occurring. The whole naming of each horse began to wear thin the more depleted I became and the more things to worry about there were!

We started the gradual ascent up the hills on the road, steadily galloping towards the halfway point for a breather and a drink. “The water stop should be just down there off the road!” I shouted back to the others.

We turned off the road and cantered down a field towards the GPS spot named ‘Water Hole’. Cantering on and on, further and further from the road, we descended significantly.

“Ergh this is undoing all the height we have gained,” I thought, “But the horses need water it is baking hot”

After what seemed like an age, we finally came upon a truck filling up a lone water trough. It was a lot further off the road than marked out on the maps and planned for. We had almost gone around the hills that the horse station was on, we were miles away from our original route now and very much in no man's land.


Martin’s horse decided that it was a great idea to try and have a bath in the trough and I started to consider the best way forward for the second half of the leg. There was a road that carried on down the hills that we could pick up that would take us straight up through a valley to the horse station. It was a similar distance but would be a climb at the end of the leg, therefore risking heart rates being high and vet penalties.

“What do you guys want to do?” I asked Erin and Martin, about to launch into the two options, but before they could answer three riders hurled down the hillside towards us. “Good news let's bounce ideas off them too” I figured. 

After some deliberation, we all agreed we were best to carry on down the hillside and use the road up the valley to the horse stop rather than double back on ourselves. That road would take us right into the horse station, we would get off the horses and walk up the hill at the end.

“We might also be able to cut across the hills to save more time!” was mentioned by another rider. Nods all around at this thought of saving time, our new mob set off, heading towards the route, full of cheer.  

Not long after cantering down the new route, we began to see the magnitude of our decision to stop off at the water station. We had lost an awful lot of incline and would have to make it up over the rest of the leg. Looking at the GPS there were two obvious routes.

1-    Go around the hillside and up the road straight to the horse station. Long and winding but there was a road to follow.

2-    Cut across the hills in a straight line and potentially get lost.


My gut was saying option 1 and tracking around the hillside to find the road. After we had been riding for a while and the general catching up chit chat had stopped questions started to pop up from the other riders as to our direction.

“We seem to be going out of the way here to find this road, we could just cut across the hills? It could be quicker”

In hindsight, I should have carried on and let the others do what they wanted to, but not wanting to be the boss of the group and appear to be demanding I resorted to “I am not the leader I am open to suggestions, happy to go another way if everyone wants to”.

After a few discussions the group opted for over and straight, my gut wrenched in the pit of my stomach telling me this was wrong. I had made up good ground over the past couple of legs generally but I was still aware that we were yet to catch up with the main group of riders and that if we did not make good time we would be swept up in the blood wagon and put into the adventure category for being too slow.


I was torn between, going with my gut and bombing around the hills to get to the horse stop solo, versus sticking with the group and enjoying riding with other people. I opted for the second option, we were after all meant to be enjoying this and it was nice to ride with new people. However, this was the wrong decision to make up time.


We weaved in and out of the hillside with no roads to follow. Every time we came to the top of a hill fold there would be another four in the distance. My horse was quickly beginning to tier, but we had travelled too far into the hills to go back now, we had committed. The other riders optimistically shouted that it was “this way!” and “Just follow the contours of the hills” but I knew we were lost. The heat of the day started to descend into the promise of an afternoon storm and my mood dropped also.


Erin had clocked my face. “Should have gone down and round shouldn’t we?” She cautiously asked.

"Yep, we would have been there by now” I whispered “I am not following other people again, we are going to be lost up here for hours ”

The horses trudged on, up and down through the hills. Four hours went by in total before we started to see the end of the leg. Another four hour ride which should have taken about two and a half max on the horses we had. I kicked myself and shouted out to the rest of the riders how long this was taking us.

“I am going to trot to the horse station” I said, “this is draining my horse and the rains coming in. We still have 4km to go too”

“We are going to walk from here” One of the other riders shouted back over the increasing wind. “We don’t want to get vet penalties”

“Not a problem! See you at the station!” Erin and I cantered off hoping we would beat the rain.


Another 20 minutes later and after a lot of ranting on my part, we came to the road that was the option 1 route. Looking down the valley at the road it was a simple, straight line that weaved up the hillside. I could have cried. All that time that was made up the day before had been lost today because of a slow horse on one leg and my bad choices on this leg.


“That would have been a lot easier” I scoffed. “I think there might be a real chance of us being swept up in the blood wagon now if we get much further behind”

Erin gave me a talking to about how we had not gone the right way and it was what it was. I agreed she was right, we didn’t have to follow the others, we had our own minds, and I could not be angry. The thing is, I was not angry with the other riders, I was angry at myself for not having more faith in my abilities and trusting my gut. Mental note made, trust your gut and follow it!

Erin and I pulled into Horse Station 10, with our plan being to ride out with 2 hours to go until we had to be off our horses. If we had two fast horses we could just make the next horse stop. It was a flat leg on tracks according to the maps, we could do this! A newfound focus channelled through our veins, we checked our horses in at the vet, ran to the Gers to fill up with water, looked in shock at the sushi that was on offer at this station, wished we were staying here for the night and ran like hell to pick our next horses out. We should have stayed at that horse station for the night… the next two hours went so so wrong.

 

HS10 – HS11

Horse station 10 was on top of a hillside overlooking an expanse of low-level flat land down in the valley. We could see for miles from this station and I was confident that we could reach the next horse station. The flat land had a river running through it and if we could cut across the flat land for a bit we would reach a nice riverside road that would go direct to the horse station.


“What’s the plan?” Erin quizzed. “I think, that’s the road we want to be on” I pointed at the map and into the distance. “It runs alongside the river all the way to Horse Stop 11. We can either follow the road out of this horse station which is not direct but joins up eventually with the road we need or we can go down the hillside and cut across the flat land by the river, that should save us some time.”

“Lets do it!” Erin cried with vigour. Pulling her waterproofs out from her bag. The warmth had disappeared from the air and the skies were full of rain, threatening to drown us at any moment. It was time to don a rain jacket, however in the frantic panic of time I did not bother, bad decision.


As our bottoms hit the saddles, thunder in the nearby mountains began to sound. Our horses took off from the comfort of the station to the distant cracks tearing through the skies. I found a new lease of life on leaving this station and started to grin at the picture of us riding out into the wilderness with the moody skies, majestic scenery and imposing weather, it was all so exciting! With my mind now happy that we were on our way to the next horse station, I focused on other matters such as the searing pain running down my hip flexor. One of the medics was at this station sitting by his jeep. He waved and smiled at us departing. Seeing him I recalled that I was running out of painkillers quite rapidly given I was eating my ones at an alarming rate to keep any niggles at bay. The injured hip flexor and ruined knees were screaming at me every time I stood up in the saddle now despite me changing stirrup lengths on each leg to help ease the strain. It had got to the point now where I had opted for sitting in the saddle with my feet out of stirrups where possible. Without pain medication, I knew I was not going to be able to finish this race.

“Just keep going Emmelia, you have enough paracetamol to get you through tomorrow at least” I contemplated to myself, optimistic about the next few miles ahead.


Charging away from Horse Station 10 it was clear that my little palomino horse, whom I named Glimmer (for having a glimmer of hope on this day), had no steering and would dart off to the side for no reason at any given moment. Using my weight, using the reins, using my legs nothing could get this horse to go where he should have been going. At first, this was funny and added to the excitement, but eventually, I relied heavily on Erin’s horse as a guide along this leg, offering a barricade when Glimmer decided he had to dart off course for no reason whilst I tried to navigate.

Riders in Mongolia
Erin and myself leaving horse station 10 hoping to make station 11 before the end of the day.

Once near the base of the hillside, we came to a junction. Right, and we would go around the flat land, left and we should cut the corner and find the road quicker.

“Either road should take us to the riverside road,” I told Erin as I studied the GPS. “Left looks to be quicker though”

We opted for left, following the track down to what still appeared to be grassland.

“WHOAH!!!” I yelled sometime later. The road had vanished and suddenly we were met with marshland on all sides. Our horses stopped, teetering on the edge of the vast bog.

“Bugger” I uttered under my breath. If this wasn’t karma for me whinging about other people's bad navigation, I didn’t know what was.

“Okay, so two options, we take our chances with the bog and fight through to get to the road over there” I pointed to the river road about a kilometre ahead in the distance "or we start tracking to the side and join the road slightly further back."

The second option was deemed to be our safest and best bet. After a few minutes of the horses paddling through ankle-deep water, the ground disappeared beneath them, until the water was up to their bellies. Our feet now trailing through the water. At the time this was all very exciting, and apart from a potentially angry riding companion, there was no real reason for not enjoying the adventure of re-enacting the swamps of the Neverending Story. I hummed the theme tune under my breath so Erin would not hear me secretly enjoying the out-of-this-world situation we were in. However, I did do a little prayer to the Ghengis Gods that our horses would not drown like Artax.


Neverending Story horse
Artax in the Neverending Story

The horses soldiered on and on, tripping over what lay beneath the mirky water, finding reprieve in the occasional tuft of marshy earth to stand on.

“It’s getting deeper Em” Erin shouted from behind.

“It is okay we just need to get over to that bit of ground over there!” I pointed ahead.

It was not far now until solid land but deep down I was beginning to worry a bit. Just as you thought solid ground was emerging and the water level was dropping your horse would disappear further down into the boggy earth. I felt at this point like we would never escape the sticky grounds clutches. My mind went into overdrive as unresolved childhood trauma from watching Artax drown in the swamps reared its head. What if our horses died from exhaustion going through this, it was so deep for the little horses and they were stumbling with every step. I was also only too aware that I had put us in this situation. Sometime later, two tired horses and two releveled riders clambered out of the unrelenting marshlands and reached solid ground.

“Sorry about that!” I jested to Erin “Bit of a cock up on my part that!” She glared at me but seemed to be happy that we were out.

We kicked on down the dirt track, the two horses were quite quick and determined to gallop relentlessly now they were not playing stuck in the mud. Glimmer continued to dart to the side as if electrocuted at random intervals which was not helping the hip flexor issues.

“God my feet are soggy!” I shouted to Erin. I was also too aware of how cold it was getting. The temperature had nose-dived with the guarantee of being caught out in a storm looming ahead. I really should have made time to put on my rain jacket.


6:30 o’clock, we had half an hour to get to Horse Station 11, it was not going to happen unless we risked vet penalties following our time spent in the bogs. We decided to start looking for somewhere to stay with plenty of time given our past experiences with camping. As we pointed to a Ger in the distance the heavens opened with an almighty crack of thunder above our heads. We weaved through the tufts of foliage for 10 minutes to try and reach the potential home for the night.

Pulling up outside the Ger, Erin shouted at the top of her voice, struggling to be heard over the sound of the rain pelting down on the sodden ground around us and the thunder continuing to boom around us. No response. We rode around the Ger, closer, cautious of any potential guard dogs, continuing to shout Hello in Mongolian. No luck.

Another Ger was in the distance, “Lets try that one!” I yelled over the sound of the storm. By this point, we were shaking as the ice-cold skewers of rain pelted our skin through our clothes. Once again we weaved through the vegetation, and over the undulating terrain shouting Hello as we approached, desperate to be heard over the volley of water from the skies.


Once we were alongside the second Ger we stopped yelling immediately. This home had broken beer bottles, broken machinery and a rusty flatbed truck outside. This was not a sensible place to stay. We looked at each other, nodded in silence to each other and rode off in search of our next target. Riding through the storm, 5 minutes left, two sodden, cold riders were losing hope. I suddenly wished we had stayed at the last horse station with the sushi. We would have been dry and well-fed. Eventually; we came across a small selection of Gers alongside the river. As we walked our horses up to the riverside the rain started to ease off, we were drenched, and I began to shake uncontrollably. We arrived at the first Ger, shouting Hello. A young girl appeared looking confused. We jumped straight into our standard game of charades to ask for a place to stay for the night. The girl seemed to understand and nodded her head. A young boy, I assumed her brother, popped his head out of the Ger and they disappeared inside, leaving the door open for us.

“SUCCESS!” Erin and I shouted with relieved smiles. However, there did not appear to be any sign of their parents. Surely children under the age of 10 had parents nearby?

“Man, I cannot wait to get out of these wet clothes!” Erin exclaimed as she took her feet out of her stirrups. Unfortunately, her horse decided at that moment that storms were scary and this was the best time to throw her off.

Erin hit the waterlogged floor, clinging onto the lead rope of her bridle with every will in the world. She was dragged and trampled on, finally succumbing to the horse and letting him go. I watched in shock as the horse vanished away from us. The two children had come out to see what the commotion was about and were chatting to each other. Likely saying “What are these weird people doing!?”


“Are you okay!?” I yelled at Erin as Glimmer started to canter on the spot as he watched his friend disappear.

“Yes fine” She snorted back *insert expletives here*

Her horse was picking up pace, we needed that horse back, it had Erin's kit. Glimmer and I took off in hot pursuit in a desperate attempt to salvage any part of the mess that was today.


Water sloshed around in my boots, I was shivering from the cold and Glimmer was crying out at the top of his voice for his friend. It was utter carnage, if I had been watching someone else I would have shook my head and called them an idiot. However, during the Derby, you just do things and do not really think about it. We charged down the dirt track to try and catch up with Erin’s horse. The heavens opened yet again, and I could do nothing but laugh. “What on Earth was this situation I was in?!” Glimmer blazed down the track and veered off into the undergrowth following his friend desperate to be reunited. Erin’s horse, however, was much quicker and had started to vanish in the distance under the heavy rain and fog now engulfing the landscape. Glancing over my shoulder back to the Gers we had started to get out of sight and Erin's horse had vanished into the hills, Glimmer was starting to tire, this was hopeless and probably a bit dangerous. Whilst thoroughly enjoying the Indiana Jones-style moment being lived out I knew that I was not going to triumph in returning Erin's horse.


“Come on chap, we aren’t going to find him,” I said as I wrestled Glimmer to turn around and return to the Ger without his companion. Reluctantly he cantered back. On arrival back at the Ger the children's mother, astride a beautiful horse, had arrived and was talking to the children. The mother immediately galloped off past me, into the distance in the vague direction of Erin’s vanished steed just as I pulled in to the Gers vicinity.


“I’ve messaged HQ, the medic from the last station is on the way” Erin half smiled at me. “I am going to have to go back to the last station after all of that. At least I will get Sushi!”

“We do not know that yet, the women on a horse might have some luck. My horse just was not quick enough” I replied. “At least we are not going to get time penalties our trackers have stopped at a night stop!”


I took my feet out of my stirrups as the children watched Erin and I chatting. I went to hop off Glimmer, swung my leg over and got my leg stuck on my saddle bag. I was a lot more tired than I had realised. I thudded to the floor, and Glimmer took off, scared at the lump that had fallen next to him.

“EM!” Erin screamed at me

“No no no no NO!” I squealed clinging on for dear life to my lead rope and rooting my body into the ground. “I am NOT losing another horse!”

Eventually, Glimmer came to a standstill, snorting at the mess of a human laying on the floor next to him, perplexed by what was going on. A long relieved sigh turned into uncontrollable laughter. What was this event? I was sat in the middle of a mud puddle, hanging onto a feral horse for dear life, freezing cold and shivering after having charged after a lost horse in a storm.


As I scraped myself off the floor the medic showed up.

“What on Earth happened girls?” he mused, the two of us now covered in mud and visibly shaking from the cold. A sorry sight compared to the two gleeful riders leaving Station 10.  

“We got cocky is the summary” I replied “We should have stayed at the last horse station. Erin‘s just lost her horse, my horse is irate on its own, we think we have a home for the night but there are no adults to check with, we are on the edge of pneumonia, I have trench foot and an infected inner thigh and calf, Erin has an injured back. It is going well!”

He looked at us and nodded. He had all the answers for everything I had listed, the medics were Gods.


He filled us in on what had been happening since Erin had messaged HQ. Erin's horse had been found near the last horse station but in the hills so we never would have found him alone. The mother of the two children had charged over to her friends Ger on her horse and asked them to find the equine based on her children’s description. Her friends had rallied round in mass and found the horse on dirt bikes, caught him and were on their way back to the Ger to return Erin’s kit to her. The horse had been taken back to the last horse station to be turned away, he was safe and in good health but was no longer racing due to covering more distance than allowed in a leg of the race. Erin could either be carried forward for a 2-hour time penalty or back for free. The Mongolian lady was also on her way back with her horse so Glimmer would have some company to calm him down. Glad that not all was lost, I untacked Glimmer and tied him to a nearby horse line so he could graze and drink.  


When Mongolia's female answer to Clint Eastwood arrived back at the Ger she confirmed to the translator that we were welcome to stay. However, given Erin no longer had a horse I would have to stay here on my own. This was not a problem and I agreed to meet Erin at the next horse stop as we were only a few kilometres away, by the time she had sat out her 2 hour penalty I would certainly have ridden in.   


Whilst I was changing into some warm, dry clothes to prevent an early cold grave, a horde of smiling, laughing men on dirt bikes appeared with Erin’s saddle and kit.

“Oh my god! Thank you!!!” She bellowed to the man who handed her everything. She quickly scrambled to change out of her wet clothes too.

Once we were re-clothed, dry and had a general plan of action the medic turned his attention to our aliments.

“Before I take you to the next horse station Erin lets look at both your injuries and problems” he said ushering us into the Ger and out of the dwindling evening of the Steppe. The children followed us in, mesmerised by the Western lunatics that had arrived at their doorstep this evening. They sat on the bed opposite me, wide eyed, watching the three strangers discuss medical issues in a foreign language.

I explained briefly what I had wrong with me.

“Just strip off waist down so I can see everything,” he said sternly. Slightly mortified that all these grim conditions were being laid out to the attractive medic I took every stitch of clothing off as instructed. Erin held a coat up to try and prevent the children from being scarred for life. Clothes off, Erin grimaced and the medic sighed in disbelief.

“Okay lets start with the feet” he pondered as I sat half naked on the bed with skin conditions everywhere.

“Yes you have mild trench foot, easy to sort out” he sorted it out with some cream and then a powder, done. “Your leg is infected yes, did it look this bad this morning?”

I told him it was a bit better than this morning as I had applied cream from the previous medic and it no longer smelt. He cleaned it up and provided more cream. Done.

“This bit is not great,” he said hovering around my crotch, the hundreds of angry white pimples threatening to pop at any moment. “You’ve got an infection in your hair follicles. It is treatable but might not go away completely until you stop riding”

He rubbed yet another cream into my inner thigh engulfing all the infected areas and strictly instructed no more washing in dirty rivers. I was glad for the darkness of the Ger to shade my now vibrantly red, embarrassed face. I decided the hip flexor could wait.


The medic turned to Erin’s trench foot and her back injury, it turned out that the only thing that would fix her back was pulling out of the race and rest. Erin being the tough cookie she is refused. Therefore, the second option was painkillers injected into her bottom when there were medics at horse stations. It turned out we could ask for pain relief if our pain meds were no longer working. I kept quiet about my knees and hip flexor knowing I had a few more tablets to use up but reminded myself that the injections were an option.


Once we were fully seen too Erin started to pack her kit up into the jeep to get her carry forward. In turn, the group of men that had rescued her kit started to congregate around the Gers. There was a party next door for all the local men, and immediately the medic was not happy with leaving me there alone out of the worry of me becoming a Mongolian bride.

“It is up to you but I suggest you come with us” he ushered. “Someone can come and pick the horse up in the morning and take him back to the last horse stop”


I was torn between wanting to be safe with Erin and not wanting any carry forwards during the race, especially given we were only three or so kilometres away from the horse station. After some persuasion from the team and the laughs and jeers from the locals next door growing louder, I agreed to be carried forward in the jeep for a time penalty. The crew hauled our soggy tack and kit onto the top of the roof whilst I went around to Glimmer and gave him a stroke goodbye.

“Thanks for everything chap, that was not the best leg in the world but it could have been a lot worse” He continued to munch on the ground, not remotely caring about anything I had to say to him.


As the jeep tore through the night Erin and I took the chance to ask the medic about the other riders. He could tell specifics as he had been at a lot of the issues. Beca had been taken to hospital and Livia had been really sick so was still on the steppe but was not in a good way. “How about Liz?” we asked. “Not sure, one girl got kicked in the head and another had a horse fall on her, I was not there for those though. A lot of riders are at the next camp, she could be there”

The jeep fell silent. It was so easy to bumble along each day not thinking about the worst-case scenario until you had to. Then the reality would hit, that these accidents could happen to any of us. There was so much luck involved, this really was dangerous, what on Earth were we doing?

After 10 minutes or so of rocking back and forth in relative luxury, using a mode of transport other than a horse we arrived at Horse Station 11.

“The two competitor Gers are over there, get your heads down and see you in the morning,” The medic said.

Whilst lugging our gear down from the jeep roof we heard a soft American whisper.

“Guys!”

At first, I thought I was hearing things, the camp was silent with all the riders and locals asleep and the sound danced along the soft evening breeze. 

“GUYS!” the hushed tone grew and we spun around.

“Liz!!!!!” Erin and I squeaked “LIZ!!!”  We stumbled over our kit to hug our friend. So many questions, so so many questions. “How are you here? What happened? Are you okay? Did you go to the hospital? ARE YOU OKAY!?” Erin and I chanted out between us.

Liz chuckled softly, “I got kicked and went to the hospital to get a CT scan, I am okay just a concussion and a headache, I will be fine. I heard they were bringing you two in and had to come and see you, I will tell you all about my experience tomorrow, but we need to find you somewhere to sleep!”

Liz guided us to the sleeping Ger and creaked open the door to what could only be described as rammed full. Riders were nearly sleeping on top of each other but there was a small patch of free space in front of the door between Arthurs' head and Liz’s feet.

I slightly kicked myself, half of the field was at this horse station, we did not need to push on as much as we had, we were not far behind at all. Erin, Liz and I had a quick hug and then crawled into our sleeping bags sandwiched between familiar strangers' bodies, thankful to all be safe, happy to all be together again.


Sleeping on a rock-hard floor at this stage was not a problem. I was beyond exhausted, overdosing on painkillers and the weight of the steppe dirt on my eye lids weighed heavy. I drifted off immediately to the thunderous snores of passed-out riders and the dense smell of a Ger full of festering bodies.


Day 4 Derby Lessons:

  • Buckle guards, preferably thick leather flap ones you have on UK saddles. It doesn't need to be masses of sheepskin everywhere but a thick guard over your girth buckles(as you would usually have) is vital. I forgot and had metal cutting through my clothes. No amount of anti-chaffe cream will help you with metal-on-skin friction.

  • Likewise, some riders had sheepskin seat savers, I found padded riding underwear was great and saved a lot of faffing and money.

  • Long-sleeved lightweight tops are a must. If you have a hot day you sun cream will not be enough on its own. Decathlon have cheap long-sleeved, vented running tops which were perfect.

  • You will really rely on the people around you at some point and in turn you will be relied upon. Be ready for both.

  • Do not panic about your position in the race, if you are covering 2-3 stations a day you are doing just fine.

  • If the choice between sushi at a horse station and camping out in a storm presents itself. Pick the first option

  • Always pre-empt storms and put on waterproofs at horse stations before you get on

  • Just because a horse is quick out of the station does not mean they won't slam the breaks mid-way. If they do this and there are a couple of you, focus on getting one of the horses moving and the other should follow, then take it in turns to lead.

  • Bug spray will be needed! I soaked my clothes in repellent leading up to the race and air-dried them to try and help deter bugs. It seemed to work in conjunction with a small spray for my exposed skin. The one problem I did not have was insect bites.

  • Having a meltdown does nothing for anyone. If you are going to have a meltdown, do it quickly and then carry on.

  • You will be exhausted and hungry for most of this race. This will cause a short fuse. Be aware of it. Never take it out on the horses, they won’t respond well.

  • Painkillers are king.

  • Medics are Gods.

  • If you have medical problems that need sorting out do not be proud, get them seen to asap no matter how embarrassed you might be, the medics have seen it all and worse before.

  • I have said it before and I will say it again, do not get a wax before the Derby, open hair follicles are not your friend.

  • Trust your gut with navigation, you do not need to follow others.

  • If you do follow others do not get angry, that is your choice.

  • The short, flat route may not be what it appears, be wary of bogs and marshlands that will slow you down.

  • Do not be scared to admit defeat in a situation and be willing to adopt plan B. I was hell-bent on catching Erin's horse and saving the day. I realised it was not going to happen and was going to be potentially more problematic, I had to admit defeat.

  • Female Mongolian riders are just as badass as the men, if not more.

  • Never lose hope, ever. There is always something you least expect around the corner on the Derby. The lows just make the highs even more amazing.


The next related blog post "The Mongol Derby 5: Catching Up With The Pack." can be found here.

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