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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

The Mongol Derby Training on the Steppe.

Updated: May 21

All Photographs by Kathy Gabrielle, Shari Thompson and Bayarsaihan Ochiroo

Mongol derby day 2 galloping across the steppe
Erin, Liz and I galloping across the steppe on training day 2

How do you begin to explain on paper the most amazing, ridiculous and terrifying experience? I don't think you can. I imagine all previous Derby veterans try to, but in vain. People will hear the stories and exclaim “Wow that sounds hard”, “goodness that really happened?”, “That doesn't sound fun!” or “Being on your own must have been quite nice”,  all comments I received upon returning home. You nod along and smile because people are showing an interest and they wish to know what it was like, which is lovely. However, there is never enough time or words to fully capture the experience in its entirety.  I would respond with, "It was amazing and I simultaneously loved and hated it” simply because I cannot fathom the right words in 10 minutes for such a lifetime epic. I also don't like to chat for too long about events as people are inherently busy and sometimes ask questions to be polite. This is in essence why the blogging started, so interested people can read up on events from an honest perspective, without it coming across as me bragging in person. In the forthcoming Mongolia blog posts, I am going to divulge the whole trip in detail. Much more detail than past events, there are just SO many stories. The magnitude of the entire ordeal was so spectacular, that brief conversations will never manage to fit everything in. 


Every rider's story will be different, everyone had their great days, everyone had awful times and no one's experience will have been the same. From my point of view, it was so much more than a love-and-hate couple of weeks, it was everything. It was unbelievably hard, and yet the most magical 10 days. As for being 100% alone, it was the best feeling ever, until you realised you were very much the only person for miles in the deafening silence of the steppe on a semi-wild horse. A silence and isolation that is on the precipice of extinction in Western society, a beautiful but deadly silence. Welcome to the very honest accounts of the Mongol Derby, let us begin!


To Mongolia: 

After a hero's goodbye in the UK the weight of pressure grew as I trundled into the airport. What if I didn’t finish? All these people had put in so much time and effort to support me, help with training, donate to charity, and ultimately expected me to do well.

Girl wearing riding wear at the airport
Off to Mongolia wearing everything I was worried about loosing on route!

Although I am sure there will have been a couple of people secretly willing me to fail! I would feel awful if I did not finish, but whether this would happen was out of my hands to a large extent. After all, one bad run-in with a horse and the game could be over. All of the anomalies, all of the hundreds of things that could go wrong, finishing would be a slight miracle.


The immenseness of the task at hand was setting in whilst queuing for customs. It is quite something when you are left alone with your thoughts, no work to stress about, no social engagement to occupy you, and nothing to do but stand and wait for women to frisk you within an inch of your life. My mind ran into overdrive with all the what-ifs. I had been occupied with training, life, work and cramming everything in for the past 6 months, yet now there was a void of any distraction. I started to play out the variety of outcomes in my mind that the next three weeks could have in store. “As long as I do not die or obtain a life-changing injury I will be happy” I reminded myself.


I flitted between these negative thoughts to pure joy, and back and forth for the flight to Turkey. Emotions simmered down on meeting fellow riders at the Turkish layover. Funnily enough, we were all having similar thoughts and feelings. After getting to know a couple of the riders at the airport the nerves began to fade away. I was not alone, and these people seemed nice and fun, and like me, they were here for the experience rather than being full-on serious endurance riders.


Dinosaur muesum Mongolia
A few of the riders checking out the local dinosaur museum, pre race.

Many of the riders were all staying at the Holiday Inn hotel where the race organisers were stationed and where riders would congregate in 3 days' time to leave for the steppe.

I had allowed 2 days of playing tourists in Ulaanbaatar to chill, become un-jet lagged, and meet some of the other riders. Boy am I glad I did, and I would implore anyone considering this event to give yourself some time before and after the race to explore the capital. The riders I joined up with for the sightseeing were great fun and were exactly what I needed to take my mind off the task at hand. We saw the sights, had a crafting afternoon for sorting out and enhancing any racing kit, ate all the food, drank a bit too much booze and went zorbing. By the time the official race briefing arrived, I had forgotten why I was in Mongolia.


Official briefing day. Ulaanbaatar:

At this point in time, there were no nerves just excitement, I felt as if I was on a jolly holiday with long-lost friends. Partially because I now had familiar faces and like-minded heads around me.

-        Liz (USA) and Erin (AUZ) were two girls I had been talking to for at least 4 months leading up to the event on a group chat. We exchanged kit worries, training stories, general life chit-chat and all our concerns and hopes for the derby. Our thirst for travel, love for adventure, dangerous life decisions and like-minded sense of humour being our anchors to each other. There was nothing I would not tell these two people I had never even met.

-        Seb and Hilaire, two delights from the UK whom I had met with Maggie (one of the race Stewards) on an On the Hoof training day two months prior to leaving for Mongolia. We bonded over our dry English wit, optimism on a glorious summer day of navigation and a slightly odd experience involving inside-mouth massages from a physio. Hilarie and Seb were great fun on the training day, and I was very much looking forward to hopefully spending some time riding with them both.

-        Then there were the additional people I had spent the days in the capital with, in addition to Liz and Erin. Rebecca, Livia and Lucy (USA), again all great fun, ridiculous senses of humour and like-minded nutters.

There were also countless other riders that I had chatted with over dinner, drunk bottles of wine with and generally been put at ease by. The one thing you can count on during this event is you will meet your type of people.

conference center briefing for the Mongol Derby
Event briefing before venturing onto the steppe

The formal pre-steppe briefing consisted of a presentation explaining how the next two weeks would hopefully look for us all and a general Q&A before we all went around the room introducing ourselves as if we were in an AA meeting. “Hi I am Emmelia and I am an adventureholic” I was tempted to blurt out. However, I quashed the thought leaving my mouth whilst my rational conscious noted there could be a few alcoholics in this room given how ridiculous this adventure was. “Don’t start on the wrong foot” I chastised myself.

You could tell at this point who was here to win. Some introduced themselves in a friendly but serious manner, focused and driven. Others were jovial and full of beans, happy to be in a room with fellow idiots, ready to dance with wild horses in the abyss of Mongolia.


As our navigation kit was handed out to calibrate the murmurs around the room turned to weight. Today was also rider weigh-in day and there were a few very tall men in the room who had been restricting food consumption to ensure they reached the weight limit of 85 kg dressed to ride. This is the weight deemed safe and kind for the horses. Every rider has this weight limit, no exceptions and this is where the strategy for the race began, and the first real taste of competition began to whet our appetites.


Each rider has a 5kg pack allowance to ride with during the race, in addition to the max rider weight allowance of 85 kg. This 5kg is to include everything except your water, including extra clothes you do not wear off the start line, snacks, medical kit, sleeping bag and roll mat, waterproofs, survival kit or tools, medication, electrolytes etc. Everything. Therefore, in a bid for us all to have extra weight available in our bag allowance for snacks and bivy tents we were all mostly wearing our waterproofs off the start line. “I hope it rains on the first day, if it isn’t we are all going to be overheating and passing out!” A rider chuckled to me as we queued for weigh-in. I laughed nervously. I really did hope it was freezing cold and raining. I overheat in the slightest warmth and would ride out in a short-sleeved T-shirt mid-winter whilst exercising the racehorses in the blistery UK weather. I was beginning to second guess my decision to copy everyone else as the sweat dripped down the back of my neck in the hotel conference room. However, before I could change my mind and remove my waterproofs I was on the scales wearing a long-sleeved top, fleece, waterproof trousers and rain jacket looking as if I was about to take on the Arctic tundra.


“63 KG” Maggie the race steward said, patting down my empty rucksack and jacket pockets to ensure there were no hidden snacks. Cheating and rider advantages are forbidden in the derby, this includes riders stuffing their knickers full of snickers if they were well under 85 KG, Maggie was taking no prisoners ensuring the lighter riders had no advantage.


“Phew, hurdle 1 finished only 1000 to go!” I mused to myself. Passport handed in, rider profile picture was taken, more nattering and then it was time to check out, ditch the real world and venture out to the steppe.

Out into the steppe:

The coach journey was a 6-hour endeavour of soft green expanse and not a huge amount of civilisation once we were 15 minutes outside of the capital city. It was clear to see why Mongolia has been the poster boy for one of the most unspoilt, beautiful countries on Earth. The roads were minimal, and the horses and wildlife grew in number as we encroached on our start camp. Eagles soaring in the clouds above, herds of camels munching at the side of the road, horses…horses everywhere. The landscape was stunningly sparse. With very little infrastructure apart from the occasional ger or farm in the distance and the dirt track road we were speeding down that had been carved out from those who ventured here before. After 6 hours of chatting to fellow rider Reid (an utterly inspirational war vet amputee) a cluster of white dots began to appear on the horizon in amongst the hills. “Is that the start camp!?” someone asked Bianca, a derby veteran who was keen for round two. “Yep! looks like it” she replied “This is where we finished last year and it’s the same course backwards this year!”.


My stomach flipped. This was happening. I felt like I had forgotten how to be a human so how on Earth was I expected to ride a horse.

Mongolia scenery
Start camp surroundings

The coach swerved onto an even smaller dirt track, advancing upon the camp. “This has come around too quickly, I am not ready for this, I should not be here” imposter syndrome began to creep in. However, before I could listen to the unjust voices in my head the coach ground to a sudden halt, greeted by a hum of rapturous applause from outside.

People getting off the bus ready for the Derby
Being greeted by the locals with fermented milk.
Groups of people clapping on the Mongolia steppe
Crew and stewards all welcoming us into the start camp

Walking through Mongolia
Livia and I "strutting" through start camp

As we all gathered up our small selection of belongings from the coach for the next 2 weeks the race crew, volunteers, vets, medics, chefs, and all other staff for the training camp gathered and greeted us with elated applauses, cheers, handshakes and high fives. I strutted through the line up of people, feeling fabulous as if I had not only finished the derby but won it! “We are this year's sacrifice!” Livia laughed bringing me back down to Earth. They were indeed cheering because we were this year's group of entertaining idiots perhaps.


The camp was utterly stunning, nestled beneath larger-than-life sacred rocks that reminded you how insignificant a single human is. Everything here felt like Alice in Wonderland when she takes the potion that makes her tiny. The expanses of grassland were hundreds of times bigger than anything I had ever seen, stretching for miles and miles as far as the eye could see in every direction. The hillsides were constructed of massive boulders that only giants could have moved. The air was as clean and crisp as if pure oxygen was being pumped into your lungs. We were ushered over to a selection of Gers to make our homes for the next 2 days during our training camp.

Mongol Derby Start camp
Start camp for 2023

A ger is an old traditional form of Yert that the countryside Mongolians live in. They are a simple design that consists of a few parts such as thin wooden poles, walls (consisting of timber lattices attached together), two columns, a floor, a door and a round crown at the top, felt covers and long ropes made of wool. The structures can be taken down, transported and re-erected when the time comes to move the family with the seasons of wild Mongolia. Some of the yurts we came across on the trip were stunning with carvings around the oculus and bright paints on the timberwork. We had five riders to a Ger at the start camp, Livia, Erin, Liz, Rebecca and I threw ourselves into number 21 with haste in a bid to stay as a group for as long as possible, clinging onto any sort of comfort we had created in this adverse situation.

A Mongolian Ger
A Mongolian Ger

 The rest of the day was spent chatting, unpacking, sorting and drinking booze at the pop-up bar the amazing Erik had set up for riders. Dutch courage is always a welcome sight in tricky horse situations after all. It didn’t take long until the booze was flowing, all you can eat buffet was being devoured and the riders were all getting along like houses on fire. Any onlooker would not have dreamed that these new friends were meant to be racing against each other in 48 hours’ time.


After dinner, weary travellers meandered to their Gers for some shut-eye. It was here when the voices fell, and the bodies slept that the silence and darkness took hold. A darkness lit only by nature's beacons and a silence that swallowed you whole. A silence so deafening in the shadows that I was grateful for the soft, surrounding snores to remind me that I was indeed still alive.


Training day 1:

The sun rose from behind the sacred rocks looming behind our Gers. Peeping out of our Ger door I

could see Mongolian riders just past the camp rallying a herd of horses towards the camp horse line. The horse line is Mongolia’s answer to stables. The horses all live out in the wilderness, regardless of their gender, age, job and are gathered up by the herders when required. They are then tied to a horse line either on the floor or above their heads until they are required to ride. In this instance, the entire herd was being brought in for our first encounter with Mongolian horses. 

Horses being taken to a horse line
The Mongolian horse lines

I walked down towards the horse line before breakfast and sat in silence with the Mongolians shouts and cheers echoing around me as they manoeuvred around the herd effortlessly. Horses trotted along in front of the dirt bikes peacefully, right on target. I sat in awe of these notoriously fearless horsemen, eager to see how they interacted with the horses. All the herders were very hands-off, very little touch, very little tack, no petting or cuddling. It was all very different to what I was used to. A horse bolted from the herd out into the steppe but before he could get more than 400 meters away a herder jumped on a horse bareback in hot pursuit. An Uurga is a lasso pole that is the Mongolian equivalent of an American cowboys lasso rope. This rider caught the loose horse with his Uurga with no issue and brought him back to the horse line within a matter of minutes. I sat with my mouth open shaking my head at what I had just witnessed. It would take me 5 times longer to catch a horse in a fenced paddock sometimes! The speed, the agility and the way these people rode was like nothing I had ever seen. Granted it was a little bit rougher than I was used to, I very much sit there quietly and try not to override, but from what I had just witnessed I figured I would need to have a bit more of a Mongolian outlook to riding for the next 2 weeks. Mental notes made on how the local men rode, big breath in and a quick “you can do this” inner chat, I jumped up eager for the day ahead and braced myself for training to begin.


The first training day consisted mainly of being told the rules of the race. The main item to wrap our heads around was the race category versus the adventurist category. Riders who are removed

Training day 1 itinerary
Training day 1 itinerary

from the race due to injury can be brought back into the fold to carry on riding once recovered. These riders are no longer officially racing and will not receive a finishing position but can ride and experience as much of the race as they would like to. Some riders may only be out of the race a short while and therefore go on to do the entire distance, pretty much. Some will be out for a few days, and some may be out for the majority of the race but chose to ride the last day, it varies. However, if you are taken off the steppe you are no longer in the racing category, you are placed into an adventure category. I overheard a few times at start and finish camp that the adventure category meant you had not finished or fully experienced the race. This is untrue, and I would like to make a note for all potential future competitors on this. A couple of people I rode with on the last half of the race were in the adventure category and I can assure you, they fully experienced the race. They were still sleeping in the same conditions, eating the same food, riding the same wild horses and all after being injured or ill. One of the chaps who crossed the finish line with me was in the adventure category and he rode solidly up until he was sick, was out for a day or so and then continued to ride after. He ended up riding over 1000km. The adventure category is not a death sentence, it is a brief time out whilst people recover from issues before getting back onto the field to make more memories. Realistically unless you are going for top 10 positioning whether you are 11th, 20th or adventure category does not matter at all, you still come home with the same crazy stories and memories. So to all future riders do not fret about the adventure category. Anyone who makes you feel as though it is an inferior experience are an Egotistical banter vacuum that you need to stay away from. Ride your race, ride your own experience, and stay in your lane, do not listen to what others think. However, it is easy to say this in hindsight, at the time I was terrified of ending up in the adventure category or not riding the full race. It is not until you compete in the Derby you see how unimportant the categories are to your fulfilment and experience.


Here are a few 2023 rules of the race in a simple manner to aid with explaining the issues that arise later in the blog. A few had been added for 2023 to see how we faired and if the rules should be adopted for future years:

1-    Every horse must be checked by a vet before you mount and as soon as you arrive at a horse stop. Failure to do so results in time penalties and potential disqualification.

2-    You must sign in and sign out at horse stops. Failure to do so results in time penalties and potential disqualification.

3-    You must not lose your vet card, if you do you are disqualified.

4-    You must tack your horse up yourself, no help from the herders. New rule to even out the playing field   

5-    You must get on the horse yourself, no help from herders. New rule to help even out the playing field

6-    You may not pick your horse at horse stops, each rider must draw horses out of a pot and ride the one they select. New rule to stop the locals favouring men and the leaders in the race early on. This was to try and close the gap between the leaders and the main pack. It certainly worked as you never knew if your horse was going to be fast or slow until you left the horse station!

7-    You are allowed to swap horses three times if you do not think you can ride a horse.

8-    Herders are not allowed to get on and test-ride your horse first.

9-    A carry forward in an emergency will result in a 2-hour penalty sit at the next horse stop. Multiple carry forwards result in being placed in the adventure category.

10- If you fail a vet check at a horse station i.e horse's heart rate is above 56bmp after 30 minutes on arriving at a horse stop or your horse is lame, you receive a 2-hour time penalty. This increases to 4hrs and then 6hrs. The fourth vet penalty results in disqualification. Horses must be looked after!

11- If you are not making good time and look to be struggling to make the cut-off times you will be put into the adventure category and carried forward in a jeep to catch up.

12- If you are removed from the race for injury or illness and join after a break you are put into the adventure category.

13- No riding before 7am and no riding past 7pm. Any trackers moving outside of these times would mean time penalties and potentially disqualification.

14- If you did not make it to a horse station by 7pm to sleep for the night you would have to camp out and find somewhere safe for you and your horse that had water. The time restrictions still apply though.

There were a plethora of other rules but these were the main ones and the ones that will be required for the storytelling.


Once we had run over the theory side of the race the practical began. Two calm Mongolian horses were brought into a circle of eager riders. Some backed off cautious of the reputation these creatures had, and others moved forward keen to touch one of these incredible beasts for the first time. Our lessons in this instance were bridling, hobbling and general movement around the horses given things are done differently in Mongolia.

Hobbeling a horse on the Mongol Derby 2023
Learning how to hobble the horses

Mongolian horses do not have headcollars and lead ropes, fancy grooming kits, rugs and all the other paraphernalia we deem important in the Western world. They live wild, share tack and their bridles are multi-purpose. Lesson 1 was transforming a bridle into a headcollar. The bridles are very simple

goat skin lengths tied to each other and attached to a rustic bit. There is also a set of fabric reins (with no grip) and a separate length of thin goat skin tied to the bit on one side that the riders hold when riding. This is used to tie the horses up or lead them when in headcollar mode and to help speed up or direct the horses. The best comparison I can relate to personally is Western riders using long reins when riding, the Mongolians just have the reins and tie-up rope allocated separately. When horses are tied up or grazing the bit is to be taken out of their mouth by slipping it under their chin and turning the bride into a headcollar the reins are then tied up in a specific way around their necks and the length of goat skin used as a lead rope and tie up length.

I watched rider after rider put the horse's bridle on, change it to a headcollar and put it back as a bridle. It felt as if I was at school waiting to do a presentation to class, gut wrenching nerves settled in. “Stop being ridiculous Emmelia, it is a horse, you are used to horses, they aren’t scary”. Was it because we had been led to believe these little horses were the devil incarnate or was it due to the pressure of looking like I knew what I was doing in front of a lot of very capable riders? No idea. However, after riders started to make mistakes and the herders and other riders helped them the fear melted away. We were all in the same boat and chances are I was not the only person that was apprehensive about what we had signed up for.


After a couple of attempts, nerves began to wane away. I had built these horses up to be something out of this world crazy and whilst they were, indeed, incredible, they were still horses and I was used to horses, there was nothing to be nervous of. Right?  


Hobbling the horses was a bit more challenging. We were provided hobbles in the event we were camping overnight during the race and had nothing to tie the horses to. Chances are the horses would still move a lot in the night but substantially less than if unhobbled.

“Do not let go of your horse until he is hobbled (Mongolians only ride male horses) or he will run off and you will be left in the middle of the steppe on your own” one the race a crew advised when I dropped the goat skin rope to fasten a hobble.

“I need another hand to do this, and this horse is standing still, how do we do this with ones that are spicey?” I replied.

“Good question, when you find the answer let us know” he laughed turning to ask the herder the question in Mongolian. The herder smiled, took everything off me and showed me exactly how. Quick, firm but fair the hobbles were on in less than 20 seconds.

“So simple,” I thought to myself “maybe I won't camp out and won't need the hobbles, let's make that plan A”

Spoiler alert, I ended up camping out most nights during the race… and had many a run in with hobbles and horses escaping.

After our practical ground training, it was time to get into our riding gear and mount a horse to experience exactly what we had all come for. 

“No kit is needed, just riding gear! This is a fun getting to know the horses exercise!” Erik shouted across the camp. “We will call you up Ger by Ger and you will be given a horse at random. You can have a ride around the sacred rock hills and surrounding areas, enjoy it!”


Ger 21 was the last to be released. We sat and watched people fall off live wire horses, listened to the first few rider's stories about how amazing it all was and generally psyched ourselves out.

I was SO nervous to get on. Shaking. However, our Ger of girls all rallied around together, saw the funny side in all the ridiculousness and made light of if we all fell off so early on.

“GER 21! You are up!”


“Argh I feel sick” uttered Liz

“Me too” I responded, “why do I feel as though I have never sat on a horse before?!”

It is funny how fear can make you feel as if you are a total beginner.

Riders ready to mount horses
Ger 21 girls, ready for our first training ride

The 2-minute walk down to the horse line felt like an hour. My legs shook, my hands became clammy, and my head was whirring.  All the worst-case scenarios came to mind. “What if I fall off and break my arm now and don’t even start the race?” was the main worry. “Please give me a nice one to just get used to the horses, please please please”


I stood in line waiting for a steed to be provided. A dun horse was stamping and snorting the ground 20 feet away, eyeing me up as if I was dinner. “Christ not him please”.

“POTTS!” I was dragged from my cloud of worry by Erik pointing to a small bay horse. “That’s your one get him tacked up and off you go”

Now, the new rules of tacking up your own horse and getting on alone were something everyone had been worrying about, and rightfully so. Around me were spinning horses, rearing horses,

Mongolian horse at start camp
Mongolian horse at start camp

riders trying to mount but their horses sitting on the floor and horses bolting off as soon as a saddle touched their back. It was a little bit manic, these were after all feral horses in the middle of nowhere with only your strength to stop them from disappearing. In previous years the herders have helped to keep the horses as still as possible whilst you tack up and mount and occasionally have tacked up for you. Thinking about the racehorses and trying to tack them up when they are feisty, I removed as much drama as possible and led my little chap away from the others. We found a quieter space and I let him munch on grass whilst I tacked up, chatting away to him which was more to keep me calm than him! He was very amenable, and I thanked the Genghis Khan Gods that I had a quiet horse for training.


Tacked up and on route to sign out the lead herder came over to me and gave my horse a pat. “I thought the horses were not patted here?” I said to the translator, she asked the herder the question.

“This is his horse” She replied

“Ah no pressure then. That explains why he is so well behaved though” I pondered


The herder stood at the horses head whilst I considered mounting, fighting every bone in his body to help, probably terrified I was going to ruin his pride and joy. He was already holding the lead rein which he was not meant to be doing, but I needed the comfort and reassurance for the first mount. This was the moment the past 10 years had been building to. 10 years of saving, a year of training, years upon years of anticipation and excitement. I cautiously put my foot in the stirrup, shortened my rein closest to me, closed my eyes, held my breath, jumped up and waited for chaos to ensue. Sat astride my little horse with my eyes closed there was no movement, no chaos, not a bobbin. The herder was staring at me with a confused look on his face and the horse was standing with his head low as if sedated. “Ah well, that was the biggest anti-climax in the world” I thought in disbelief. The herder begrudgingly gave the lead rein to me, and I kicked my little horse on to see what it was all about.  


Our group of girls was mounted and I trotted off past them, keen to see what these horses were like on their own without any potential drama of other horses being nearby. My little horse took off in the vague general direction of the hill pass, and down a slope of grassland peppered with marmot holes.

Girl riding a horse in Mongolia
Leaving start camp on the first horse of the adventure

Slightly worried about all the holes and the speed we were travelling over them I tensed up and tried to slow down, which was in vain. These horses are born to run with their riders not to be controlled by panicking Westerners. Once the initial panic of “I am going to die” subsided and I realised that the horses were indeed as sure-footed as previous riders claimed I relaxed a bit and in turn my horse calmed down. Charging up the hillside towards a race crew jeep I began to realise that I was doing it, I was riding a Mongolian horse in the middle of nowhere, on my own. Fortunately for me, this first taste of riding on the steppe was a great way to be broken in, the horse was a saint. He would turn on a penny, take off at the slightest request and would come back to me without too much battling. Little horse and I pulled up over the hill pass after catching up with Jock and Sid, two Aussies competing together in the race. “These horses are incredible!” I yelled to them.

“Right! We’ve been right down that track and back” Jock replied pointing over to a strip of dirt in the grassland.

I wandered around in circles for a bit waiting for the girls to catch up and eventually could hear cries and “yeehaw!” in the distance. Surely enough they galloped over the pass having the time of their lives. I joined them and we galloped off down the track Jock had pointed out.

Riding a Mongolian Horse
Relaxing and enjoying the amazing horses

As I looked around the girls cantering next to me there were so many smiles. I wondered what all of our 6-year-old selves would have said if they could have seen this moment. We were acting as if we were all horse-mad little girls again being told we could have our first riding lesson. It was magic. All the worries from the morning and the dread of mounting melted away. We were all relaxed, joking and having a wonderful time, high fives all around.

Mongol Derby training day 1 ride
Ger 21 girls chatting and having a great time

“We probably ought to head back” was the sensible suggestion after 20 minutes of bombing around like lobotomised inmates on day release. The group agreed, turned around and the horses took off. However, instead of trying to slow them we all just embraced the Mongolian horse's tenacity. Anything we had been taught about riding over the years was being forgotten.

My little man cantered steadily to the horse line on returning, not even breaking a sweat. I hopped off, untacked and gave him a stroke “thank you little horse, you were the best first ride I could have hoped for”. His owner came over and nodded at me.

“Sain Mori” (good horse) I said to him beaming from ear to ear. He looked at me and grinned.


“That was the most amazing thing ever!” I yelled to Maggie who was watching the last of us ride into the camp and checking us off. “Best day ever!”


The energy in camp after everyones first ride was electric. There were stories of things going wrong already but everyone had a new sense of confidence that they could indeed take on the Derby. What we did not realise at the time was the horses at start camp were likely the easiest horses we would encounter.


“I am so proud of us all!” Erin exclaimed.

“Same!” all the girls replied. Group hugs and ego boosts all around, thinking we were practically Mongolian. The start camp party commenced with 43 very happy riders and all of the support crew, medics and vets. We watched sublime entertainment from the local Mongolians, had our bridles blessed for safe travels and all drank too much, danced too much and awoke with foggy heads the next day. A perfect recipe for navigation training.

Mongol Derby bridle blessing
Having our bridles blessed by a local monk. A lovley tradition but my bridle only survived 2 days before it vanished with my horse.

Lady contortionist at the Mongol Derby
Mongolian start camp entertainment

 Training day 2:

“The route is up! The route is up!” Indeed, the entire race route had been spread across the main tent wall for us to consider. Today was our walk through the route and lessons on how to use our GPS and trackers.

“Jeez, it’s a long way” one of the riders commented.

“1000 kilometres I reckon” a snarky remark replied.

Now we were all a bit more familiar with each other the filters were well and truly off.


The route was not marked out on the maps. Only the 29 horse stations were plotted, how we navigated to each one was up to us. Riders immediately buried their noses in the maps discussing contour lines and strategy. 1000km, 29 horses the world was your oyster apart from the occasional compulsory checkpoint such as a bridge or river crossing. I watched the competitive riders talking and strategizing, listening intently to how endurance riders tackle such events. Ben, the race route planner took us all through the route, noting where dangerous points were and also introducing us to the families at each horse station, families that had agreed to be part of the race and let us use their horses and stay with them overnight.

“These families are aware of the Derby” he explained “However if you do not make it to a horse station by 7pm you will need to try and find a family to camp with that have no idea what the race is. Some areas on the map are no good for camping mainly due to lack of water so bear this in mind when planning your route. If we check on you whilst camping out and there is no water source for your horse, you will be moved and penalised”


After the route run-through, we were given practice co-ordinates to put into our GPS. “You are going to go out on a full kit check, navigation ride today. Here is the first checkpoint, you will be provided with the next checkpoint when you reach the first. There are three co-ordinates to navigate to today totalling around 30km”

“It will also be a dress rehearsal for vet checks and signing in and out today people!” Erik added, “Make sure you do it all properly at each checkpoint, no help taking up and getting on! Ger 21 you are starting today”

Girls organising tack for the Mongol Derby
Erin and I helping each other sort out our tack

My head was beginning to melt with information overload as we walked to the ger to get packed up and ready to ride out. “Where do you think we are heading?” Erin asked looking at her GPS.

“Over there somewhere? I think?” I replied pointing to a hill in the distance.

A nugget of guidance from Maggie on the navigation day in the UK was you are best to figure out the direction you are going in before mounting in case you are on a horse that requires both hands.

“Let's aim for that ger in the distance and then re-evaluate once we get closer?” I suggested. I was not going to spend my entire time in Mongolia trying to plan everything within an inch of its life, I was adopting the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to navigation that had seemed to work on the UK training day. Granted, once on a horse, it was a different ball game!


“Ger 21!”.

Groundhog days, we walked to the horse line. Sun beating down and temperatures soaring in the mid-day sun. “I really hope it's not this hot during the race, I won't make it”.


No time today for tack to be neatly laid out on the floor and for me to find a space to tack up. A horse was presented to me straight away right next to the horse line and pinned in by the girls tacking up their mounts.

“Remember to all wait for each other and go out as a team!”  someone shouted excitedly.

Today’s horse was not quite as chill as yesterday's. He wiggled all over the shop whilst I tried to become acquainted with tacking up from the left-hand side only (Any attempt to tack up on the right-hand side resulted in the horses bolting off and utter carnage). The herder I had today tried to help me, seeing my obvious struggle. He was told by the translator not to help and I carried on. Eventually, after taking the saddle off three times due to twisted straps and pads I was off to the vet for a check.

“Vet card please”

I handed over a flimsy paper pamphlet that I had to guard with my life and he walked around the horse.

“Any rubs, marks or worries before you get on?”

“Nope, all okay I think” I replied.

“Off you go then!”

I thrust the paper into my waterproof bag and my trouser pocket.

Mongol Derby vet card being signed
A vet card, the piece of paper we had to guard our lives with

I watched the girls mount and concluded that the trick to mounting seemed to be to jump on the horse as quickly as possible and get moving forward to avoid being decked when mounting. It's just like the racehorses but without any help having a leg up.


“Foot in, leg up and over, go forward even if feet are not in stirrups” I talked to myself. Why was I nervous again!?

Karen from back home's voice was ringing in my ears “If they are moving forward they can't mess around too much” So I launched myself onto the back of the training day 2 steed and urged him forward before he started to play silly buggers. I went over to catch up with the girls who had started planning our route.

“Have you signed out!!?!?!” Yelled a crew member.

“No…. EPO leaving! Sorry!” I shouted, aware that if this was during the race I would have penalties coming out of my ears.

“You need to be off your horse for sign-outs and ins!”

A mental note made, off I went to catch up with the girls.


“So, we are going over there, but which way around these fields do we go?” Livia pondered.

Like blue-arsed flies around a decaying carcass, we darted around the local area on our horses, all of us doubting ourselves and our decisions to some extent.

Eventually, we decided on a route, tearing off at a rate of knots towards our first marker. Today's horse was a little bit trickier. Not much steering and quite opinionated to begin with but when navigating is at the forefront of your mind the worries about what you are riding melt away. I was no longer concerned with if a horse would deck me, but more worried about getting lost. We cantered along the dirt tracks merrily chatting away and echoing how proud we were of ourselves.

“Guys, does my horse look okay?” Livia asked with a lilt of concern.

“He looks a bit foot sore perhaps” someone replied.


We carried on for 5 minutes trotting along, the atmosphere now full of worry for Livia's horse.


Livia and Beca began to drop back as Erin, Liz and My horses ploughed on.

“Realistically we won't all be able to ride together” Beca had said before mounting up “We can try to stay together for parts of the race but the odds of us riding together are low” Little did we know this would play out sooner than expected.

Erin, Liz and I trucked on determined to find this checkpoint. Jeeps with photographers followed us, the sun blazed down on our backs and the horses galloped along without much need for interference, they very much knew their job. It was like being in a film, a wonderful, unpredictable film.

“Guys, we are doing it, we are navigating and riding horses in Mongolia” Erin exclaimed.

I must admit I was chuffed too; no one had been chucked off and we seemed to be on track with the navigation. An hour or so of pats on the back went by and we closed in on the first checkpoint.

“The first checkpoint is at the top of this hill!” I shouted. “There should be someone about 200 meters in front of us”


There was no one. We stood around, wondering where we had gone wrong.

“Maybe we are on the wrong hill?” Liz said. “Should we be over there?


At this point, there was a huge lesson to be learned. We were so sure of ourselves and navigation but as soon as something did not go to plan we immediately doubted ourselves. A jeep eventually turned up alongside the riders from ger 20.

“Stay here, you’ve reached the checkpoint before the vets, they will come and check your horses and give you the next set of coordinates,” the crew said.


We waited and waited. More riders gathered at the top of the hill, including Beca.

“Beca” where is Livia we asked.

“Her horse was lame, so she went back to the start for a new horse”

It was clear that riding together during the race was indeed going to be impossible.


 It was here, waiting on the hilltop, that the unsolicited advice began to creep in.

“Did you know that if you just do X this will happen, and you’ll find it much easier?” I overheard.

I am a massive fan of learning and any advice I received through the race I took on board and either ignored it or actioned it, a swift thanks to the divulger. The advice offerings were giving me flashbacks of coming out of exams at school and everyone talking about their answers knowing you had not written anything similar in the slightest. “Stay in your lane and ride your race” I reminded myself. I took my horse over to Seb for a chat and to escape the exam-themed chat.


“Sorry, everyone the vets aren’t coming to this checkpoint” the crew explained, “off you go to the next one, here are the coordinates.” I was beginning to realise that this event was not one for people who liked a set-in-stone plan, you had to be open to last-minute changes which was great prep for the adapt of die requirements in the steppe.

“Weeeeeee let's go!” I thought. My little horse was eager to leave checkpoint 1.

Erin, Liz, Beca and I charged down the hill face willing to find the track to the next stop.

“Hole!” would be shouted now and again as someone’s horse stumbled, threatening to remove the rider out the front door.

Uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill. The horses were beginning to get tired in the heat and each time an uphill was asked of them they muscled on but slower. We had opted for the most direct route to the next stop. This was undoubtedly the wrong choice and a good lesson to learn on the training day rather than on the race. Riders behind us had opted for the dirt track that wound around the base of the hills, they were making up ground at an extraordinary rate on still-lively horses.


“I think we need to get down to the track,” I said. “Let's join those riders”

The beautiful scenery of Mongolia during the Mongol Derby
Beca, Liz, Erin and I joining other riders

Once we were on the flat the horses responded well to the terrain as well as having a larger herd to run with. It was a bit like trying to hold a strong racehorse in behind, however, here we had space to not worry about being bolted off with. This penny dropped and I let my little horse run on with the front of the herd, I had no reason to hold my horses back if they wanted to bomb off with me.

Mongol derby training day 2 vet check
The hoard of riders coming into the training vet check

Our hoard of riders approached the second checkpoint. It was here I realised how hectic these vet checks were going to be. Everyone seeking the vet's attention straight away, everyone willing for a quick trot up and clearance so they could go on to continue their ride. It was hot and my horse was tired so I stood quietly with him letting him graze and chill, spitting water from my backpack onto his neck so his heart rate would come down. The vet came around to me, heart rate was below 56 so I was cleared to do a trot up. Trot up passed, no sores or rubs, vet check passed and I could re-mount and be on my way to the next checkpoint. Patience proved to be useful and my advice to anyone here is to try to not get flustered at the horse stations.

Some riders had to wait for their horse's heart rates to come down, and others had issues with lameness. In this moment it became clear how quickly positions could change in the race. All it took was you to be on an unfit horse or to fail a vet check and you would be overtaken. I signed out and hopped back onto my horse. Erin, Reid, Liz and I were cleared to ride out in the sweltering heat with a rather ominous storm lingering in the distance. We naively thought it looked too far in the distance to be an issue.


The navigation from here was easy, with nice large dirt tracks to follow and we could see the camp in the distance. However, the air went from clammy to having a swift chill in a matter of

minutes. The haze in the distance dissipated and was replaced with rain hammering down on the fields in the distance.

“The camp is about 5km away, that storm is about 10 minutes from hitting us here. We can out-ride it. We just need to get ahead, and it’ll pass behind us” Reid noted.

Being someone who knows nothing about weather paths I nodded and agreed with Reid for group morale, we could outride the storm, easily! 

We cantered with haste towards the camp, droplets of fine mist filling our lungs. Black skies surrounded us, the past sunshine being swallowed up to our rear. “This is going to be wet!” I shouted.

“We aren’t going to get wet!” Reid replied, “Keep going”. This was the first glimmer of Redis unwavering optimism throughout the Derby. To try and out ride the storm click here.

Riders walking through Mongolia on the Mongol Derby
Erin, Liz, Reid and I leaving the vet check before the storm came over the hils

We charged into camp as if playing cowboys and Indians, forgetting about heart rates. We jumped off our horses ready for vet checks immediately desperate to not be drenched. All the horses heart rates were far too high as a result, so we waited. It was here that the heavens opened. I have been caught out in storms before. From the mountains of Nepal to the rainforests of the Amazon but have never encountered rain like Mongolia nor weather that changes so quickly. I had been overheating all day, begging for a reprieve from the stifling sun. I was now standing with my horse shaking like a leaf, little knife-like droplets stabbing away on my goose bumped skin. The horses turned their backs to the winds, well versed with the changing tides of the steppe weather. Riders did the same, all wishing our waterproofs were easier to hand. We now understood the warnings previous riders had bestowed on us. “The weather will change, and you will not believe how quickly you go from being on the verge of heat stroke to being in danger of having pneumonia” one veteran had told me. She was right.

Heavy rain in the Mongol Derby
The rain once we got into the start camp vet check

That evening was an early night before race day, but we had one final piece of training to partake in. A medic talk. Possibly the best way to strike fear into 43 adventurous riders. The talk began with a few trinkets of knowledge and putting our minds at ease with how the medics could help us and the protocol if we needed to go to the hospital. However, the presentation took a dark turn into death and how easy it was to die from heat stroke and dehydration. “Remind each other to drink all the time and if someone shows signs of dehydration and heat stroke then send out an SOS on your tracker immediately” the medic explained. “It's not something to risk and mess with, this will be the biggest risk to you all given the temperatures we are expecting”. I looked around, 43 smiling riders were now looking a bit worried. Especially me, the ginger one that overheats in the winter when exercising. I returned to the Ger, set a “drink water” alarm on my phone for every 20 minutes until my battery would die to prevent death and decided to get an early night.  No sleep was had on that evening. My stomach danced with anticipation and dread of the next 10 days ahead.

The next related blog post "Mongol Derby Day 1:The Race Begins" can be found here.

Group shot of the Mongol Derby riders 2023
Mongol Derby class of 2023


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