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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

The Mongol Derby Day 2: Dog Chases, Alone in the Dunes and More Unusual Wees.

Updated: May 21

All Photographs by Kathy Gabrielle, Shari Thompson and Bayarsaihan Ochiroo

The previous related blog post for race day 1 can be found here

Women trots up horse on the Mongol Derby
Trotting Mungo up for the vet after riding
Day 2
Camping – HS3

BLEEP! BLEEP! BLEEP!

Gentle moans escaped the riders huddled on the floor. A 5:30 start after minimal sleep is never a blessing. The Mongolian family still silently slumbering next to us. We hurriedly crammed our belongings into our packs and checked that the horses remained tied to the horse line outside.

“YES! The horses are still here!” I said as if it were some miracle. Our four horses looked up at the Ger door when we appeared as if to say “Mongolian horses get such a bad rep, we are angels!” I went over to Mungo, thanked him for staying put overnight, checked his face rubs and untied him to take him for a morning graze.

women holds horse as he grazes in Mongolia
Jessie giving her horse his morning graze

The family stirred from the Ger and came to watch us, talking amongst themselves and pointing to our kit laid out ready to tack up. One by one they ushered us back into the Ger for breakfast. On my turn, I handed the man of the family a postcard from London with a message written in Mongolian:

 

“Thank you for letting us stay. You have a lovely home; a beautiful family and Mongolia is incredible!”

 

He read the message, smiled and grabbed my hand. He gave it a gentle squeeze, nodded his head at me and said something in Mongolian. I wish to this day I knew what he had said.

Three ladies, one western and two Mongolian
The two ladies of the household and myself

“I went for another great and unusual wee last night,” I told Erin as we finished grazing our horses. I had been desperate in the night so trundled outside to be met by an extraordinary number of cow-shaped outlines, right outside the door, dully illuminated by the moonlight. I edged my way through the herd to a small opening in the middle. Stars and Milky Way gleamed above my head and a sea of large silhouettes surrounded me. “Please don’t come up to me whilst I am squatting in dirt” I thought as the inquisitive shadows crept closer. They were quite massive and death by cow whilst weeing is not the way I wanted to go.

 

After our hour of morning grazing it was already very hot and time to consider today's riding. 15 minutes until we could get going, best to make a bit of a plan. I turned the GPS on, checked the ideal route and gestured where we were going to the others. “Over there somewhere” I pointed, “let's follow the road to the water point, offer the horses a drink and then the station is not far”.

We started to tack up and the two local men ran to help us, I still think it was because we looked as though we might not know what we were doing! Mounted, horses watered. 2 minutes to go.

“Everyone okay?!” Reid asked.

“YES” we all shouted in unison as if he were leading us into battle. With that, we were off on day 2.

4 horse riders in Mongolia
Happy horses and riders on day 2

The rest of this leg was uneventful. All our horses were brilliant and sensible, eating up the remainder of leg 3 with a steady ease. We wound our way through the hills following the dirt tracks, mindful of how “shortcuts” in this terrain would result in being long cuts. Our horses all cantered down the tracks, taking turns to lead and spur the other horses on. I was navigating, the others were checking for second opinions as we approached the water point. The morning sun by this point was stifling and I was beginning to suffer. I realised my water alarm had not been going off, my phone had run out of battery. “Bugger that will be why I feel drained and sleepy,” I thought “I’m dehydrated”.

“DRINK!” I barked at everyone. From camping out we also were limited to rations of water from Horse Station 2 lasting overnight to Horse Station 3, this meant glugging water down in the heat was not an option, we needed to make it last unless we wanted to risk getting off our horses and filling up from a farmyard trough in this area. Neither seemed like a great life decision.

 

We made it to the water point. A lonely trough at the bottom of a hill, servicing a herd of sheep in the distance. The horses glugged away, one of the horses being particularly enthusiastic and submerging his head as far as he could.

“We just need to pop over this hill and the station is in that direction, perhaps another 7k or so” I advised. Our horses were beginning to get tired and keeping them going was becoming a bit draining.  We jogged on up the final hillside, taking on our lead horse rotation approach to try and keep the horses moving. If I had been on my own on this leg, I am sure my horse would have stopped. Having horses around him kept him going.

“There it is! Horse station 3” I grinned as we descended down the hills into the clearing.

“Are you sure? That looks too close”

“ No, it's around the other hill over there?”

“ No that is it. It is the closer Ger”

Erin and I went back and forth over which Ger was the horse station as there were two approximately 5k apart in the sprawling expanse before us. Erin was right and I was humbled. It was the slightly closer Ger. Do not be cocky and rule out others opinions was the lesson here.  

 

“Who is that coming up behind us?” Jessie exclaimed with panic in her voice. It was clear to me then that she was here with the ambition of winning.

I shrugged. Not fussed.

“We've been slow on this leg guys, we need to speed up” She exclaimed.

The temptation to snap back a response that she could ride off on her own and didn’t have to stay with us was massive. I had made it quite clear to everyone I was here for fun not to win. However, snapping at people when you are tired and hungry seldom has any positive outcome and I just shrugged again and said something along the lines of I was happy, and my horse was tired.

We continued walking our horses back to the horse stop and the new rider overtook us.  

 

It was Xavier. He had been way out in front of us, what was he doing back here?! Maybe we were not going too slow after all.

 

“Xavy!” We shouted, “What happened?”

“I got thrown off and had to walk back to a horse station to get a new horse he laughed”.

He trotted on past us whilst we continued to walk in a bid to cool our hot, exhausted horses down.

 

We discussed whether we were cooling our horses off too soon or if Xavier was risking a vet penalty by trotting up close to the horse station. No one knew how best to navigate this race hurdle yet and we all agreed that in these temperatures we were best to air on the side of caution and walk in the rest of the way, convinced Xavier would get a vet penalty. He did not and had nailed the cooling down process early on in the race. As I found out later in the race you could tell as soon as you mounted up which horses would need a cool down and which would not.

 

“Welcome to HS3!” Our little gang wandered in, full of smiles and joy on seeing fresh water.

The horses all pulsed down in a good time and Erin, and I agreed to ride out together after a quick snack. Reid and Jessie wanted to crack on as we had been told we were doing well and making good time by the stewards at this stop. Sitting in the Ger I had a quick look at the paper maps provided at the horse stop, I figured that the terrain and routes were going to get harder, and I should probably take the time to plan a bit whilst stuffing my face full of noodles.

“What’s the plan then Potts?” Erin said

“This way, I think” pointing to the map and offering it to her for a second opinion.

“HEY GIRLS!” Lucy strode into the Ger, took a handful of Russian boiled sweets, had a quick check of the map and off she went. Now that was how to do a horse station! Erin and I sat gobsmacked at Lucys efficiency.

 

HS3 - HS4

Aware that this station was beginning to get busy Erin and I filled up with water, stocked up with boiled sweets and went outside to acquire new horses.

Jessie and Reid were still waiting to be signed out.

My next horse was a small chestnut gelding with no mane and a neck to rival the Hulk. I knew this one was going to be a little powerhouse. I called him Bolt, after all, that’s what he looked like he was going to be good at!

Bolt was not the easiest to tack up, he ran around in circles and would cow kick out at anyone near his back legs. “Stop, calm and think,” I said to myself “You are in the middle of a crowd of people and it is busy. Move him somewhere quieter” I led Bolt to an area behind a herder’s flatbed truck and tied him to the side. He immediately relaxed. I followed my tacking-up checklist. Tack on quickly, move confidently and quietly, and don’t let a nervous horse make you nervous.

 

 “Sain Mori?” I asked the herder who had come to check if I was okay. He nodded, beamed a massive smile, laughed, and said “Sain Mori!!!!”. The translator joined us to tell me that this was the man’s horse. He was young and training to become a racehorse, this was his first year in the Derby. She then went on to tell me that he would be very quick. She was not joking.

 

Due to the initial tacking up faffing Erin, Jessie and Reid had mounted and were beginning to walk off past the horse line to start the next leg of the race. I was having trouble mounting Bolt, he was small but would dart off as soon as I stood him still, I had to be quick and just get on with it, but the more I overthought it the worse it became.

“Go without me! I will catch you up!” I yelled at my most recent teammates.

After pacing around for a bit and psyching myself up to mount a barely 14hh horse, Bolt calmed his jig jogging to a walk and chilled out. I grasped the chance, turned swiftly, foot in the stirrup, hopped alongside him to not change his pace and launched myself on. Falling like a sack of spuds on his back. He took off, thankfully in the right direction, at speed, as if his life depended on it. This was essentially how the rest of the leg went, everything at breakneck speeds.

Women and horse gallop out of a Mongol Derby horse station
Clinging onto Bolt for dear life

“He will chill out once we’ve caught up with another horse” I convinced myself.

Bolt did not chill, he continued to run. We took off past Erin, Jessie and Reid. I tried to slow down to ride this leg with them, aware that being out on your own was not ideal. However, I had no breaks and there was minimal steering to loop back around to them, there was also a main road up ahead on the map. With this realisation I tensed up and tried to slow him down old school, yanking. It was in vain and after a couple of attempts, I gave up and decided to let him do his own thing. I did not want to tear his mouth up and surely, he would let me know when he had enough. I relaxed my hands and elbows, engaged my core and essentially became a passenger balancing on a torpedo. Hoping he would at least listen when we reached the road. He did not and he tore off over the road hooves clattering on the rocky base. Fortunately, there was no traffic or it could have been disastrous.

 

Bolts hooves thundered across the dirt, kicking up plumes of brown dust in his wake. He had Lucy and her horse in his sights who were about half a kilometre ahead just before the rolling hills started again. We caught up with Lucy who, as always, had a massive smile plastered across her face. “This horse is bloody quick!” I yelled now smiling from ear to ear. She laughed and followed us. The pair of horses galloped flat out up and down the dirt tracks in between the hills, taking it in turns to lead and spur each other on. Eventually, Lucie's horse slowed the pace but Bolt continued to have enough energy to power the entire country. He strode on, seeking his next target, not even breaking a sweat. I on the other hand was frantically glugging water from my narrow bladder tube to try and cool myself down in the sweltering heat.

 

About 20km into this leg I was very aware of being alone for the first time during the race. I could not see anyone. No Gers, no crew jeeps, no riders. Just Bolt and I, churning up the steppe. This was a true adventure and I was finally letting go of the “What ifs” and enjoying horses taking off at full pace with me. I dug out my GPS as Bolt began to slow to a more steady gallop rather than a blind panic charge and noted the water stop position. “Let's get you some water, you must be gasping” I murmured. We veered off the main dirt track, heading down towards a small water spring. Three riders were at the water spring as it began to creep into view. Bolt saw them and immediately charged off again “We can catch them up feller, but first water!” Overtaking people was further awakening the competitive streak that I had tried so hard to quash for this race. “Safety over glory Emmelia” I had to remind myself “You are no good to anyone dead” I reminded Bolt of this and how it was also true of him. “Calm down little one, we both need to finish this leg in one piece”. I wondered if he would have cared for our safety even if he could have understood me. I doubted it.

 

The water stop was rendered useless once I realised Bolt was not going to stop and drink. He walked around the water, spooking at the ripples and splashes he was causing. He stuck his head down with promise, snorted, spooked and decided to have a bucking session in the water. Every water disturbance caused more drama. Trying to direct a bucking horse at the best of times is tricky, and doing it with one that is void of steering in deep water is even more so. Eventually, he bucked his way out of the water spring, ground to a halt, neighed at the top of his voice and off we went again. I took a glug of my water and in vain spat it down his neck to try and keep him cool. By miracle, though he was still not tired, I on the other hand looked as though I had been in a hot bath and was sweating profusely. The sun continued to beat down and it wasn’t even mid-day yet.

 

Once out of the hill tracks Bolt and I were met with more foliage dense grassland, peppered with bushes and marmot holes. Up ahead in the distance were the three riders. Bolt locked on, screeched to his friends and continued to charge. Mongolian horses are very much like centipedes when it comes to their legs. They trip down or over a hole and they suddenly appear to grow hundreds of other legs to continue galloping past the trip. It is incredible. Nothing stops them. Galloping off any tracks you are so aware of all the holes in the ground, some are massive, and you cannot miss them before it's too late. Your horse either trips down and scrambles out, jumps it if you are lucky, or darts to the side suddenly. Bolt decided we would go in a straight line and jump everything. I am not convinced he was paying attention to where his feet were going as he was too focused on the horses ahead. Galloping in a blind panic as if his life depended on being with his friends. We leapt over bushes and stumbled over holes, his eagerness and spirit never wavering. We eventually tacked onto the back of the group ahead. Bolt simmered down and I was thrilled to see that Hilarie was one of the riders.

“Hilaire! YES! You are doing amazing!” I screamed, “Check us out, we are doing this!”

She beamed back and we exchanged stories from our travels so far. She was convinced that we were near the front and doing well. However, none of the riders truly knew where they were in relation to the others. We had only hearsay to work from given we could not track each other. We were blind to our race position.  

 

I rode with Hilaire to cool our hoses down for the last 3km. Bolt had eventually become tiered but was still happy to march on. We reminisced about our UK navigation day, chatted about who we thought would win and admired the horses we had ridden so far.

“Do you think Maggie will be proud of us when she sees we are near the front?” I asked.

“I don’t think she will quite believe it!” Hilaire laughed.

We were not exactly favourites in the field against the plethora of seasoned endurance riders, huntsmen, jockeys, and equine professionals! Horse station 4 was at the top of a hill so we dismounted, took our horses bits out of their mouths, and sauntered up the slope to a very quiet horse station.

 

“Girls!” Maggie was at Horse Station 4.

“Maggie!” Hilarie and I grinned.

“Can you believe we are doing so well!” I jinxed.

We were brought back down to earth with “Yes you are but you have a long way to go yet”.

This was true and it was important to not get complacent and make mistakes.

Women walking a horse in hand in Mongolia during the Derby
Walking Bolt into the horse stop for his vet check

The horses flew through the vet check.

“Comments about the horse?” The translator asked.

“Utterly amazing and quick! I want to take him home”.

I stood with Bolt for a bit after the vetting, telling him how awesome he was and how I hoped he would win lots of races for his herder. Eventually, a man came and dragged him off me, after all, Mongolian horses are not pets and are not for cuddling!

I watched longingly as Bolt was put in a pen with 6 other horses, wishing I could take him home. Then it dawned on me. 6 other horses, I was potentially 7th. How did that happen?

 

HS4- HS5

Mid-day. It was piping hot, and I was fading. Out on the steppe, there is little reprieve from the sun. Trees are nearly non-existent and the hot air is still and stifling. I sat in the horse station Ger and tried to eat more noodles and take on water. Drinking my 3-litre water backpack bladder each leg was still leaving me gasping for water on arriving at a horse stop. I glugged down some electrolytes, checked the map and planned a route in detail about where I was going to go. I even inputted intermediate checkpoints to the next stop to ensure I stayed on course. I had tried loose planning, and it was going well, let's see how detailed planning went.

 

Wandering out of the Ger, Maggie was just leaving. "Enjoy!" She yelled from the window "I will" I beamed "This is REALLY hard though isn't it!" I said slightly in jest as the reality of the task at hand sunk in.

My next horse I called Larry because we were setting out alone as the other riders appeared to not be spending much time eating and drinking. This Is what I had been looking forward to about the Derby, true isolation to see what it is like. Larry was a small grey - dun, brindled horse. His mane was not shorn, and he had a bit of a belly. He was clearly not one that is ridden much or raced. He was another live wire to tack up and on mounting him he nearly put me in the horse line. The herders laughed and shook their heads, likely wondering if I had ever sat on a horse before.

 

Larry cantered off down the hill away from the horse station reluctantly. “Ah are you going to be my first slow horse” I pondered. I remembered what Maggie had told us at training camp. “If you have a slow horse just enjoy the view and take your time”.

 

I did this, happy to canter slowly along the steppe to the hill climb ahead, nose buried in my GPS. I had opted for up a steepish hill route with a long winding descent for maximum recovery to a road and then cutting across what looked like a marsh on the map. I would assess the marsh and whether I would need to go around it once there. The maps were very old and sometimes the terrain had changed, and rivers or roads had moved so a lot of the navigation plans changed according to what you found in the moment.  

 

Whilst checking my GPS to ensure we were heading to the right hill pass I had not been paying attention to the surroundings. We had drifted into a 200m vicinity of a Ger with a howling dog. Something dragged me out of the GPS and I clocked the dog.  The dog stopped howling and stared at Larry and me. “Please don’t chase us”


The dog lurched away from his home, barking nonstop. I gave my leg a slap with the bridles lead rein letting out an almighty crack to wake Larry up so he could carry us away from our predator. 0 - 60 in about 4 seconds, Larry delivered but it was in vain. The dog was quick and was snapping at Larry's heels. “CHOO CHOO!” I shouted, urging Larry on quicker, his ears already pinned flat to his head, snorting in fear at the animal now alongside us nipping at my ankles. I looked down to the right terrified, this dog was not happy, teeth bared, practically foaming at the mouth and showing no sign of letting up. Larry pushed on and on, his little legs carrying us as quickly as was physically possible, until he stumbled.

 

Now, I have no idea how Larry did not fall flat on his face. We were going so stupidly, frantically quick that by rights he should have ended up on his side and me next to him, both dog chow. He stumbled, his nose touched the floor and momentarily I recall thinking that I was coming off. However, his front feet managed to find themselves under his head and I anchored my feet forward and locked everything out to stay behind the movement. My left hip flexor was the sacrifice and took the brunt of the jolt of motion to keep myself aboard. I let out an almighty scream in pain at a now seemingly torn hip flexor.


This all happened in a flash of a moment, my scream urging Larry on faster. We continued to gallop flat out, a searing pain down my left hip. Every jolt filled my body and made me want to vomit, my eyes watered over and my vision became blurred from the pain, relying solely on my little horse to get us out of this mess. "Just stay on the horse Emmelia" I repeated over and over in my head.

I lost all measure of where the dog was and after what seemed like hours Larry slowed just as we started to climb the hills. I wiped the tears from my eyes and peered behind us. The dog had stopped, the Ger no longer in sight. Larry eventually slowed to a walk, he was gasping for breath as if he had finished the Grand National and I was shaking from what had just happened.  “I am so sorry little man” I said stroking his neck. "I am so sorry"

I vowed to never go near another Ger whilst riding again unless I was looking for somewhere to stay.

 

We walked up the looming hill to the saddle at the top, taking our time, and catching our breath. I dug out my painkillers and started popping them like Smarties to damage control the pain that was now throbbing from my hip flexor pain. It was not long before Larry was marching up the incline as if nothing had happened the only memory of our chase was my wincing.


In the wake of the dog chase drama the world was tranquil and still. No noise apart from Larry's footsteps, breathing and the rustle of my clothes. Once in the saddle of the hill, I stopped Larry to take in everything around us, the gentle wind singing around our ears. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end. We were on top of the world, totally alone, with stunning panoramic views, and total silence.  There were no humans or infrastructure in sight, just the rolling hills we were atop and the extensive grasslands on either side, seemingly blanketing the entire world. It was hard at that moment to imagine a life outside of Mongolia. It was perfect, unspoilt and peaceful, a true heaven. However, it was also terrifying, for the first time in my life I was alone in such a massive wilderness and the dog chase had hit home that you could end up seriously injured or worse. “This is truly incredible and truly worth the money and training,” I told Larry. He snorted and pulled at the bit to carry on, clearly bored of admiring his home and listening to my waffling.

 

We cantered steadily down the long, steady decline route from the hills to the marshlands and rivers. This was one of my favourite parts of the Derby, the drugs had kicked in and we cantered for about 30 minutes steadily descending to the road ahead. Larry was exceedingly relaxed, and I was riding buckle end of the reins, feet out my stirrups to try and stretch out my hips, with my nose in my GPS in total bliss and lapping up every moment.

Then there was a flash of orange in a bush to the right, Larry darted to the left and before I knew it, I had hit the floor.

 

I lay with my eyes closed for a few seconds, doing the usual check to make sure everything worked, it did. Luckily, Larry had not partaken in the classic Mongol Derby picture of charging off across the countryside. He was standing next to me, munching away quite happily on a bush, the orange goat that had jumped out at us munching alongside him. I chuckled at the ridiculousness of my first fall being so stupid, and after a good dusting down, it was time to remount. We were exactly halfway through a leg, I simply had to get back on or I was looking at a 15km walk forwards or backwards. Fortunately, Larry was so busy stuffing his face with foliage that it was a drama-free re-mount. We continued cantering down the pass, but I took my nose out of the GPS and paid attention to the landscape melting out before me.

 

The marshlands were not what they said on the map. The terrain was shallow sand tracks in the bush to start with, nice and easy to canter on and it meant going as the crow flies was not too much trouble. Eventually, the sand tracks gave way to a calm river for a water stop and a quick graze to keep Larry going. Optimistic that we were only 8km away I kicked on “Nearly there little man, you’ve got this”.

 

After crossing the river things started to change. The nice, kind sand tracks opened into expenses of bushy, deep sand. There were no paths and dunes were starting to enter the landscapes. They began as small inconveniences, nothing Larry could not tackle but they grew and grew until they were eventually massive undertakings for a small horse. I looked at the GPS there was no way around this now unless I turned back past the river and trailed along the hillside, it was too late. After 40 minutes of walking through deep sand, I could feel my morale echoing my horses. The heat was getting to both of us, unrelenting in the sand, I felt as if we were trekking across the Sahara not the Mongolian steppe. “Where has all this sand come from!?” I asked Larry whilst we stood on top of a large dune desperately seeking out a track of some description, just something solid underfoot that would not tire my little horse out. No tracks in site I jumped off Larry and walked with him, confident that if I found him grass I could re-mount.

Sand dunes in the Mongolia Mini Gobi Desert
Sand dunes starting to flood the landscapes

After 20 minutes of trudging, I stopped at the bottom of a large dune, patted Larry and let him eat a nearby bit of shrub, peering its heads above the auburn hues of the ground. The sand was well past his fetlocks (ankles for non-horse people). I spat some water over his neck from my water bladder in a bid to keep him cool and wondered where Erin, Jessie and Reid were, I quite missed riding with people. With Larry cooled down, I took a slurp myself. It was empty. I was in trouble. The GPS came out, we were not far now, just the top of this dune! In what felt like the Mongolia equivalent to Frodo climbing Mt Doom, Larry and I eventually made it to the top and alas on the other side, the sand just stopped. I turned around to survey the land we had walked. It was as if a giant had dropped a bag of sand in Mongolia. A pool of yellow and orange sat in amongst the hills and grasslands. Looking into the distance, to the side of the sand's edge I kicked myself for taking the “shortcut”, we could have just walked around the hills. At this point I made a further mental note, maps are not always correct, shortcuts are not always short and avoid sand.

 

I hopped back on Larry, and we skidded down the dune to get our hooves back on solid ground. Up ahead coming in from the side of the mini desert was another rider, who I thought was ahead of us, he had left the last horse station before me. Maybe the sand was not so bad after all. Or perhaps he had also encountered issues, you just never knew.

 

I could see Horse Station 5 not too far away in the distance and decided given the heat and struggle of the terrain a break was best. There was a lovely shallow, rushing river with a precarious entry and exit weaving around a selection of Gers. I led Larry down into the water for some respite, whilst he was grazing on the banks I input the Horse Station 6 location to see which direction I would be heading after Larry was back safe and sound. Following the screen arrow, I was going to be heading off into the mountains up ahead. Not hills, mountains. “The next leg is going to be a slog,” I thought. Walking Larry into the horse station I considered the time. It was 5 o'clock, and all going well I would be able to pick my next horse by 6. That gave me an hour to ride out but would mean camping. Given the hospitality of the night prior I didn’t think it would be an issue, however, being alone was. I had no internet on my phone for Google translate and my piece of paper with a note explaining what I was doing on it did not go into enough detail. I grappled with staying at the next horse station for the night, but the competitive streak was nagging away.

 

Larry flew through the vet check, despite our ordeal in the dunes. “How are you feeling?” The vet asked as I waved Larry off to his herd.

“Honestly? That last leg was brutal and energy-sapping” I replied slightly demoralised by the sand.

“Well, you can relax here now, or are you going to go out? You are doing well you are 5th or 6th at the moment and Matts only just left”

That was it, the competitive streak was out in full force.

“Seriously?!” I cried “How have I managed that after the shambles that was the last leg?” Perhaps I needed to have more faith in myself and the horses.

 

HS5 – Camping

It was just after six o'clock when Lucy rode into Horse Stop 5. I was stuffing more food and water into myself in a bid to find some energy and I was thrilled to see not only another rider but a friendly face. We debated the pros and cons of leaving the horse station with not much time and decided that having a head start would be beneficial as lots of people would be coming into this horse stop tonight. The middle pack was not far behind us.

 

Suited, booted, tack dusted down from sand, horses selected and we took off in an attempt to make any marginal gains from the main pack, mainly so we did not get eaten up in the chaos again. This horse, I did not bestow a name to as our time together was brief. However, for this blog let's call him Houdini, a fitting name for how our relationship ended.

 

Both Lucy’s Horse and Houdini were fairly well-suited. Two dark chestnuts that were quick, a bit feral to get on but nothing too worrying. Their pace was quick yet not panicked and I was thrilled to be on another good horse rather than something utterly wild or painfully slow. It was only a matter of time until I ended up with both after all!

 

After cantering for a small while alongside the river towards the mountains, a familiar orange glow began to appear, sand. Great. “That must be the mini Gobi desert Erik was talking about” I figured. “Let's hope this horse copes better than Larry did”.

“We might have to find somewhere to camp this side of the sand” Lucy shouted back at me. “There isn’t any water and no families are living in the dunes”

Unsure about just how big the desert was we opted for a small blue, brick, hut house on the edge of the desert. Most families live in Gers however this particular family appeared to be a well-off, successful racing family and farmers. The house even had a white picket fence, it was like nothing I had seen in Mongolia so far. Complete with a round pen and horse line, the house stood alongside the river, we had hit gold.

 

The dogs barked as we approached, and we halted our horses calling to anyone that was home. A teenage boy emerged with a few adults and children standing at the door listening in. Lucy had Google translate and we went through the process of asking to stay. A plate of local snacks was brought out to us whilst Lucy navigated the staying overnight situation sponsored by Google. The teenager said we could stay, and we jumped off our horses happy to have a place to lodge for the night, however, one of the men at the door had other ideas. A heated discussion ensued between the Mongolians and we were told we could not stay.

 

It was minutes until 7 o'clock, we were off our horses and there was nowhere else to go apart from back 6km to the last horse station. We were stuck.

 

After some more Google translate, a lot of huddling around phones to read translations and Lucy being very charming, the man agreed to let us stay, we took this to mean we could stay in the house. Therefore, we untacked our horses and led them around to the river running alongside the house, catching sight of a rider on a grey horse approaching the house.

 

The sun was still shining in the calm, balmy evening and Lucy and I took this opportunity of hobbled, grazing horses to have a clean-up of kit and ourselves. I peeled off clothes that had not been changed since the start line and was a bit alarmed to see the state of my inner thighs and calves. I had a white pimply rash engulfing my inner thighs and my claves had begun to become bruised. One rub was not serious, but it had broken the skin.

“NICE!” Lucy laughed at seeing the state of everything from my waist down.

“I feel my best right now” I mused. “I think I might need a medic for this rash though, it’s beginning to form whiteheads”.

Lucy nodded in agreement, and we pondered how this white head rash had started. In hindsight, it was likely prime growing conditions for ingrowing hairs and fungus where hours of dirt and friction had occurred in open hair follicles.

I sent a message to HQ asking for medical and got back to bathing. Jessie was the other rider that had arrived and she joined us in the cleansing ritual. Despite harbouring grim skin issues and aching from 2 days of riding I was content. I was clean, my clothes were clean, we had somewhere to stay, the horses had a safe pen we could put them in and bathing in the river was like nothing I had experienced. Totally naked in the open, with fresh running water to soothe our skin, kit cleaned, the sun setting over the hills and a herd of wild horses grazing just off the river banks opposite, our horses grazing between us and the house, it was like being in a film. I sat in silence, letting the river water wash over my wounds, drinking in the splendour of this scene. Just as I was beginning to think I could move to Mongolia and live in the steppe the family we were staying with dragged a sheep behind us, slit its throat, bled it dry, cut it open from head to tail and removed all its insides into a bucket. Maybe I was not ready to immigrate just yet.

 

“My horse!” Jessie shouted. He had managed to partially unhobble himself and decided to take a wander over the river to the herd of horses. She waded through the river to retrieve her horse. This is where everything started to go a bit downhill for the three of us. Whilst Jessie was walking her horse back over the river, dark storm clouds started to roll in from the mountains. Lucy received a message from HQ saying no one could come and check on us as we were in an area that the jeeps could not get to. This meant no medic for my fungus thighs, torn hip flexor and weeping leg.

"At least I have had a clean," I thought, "no problem, I will live".

HQ asked if we were okay, and we explained we had found a house to stay in and would be fine for the night.

 

We then went to put our horses in the round pen and were told we were not allowed to, they had to be tied to the outside of the pen. We tied our horses to the pen, not a big issue, they were tied securely, and we bid the two chestnuts and grey a goodnight.

 

We then went back to our tack and kit ready to move it indoors to get some sleep, the jet-black clouds now looming overhead. No such luck. The family Google translated to us that we could not stay indoors, and we would have to sleep outside, the rain started to fall lightly on our brows.

 

A quick message to HQ explaining the situation resulted in a panicked reply saying a large storm was blowing in and we could not sleep outside. We had to sleep inside. Eventually, we retrieved the phone number from one of the men in the house and a translator from HQ called them to explain the situation. The man of the house handed us the phone back after much deliberation. The translator explained that these people were not the owners of the house, they were two families who were friends with the owners and were on holiday here. Therefore, they were unsure of letting people stay. After a bit of convincing from the translator and with the rain becoming heavier, the families let us stay inside.

 

Jessie decided to sleep in the covered truck outside, so it was just Lucy and me who were shepherded through the front door, past the fresh, dead sheep lying on the kitchen floor and into a room full of racing medals and trophies. The owners of this house were serious racers! The walls were adorned with pictures of the children racing the families' horses through the steppe, wreaths of flowers around winning horses, and trophies being held above heads, it was incredible. I desperately willed my phone to turn back on and have some charge left after having a break, it did. Immediately videos of riding racehorses back home came out just as the vodka started to flow. The men were impressed and watched videos of striding Thoroughbreds racing down the gallops at home. Once the basic conversations and videos show and tell via Google translate had dissipated the families began to talk amongst themselves joking and drinking. One of the ladies dragged a large bowl of food along the floor, out from under a kitchen counter and started to dish up the contents for Lucy and me. It appeared the families had already eaten, and they eagerly watched us try various foods that were brought out to us and more vodka. It was clear how much better off this family was than the one I had stayed with the night previous. There were so many local delicacies on offer to us, alcohol was on the menu, and we were staying in a house, not a Ger. Racing in Mongolia seemed to be a lucrative industry!

Mongolian racing mural
Inside the house on night 2. This was their mural of racing trophies and winnings.

After a while the families started to shift around and make movements, there were around 10 people including Lucy and I in this room that was no bigger than 5x4 meters. This was most of the house apart from a small corridor kitchen.

“I wonder where we are all going to sleep?” Lucy questioned.

“On the floor nestled in between the families, I imagine” I smiled “It’ll be similar to the situation I had last night”.

 

However, that was not the case. The families got up and left, waving to us and saying their goodbyes to each other.

“WHAT, no they can’t leave, we cannot gate crash their holiday!” Lucy said.

I was also in shock, but no matter how many times we translated please stay they refused.

“We are Mongolian, and we are hospitable” One of the men typed out. Not wanting to appear ungrateful we thanked everyone as they took off into the night on their dirt bikes, one lady and a child stayed with us.

“I feel bad, we’ve just ruined people’s holiday,” Lucy said.

“I agree! I wonder why they didn’t want to stay with us. We don’t smell any more we’ve had a wash!”

 

With the party well and truly finished we laid out our sleeping bags on the floor for the night, of a now-silent house, and got some shut-eye, unaware of the drama that would ensue in the morning.

 

Day 2 lessons:
  • Always set an alarm to wake up, especially if you are camping alone!

  • Go for a wee before you get into bed, navigating a Ger in the middle of the night with no light, and trying not to wake a family up is nearly impossible. There is also no light pollution whatsoever outside so unless the moon is shining bright you will be near enough blind.

  • Do not bother with a digital watch unless you are taking a battery pack. Wear an old-school watch with hands.

  • DRINK! Remind yourself and others every 20 minutes to drink, no matter how hot or cold it is. Your body will be breathing and sweating out incredible amounts of water.

  • Always plan your routes via the water points for the horses, even if it is not hot. They are usually not far off a decent route, and you do not want a dehydrated horse!

  • If riding in a group rotate the horses around from front to back to keep them fresh

  • If riding in a group take advantage of asking about navigation and work as a team if you are unsure. You do not want to be leading everyone off to the wrong place.

  • Tack up quickly, move confidently and quietly, and don’t let a nervous horse make you nervous.

  • Don’t hang around at horse stations for too long, especially at the beginning of the race as they will get busy.

  • Utilize the horse station to look at the paper maps and plan.

  • You can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. This is true. But you can spit any water in your bladder over him to cool him down.

  • Stay away from Gers unless you are looking to stay and then approach head-on and in a slow walk.

  • Do not go near Gers with dogs, I am not joking when I say they will bite you.

  • Do not get complacent and cocky. Chances are you will fall off by the smallest spook just from being caught unaware. Always stay on guard.

  • If you fall off on your own, try and mount whilst the horse is eating if they will. Much easier to re-mount when they are distracted with food.

  • Avoid sand terrain if possible. It will drain your horse.

  • Shortcuts are rarely short.

  • Do not set yourself up to fail. If you cannot speak Mongolian and your gut is saying do not camp alone, wait for another rider, or stay at a horse stop.

  • Do not under any circumstance wax or shave your body before the race. Open hair follicles, dirt and friction are not a good combination. You will be rubbing fungal cream into your rashes for days on end in a bid to banish the white heads from spreading.

  • Never assume you can stay indoors with a local family who are not part of the race.

The next related blog post "Mongol Derby Day 3: Three Very Different Horses.." can be found here.


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