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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

The Mongol Derby Day 6: Back In The Race

Updated: Apr 28

All Photographs by Kathy Gabrielle, Shari Thompson and Bayarsaihan Ochiroo

The last related blog post from day 5 of the Mongol Derby can be found here.


Fog in Mongolia
The fog beginning to lift on day 6
Camping – HS 14

A swift breeze licked over the sleeping bags and onto our faces, waking us for day 6. I peered around the Ger over the lip of my fleece hood. The three boys and their mother were still tucked up in their beds softly sleeping, the father was nowhere to be seen. I turned to my tracker, the time read 5:15 “Just five more minutes” I thought. Erin and I lay on the floor a little longer, grasping at any rest we could hold onto.


5:30 rolled around and we leisurely changed and packed our kit away with no worries about having to chase horses down given the pen they had been left in. The father returned to the Ger, leaving the door ajar, I could see a dense fog had descended during the night. A fog so dense that the corral with the horses was not visible. Navigating to the next station was going to be interesting.

 

Once packed up we ventured into the murky morning to retrieve our horses and to graze them. Plodding up to the pen I could vaguely make out Erin's horse through the cloud, still tethered to where he had been left a few hours previously. My horse should have been behind him, but he was not.

My heart dropped. The father had followed us out to the pen, he laughed and pointed to behind the pen. I trudged through the condensation-logged grass looking for a horse, disabled from being able to see a few meters in front of me. Smidge had managed to break his tie rope and jump out of the corral, I found him mooching twenty meters away from the pen happily grazing himself.


Fortunately, he had not returned to the previous horse station and had opted to stay with Erin’s horse. However, given the drama and setback on day three, I was immediately on edge at the prospect of losing another horse. As I started to walk in Smidge's direction he looked up and clocked me, he walked off in the opposite direction. I widened my net and slowly crept to the other side of him so he was between myself and the horse pen. He started to walk towards the horse pen. "At least that is the right direction," I thought, hoping he was best friends with Erin’s horse.


The father stopped seeing the funny side of the situation and joined the pincer movements to trap Smidge next to the horse pen. My heart pounded every time Smidge moved away as I prayed to whatever Gods were listening, at 5am Mongolian time, to let me catch him. They listened, Smidge stopped and looked right at me. With utmost caution, I approached Smidge, employing the gentlest, least intimidating body language I could summon. Despite my efforts, my heart pounded relentlessly, threatening to overshadow all attempts at calmness as I anxiously awaited the moment to draw near to Smidge, fearing he might bolt at any instant.


It turned out that Smidge was not fully committed to a full-scale escape plan and he let me catch him. I breathed out all the air in my lungs and dragged him back to the pen. The standard routine we had now fine-tuned commenced. Grazing, taking up, toilet and food, mount and wait for 7 am. Erin however, was much quieter than usual.

“How's the back?” I asked her tentatively.

“Not good, it's getting worse each day, today is not a good day” She grimaced whilst popping some tablets. “How are your issues?”

“Same old, same old” I replied cheerfully.


The glee from having a horse overrode any pains at that present time. Finding solace in the wins was the key and if Erin was feeling awful it was up to me to carry us through until she could see a medic.

“Today we are not camping out, today we WILL sleep at a horse station” I grinned.

Erin half smiled and agreed. That was our only goal for the day. I could not have another night of the unknowns of camping. It was adding far too much drama to an already dramatic event.


As 7 am rolled around the fog was not lifting. We wrapped ourselves up in jumpers and waterproofs to avoid the freezing fog. Given I could only see four meters in front of my nose I dragged the GPS out as it would serve as todays lifeline more so than usual.  Squinting at the tiny lines on the tiny screen I could ascertain that we had to ride over some hills for 7 km until we arrived at the next station, the fog was not going to improve the higher we climbed.

“Lets hope these next set of co-ordinates are more accurate than some of the previous ones!” I chimed as we flung ourselves onto the horses “We are going to be solely relying on our little arrow this morning!”


7 am, we thanked the family as they stood at the horse pen waving and cheering us on. The horses were fresh after their rest and took off a flick quicker than the day previous, great news, however, we could not see where we were going.

“How do you know where we are going!?” Erin shouted to me as we galloped through the intense fog, not being able to see any of the scenery around us.

“I am living on a prayer that the GPS is accurate!” I yelled back. “If it isn’t then we will get lost but lets see how we go!”


The fog became worse as we climbed the hills between us and the horse station. We slowed to a canter and eventually a cautious trot, aware that every slight movement with no reference could throw us seriously off course or down tricky terrain. This was not a winging-it moment. I had to seriously think about where I was navigating.


After an hour of meandering our way around hills and through fog, the skies began to clear as we approached Horse Station 14. We had made good time and saw some riders mounting and leaving the station as we arrived. Once again our morale was boosted, we could do this!


The horses cleared the vet check easily, and as I handed Smidge back to the herders I thanked him for not running away in the night. It was here Erin and I managed our quickest turnaround at a horse station. We were running off morning energy, combined with seeing other riders, and also having planned the next route that morning. No costume change was required and food was already consumed earlier. We took five minutes from handing over the horses to selecting our new ones. The only thing that nearly jeopardised our formula- one speed changeover was that during a desperate wee I nearly had a dicey encounter with the long drop (open holes in the ground acting as toilets). The cavernous holes of the long drop were usually a simple hole you hovered over or if they were really large and deep there would be two timber planks precariously placed over the hole so you could walk along them and squat. with adequate space. This stations long drop was the former of these options and the ground was slippery and not exactly sturdy.  As my boots hovered next to a hole of human faeces, my dodgy left leg was no longer doing well with squatting and gave way. The only thing that stopped me from falling into the pit of doom was my now, not-so-pretty, manicured nails clutching at the flimsy timber posts and tarpaulin around the hole. As I clung onto the rickety fence I peered down into the abyss of excrement "No I am not riding covered in poo" I vowed as I hauled myself up with the hip flexor screaming at me.

“Bloody hell, that was close,” I thought as I breathed a sigh of relief as I cautiously navigated my way around the pungent pit. I did not have an issue with falling off, being hungry, tiered or even all at the same time, but laying in human excrement would have been a real deal breaker for me! 

 

Erin and I hastily walked to the horse selection point and picked out our numbers with unwavering optimism. We were going to do this, we were going to catch up with everyone and we were going to stay at a horse station tonight!

Two large bay powerhouses were pulled from the line for us. They were beauties. I called mine Thor, he needed a strong, solid name to go with his aesthetic.


HS14 – 15

The herders at this station were very blasé about the whole race. They retrieved Thor and Erin’s horse from the horse line, handed them to us and went back to sit down on the grass, observing our every move but never giving the impression they were going to help.

“Surely a good sign,” I thought to myself.


Lady waits in Mongolia for a horse in the Mongol Derby
Waiting for Thor to be brought off the horse line

As I tacked up Thor he danced around the holes in the ground. There seemed to be more frequent, larger holes around these areas than we had previously encountered. I did not think much of it as the horses so far had been so nimble, either dodging the holes, levitating over them or tripping through them unharmed.


Once mounted, we took off towards the mountain range pass, earmarked as our route to the next station. The horses were wonderful. They galloped steadily away from the horse station as Erin and I did our usual exiting checks. Signed out? Check. Painkillers popped? Check. Water? Check. Navigation? Semi check, I pulled my GPS out to ensure we were on the right course about 700 meters out of the station.


Lady canters a horse in Mongolia
Leaving the station on Thor before I faceplanted.

As I buried my nose into the GPS, Thor buried his nose into the ground. His two front legs disappeared beneath me and his whole body vanished and rolled to the side, catapulting me with him. I landed head first in the damp ground with Thor landing on my legs.

“Emmelia!!!!” Erin shouted. “Are you okay!?”

I laid for a few seconds and did the mandatory checks every rider does when they fall off.

“Leg movement? Yes. Arm movement? Yes. Head movement? Yes,” I thought to myself, everything was fine, these all moved so no harm done! I peeled myself off the ground, now covered in mud and missing parts of my helmet.

“All good!” I said bemused by what had just happened.


I looked down at where Thor was standing, alongside a horse-sized hole in the ground. We had gone over a marmot hole, however it looked as though our weight had caused the ground above a burrow to collapse. Horse and rider did not stand a chance of navigating through that unscathed, no matter how much “Heels down and forward” you could muster. I checked Thor over and he was sound with no signs of any damage.

“Are you okay to get back on?” Erin quizzed “If not we can go back”

“Yep I am fine,” I said despite a cracking headache. I was focused on catching the pack.


Remounted and reassuring pats to Thor, which he did not appreciate, we continued on course towards the mountain pass. I mourned my helmet in silence as I fingered the damaged frontage and the large crack that had appeared in the top of it.

“This is not a safety-compliant helmet to be wearing now,” I thought. “Best not do any more nose dives”


Despite eating dirt early on, the rest of this leg was nice. The horses were both beautiful, they cantered up the mountains with no need for pause and the sun began to burn off the remaining fog on the landscape. However, towards the end of this leg, Erin started struggling with her back again and began to go very quiet on me. I tried to keep morale up with a play-by-play of how far we had left to go as we travelled at a solid pace. She would smile at me and nod but I knew we were in a dangerous limbo now where riders would start to drop out from fatigue and pain, things were getting tough. I was not about to let Erin be one of those riders. We were going to finish the day at a horse station, featuring painkillers aplenty if it was the last thing I did.


As we loped down an incline, through the gorgeous deep valley gorge the next horse station appeared on the horizon.

“THERE!” I shouted back to Erin. “We have made it! Lets get off and walk the boys in to give our backs and knees a rest?”

She nodded with a wry smile and looked back down at the ground.

“Bugger Erin come on, you’ve got this” I thought.

I had become so used to having a fun and familiar face to tackle this venture with that I did not want to lose her. We had started this together and we were going to finish it together.   


Walking the horses in we were glad of the leg stretch. By day six you are getting very stiff. No amount of stretching the night before is working and injuries and niggles are beginning to cry out for you to stop, just for a day. Pulling into the station Erin was falling behind, she was in pain and not happy. The vet at this station welcomed us with a big grin and “Well done” on being over halfway. I voiced my concerns to her about Erin and asked if there was a medic here. There was not.

“Will she be okay to carry on?” the vet asked, “If she is in that much pain she really should stop for a bit”

“She will be okay, it would be good to know when the next round of pain relief might be though to keep her going” I suggested.

Erin arrived at the station with a sad expression and ashen skin. She did not look well. Whilst the horses were vetted through I tried the gung-ho, happy approach. If we had a plan we could stick to with targets to aim for we could get her to the next station.


“Right! Next leg is a bit of a long one but the good news is there are painkillers at the next station!” I exuberantly told my partner.

Once again she smiled in silence and offered me a firm nod. I took this as she was still okay enough to keep moving. With the horses passed and returned to the wild we filled up on station supplies, popped the dwindling remains of our pain medicine in vain and ambled over to the pot of destiny.


HS15 – 16

A short, squat piebald horse that resembled a barrel with a shaggy mane was pulled from the line. He was very cute and looked like a Thelwell cartoon, a typical naughty pony stamp of a horse. I called him Twiggy as he was anything but. Erin was presented with a tall, leggy white and brown appaloosa. Both horses seemed nice and calm by Mongolian standards, though mine looked more like a child's pet than a racehorse. As long as they were safe and got us through the next long 40km leg, in the now unbearable heat, we would be fine. I was more concerned with getting Erin to a medic now than catching up with people.


We hauled ourselves up onto the horses and immediately cantered off into the open valley that lay before us. This was a long, straight leg that had little navigation requirements. It was going to be boring and painful in the heat with no shade as I locked onto the haze on the horizon coyly beckoning at us to try and catch up. It was an unrelenting leg that seemed to go on forever, no matter what speed you travelled the hills in the distance never seemed to become closer.

“This is going to be a mentally tough leg,” I thought. “If we can get through this one we can finish the race”


The placement of this leg could not have been at a worse time. During the first half of the Derby, you are riding on the high of the novelty. The adrenaline pumping through your body, the excitement of new experiences and being pensive about the crazy, fast horses keeps you going. However, once you get to the halfway point the adrenaline wears off, the body becomes battered and you are hit with the stark reality that you are only halfway. On the last three days of the Derby, you are ticking off miles to the end in anticipation of success. Generally, your mood goes back to being joyful. Therefore, this leaves a strange limbo phase on days six and seven. The tough days as I called them. The two days that if you could push yourself through them mentally you could finish (provided there were no physical debilitating problems of course!). Putting this long, straight leg at this point in the race was a real test of determination and grit, it was a leg that pushed Erin and I to breaking point.



The first few kilometres, as always, were straightforward with the horses generally wanting to take you forward and stretch their legs. I would shout to drink every so often to try and give me something to focus on in the bleak landscape and to engage with Erin to make sure she was alive without forcing conversation. Over my shoulder, I would see one hand put a tube in her mouth and drop back down to the front of the saddle as if all energy had been sucked from her body. I was beginning to panic that we had made the wrong call in Erin riding this leg with no rest. 


The deafening silence was punctuated by my distance countdown.

“We've already done 8km!” I shouted enthusiastically, trying to keep both of our morale up. However, as the miles ticked by and the hotter the air became, the slower the horses moved and the more worried I became about Erin. Fortunately, her horse was a saint. I have always found it amazing how horses pick up on things. Sure this horse might have just been a good, easy horse. However, I think he knew Erin was unwell as he was beyond amazing. Erin was slumped over the front of the saddle, bouncing up and down, struggling to muster any strength. She had him on a buckle end of the reins, holding onto the front of the saddle to hold herself up, looking at the floor, head lolling around like a rag doll. This horse did not panic, he did not pull. He just trotted and cantered behind Twiggy matching our pace, never once needing reassurance or guidance. If Twiggy tried to bolt off towards a herd of wild horses, Erin’s horse would stay nearby on the dirt track, not mirroring Twiggy’s minor malfunction. He was on autopilot as if his life depended on looking after Erin. This horse was a God send.


Twiggy was a bit more punchy with a typical pony-like attitude but he was good fun, eager and I was quite fond of him, his cheeky ways made me smile. He would canter off, calling to groups of cows and wild horses as if discovering long-lost friends. Now and again he would lean on his bit and try to duck off course to these herds. For a small, chunky equine he was so strong and it took all the leaning to one side combined with a bit of wrestling to focus him back on our master plan of action, get Erin to a medic.


Therefore, the issue with this leg was by no means the horses. It was us, the weather and our minds playing tricks on us. Erin did not say a word, every time I looked back she was staring at the floor, eyelids looking heavy and head bowed down. My optimistic approach did not seem to be working. That combined with reaching the 15km mark and not being halfway meant I decided to stop doing distance shout-outs and just focused on riding the quickest route possible.

Just before halfway, the horses began to slow, drenched in sweat from the pounding mid-day heat. A watering hole was not far on the maps. I hoped that this landmark was still there.

“5km and we will have a water stop for the boys” I reassured the horses and riders.


On approaching the water hole it was clear to see a huge black mass in the distance on the water's edge. It was a herd of around 50 horses. Given there were no other water stops we had no choice but to hope they were friendly. Twiggy being the social soul he was, decided that shouting to the herd was the best idea. The herd began to wander over to us. I was a little concerned that the Stallion of the herd might decide to have a showdown with Twiggy. Alas he did not, the herd came over and grazed nearby, Twiggy was finally content at having friends and lowered his head to drink and graze.


We sat for ten minutes or so absorbing the splendour of a water stop. The wild horses nickered to ours whilst they paddled around in the lake. Erin and I bathed in the blistering sunshine now beating down on our heads, I grew concerned about the lack of water left in my water bladder. Most of it was already gone.


“Have you had a drink?” I quizzed Erin.

“No, I have run out” She replied.

Crap. Not good, not good at all we still had 20km to go. I gave her a glug of my bladder and turned the horses back to the vast expanse of grassland to continue our journey. (To see the scale of the landscape click here) Twiggy was not impressed and spent the next five minutes napping to go back to the herd. Fortunately, the saint that was Erin’s horse was happy to oblige and led us away from the temporary distraction.

On removing ourselves from the halfway stop I popped my last 2 pain killers.

“Welcome to the pain zone Emmelia,” I thought to myself and immediately tucked into the halfway treat I packed at start camp for a morale boost… a flapjack. It did the job and the sugar rush jolted me back to life and back to the optimism that we could do this.


“These horses are so kind!”

“We are making great time!”

“It's so pretty around here!”

I would shout back to Erin hoping for any sign that she was okay. Verbal communication had now completely stopped from her side and now and again I would catch her body slumped further over the front of the saddle and her eyes closed before the movement of her horse would jolt her back awake. My teammate had become a melting corpse and if we did not finish this leg soon I had concerns this could be catastrophic. As the journey continued, the horses grew weary, prompting us to adopt a gruelling ten-minute walk, followed by a brief five-minute trot routine. Progress became agonizingly slow, a disheartening pace compounded by my concern for Erin's worsening condition. Keeping the horses moving was a challenge, and Erin was succumbing to the severe heat and sun exposure the medics had cautioned us about at the outset of our adventure. I dreaded the possibility of her falling victim to heatstroke, fearing it may already be taking its toll.


With just 10 kilometres left to cover, the horses slowed to an excruciating crawl under the relentless sun. Conversation ceased but Erin's horse continued to be a hero as he strode on towards our destination. As he overtook Twiggy, I observed his careful steps, his demeanour reflective of his understanding of Erin's condition. With a bowed head, he navigated the terrain, mindful of every potential hazard, his vigilance preventing any mishaps that could endanger her. Twiggy, seeking respite from the searing heat, sought refuge behind Erin's loyal mount, finding solace in the breeze created by his tail. For the next 5 kilometres, Erin's horse carried us all through, guided by my occasional gestures toward distant landmarks.


Amidst the oppressive heat, Erin intermittently whispered “I Love this horse, he is so kind”, professing her love for the compassionate creature beneath her. She was right; this horse was a true testament to the noble spirit of equine companionship.


5km to go.

“Let’s ride to the horse stop on these two” I suggested looking at a cadaver riding next to me, fearful that if she dismounted her loyal steed it would be game over. I encouraged Twiggy along to lead and Erin’s horse tucked in behind, obediently following Twiggys bottom. 

“The station should be down here somewhere, we should be able to see it soon we are only 5km away!” I said cheerily and determinedly, desperate to give Erin something to look for and to try and motivate us forward.


Eventually, through the haze, there appeared a solitary white dot.

“Horse station 16! Finally!” I cheered, glancing over my shoulder. Erin looked up and assembled a gloomy smile. “Come on girl, we have made it! We are over halfway and have finished the longest leg in the race!” I said as I kicked Twiggy on.


Spotting other riders in the distance, Twiggy's demeanour shifted to eager anticipation. Though not bred for speed like a racehorse, Twiggy was the most social creature I had ever had the pleasure in meeting. He strode on desperate to meet every horse within a mile radius.

Pulling into the station I shouted my number to the steward for sign-in and immediately tracked down the medic at this stop. It was Ness.

“Erin, please can you go and see Erin, she is just behind me and she is really not well and has a really bad back” I garbled as if learning how to speak for the first time.

“Okay, calm” Ness responded “Is that her there?” She replied pointing to a hunched figure riding towards us.

“Yes, I am seriously worried, she’s not drinking, not speaking and sporadically going unconscious”


“Urm okay, do you think she should be carrying on? Does she need to stay here for the night?”

Bugger, I had not thought about this. Medical issues meant rest, resulting in time lost, meaning potential blood wagon.

“Honestly I am not sure if she is okay, I think she can ride another leg, but she is in desperate need of pain medication, I think that’s the thing that’s got her” I explained, hedging our bets so we might be able to ride out again. We had plenty of time to get to the next station, though I had been saying that every night for the past few days!


Erin crawled into the station, I hugged her and explained that she needed to talk to Ness about any problems. Then we would reconvene with a plan. Ness immediately spoke to Erin whilst she was un-tacking. I left them to it and led Twiggy to the vet for a washdown and the dreaded heart rate check.


Just as I was saying my farewells to Twiggy, who flew through the vet tests, a rider I had not seen for days pulled into the station. 

“Hannah! How are you?! Is everything okay? I have not seen you in ages!” She immediately burst into tears explaining how hard that leg had been on her own with a slow horse. All I could offer was a hug and affirmation that it was a bastard of a leg, especially in this heat. Sharing tales from the gruelling 40-kilometer stretch, we found comfort in the shared experience of enduring the scorching heat. As Hannah's horse underwent vetting, my gaze wandered to the vast countryside, searching for our next point of reference. Suddenly, Erin emerged, looking slightly better than she had done. To this day, I remain in awe of whatever magic Ness worked in the tent, or the effectiveness of the medications administered. Erin appeared to be able to ride on. It was a ray of hope amidst an otherwise challenging few hours, the best news I could have hoped for at that moment.


“Okay to ride out?” I cautiously questioned, slightly concerned that we might be pushing it.

“Yep, lets go” Erin responded quietly.

Hell, she was talking which was a vast improvement so I assumed she was okay. Therefore, we planned to hunt down Horse Station 17 by the end of the day in search of true respite.

 

HS16 – 17

As I reached for horse number sixteens tack the herder would not relinquish the horse to me.

“Argh here we go again” I chuckled “Another lunatic”


Amidst the herder's shouts and gestures, I struggled to understand his instructions. Frustrated and unsure, I hastily threw my saddle onto the energetic horse, hoping it was the correct thing to do. However, the horse reacted as if his hooves were alight, darting around wildly until my saddle crashed to the ground. The herder's shouts grew louder, he was clearly not impressed with my woeful attempt. I retrieved the saddle from the dusty ground. With determination, I hoisted it onto the horse's back once more, but this time, I held on tightly, refusing to let go as the horse danced around. I followed him, determined not to let the saddle slip off again, knowing that a redraw would be an unwelcome setback. With the herder gripping the lead rope and me clinging to the saddle, we formed an unlikely duo, with the spirited horse between us. Despite the chaos, I couldn't help but chuckle at the ridiculousness of the situation. I was never going to whinge about tacking up a "tricky" horse back home again!


Eventually, the horse settled down, allowing me to do up his girth. Still, the herder remained vigilant, unwilling to let go of the lead rope. He nodded over to the steward signing people out. He was really protective over this horse. 

“You all good?” I called to Erin who was already mounted and ready to go.

“Yep!” She said almost cheerfully.

Signed out, I shoved my torn and wet vet card down my trousers, ready to mount. The herder decided that now was the time to give me full control and threw the lead rein at me, not willing to hold the horse for the hardest part.

Ping, as I called this horse, would not stand still. He seemed to have bucked all the silliness out on tacking up but he was not about to stand and let me get on. Conscious of the time slipping away, I seized the rein closest to me, forcing him into a tight circle, and took a leap of faith onto his back, bracing myself for whatever may come. With a burst of speed, Ping charged forward, launching us into another exhilarating leg of the Derby. With no control over our pace, we thundered down the valley at a full gallop.

 



I checked the horizon target I had pinpointed at the station and aimed Ping for this. Up ahead, down the valley I could see three riders together, and just past them another two. That was it, we were back with the main body of competitors! We had done it!

Erin's horse came alongside Ping and I yelled at her that we had caught everyone up. Following my pointing finger she clocked the riders and turned to me totally aghast. Neither of us thought this would ever happen, we had resigned ourselves to the prospect of trailing behind for days to come.

Erin's grin, the first genuine smile I had seen from her in hours, was infectious. In an instant, her spirits lifted, and with newfound determination, we realized that we were back in the race.


In addition to this great news we also had plenty of time left to make it to a horse station for a night rather than camping out. We had two and a half hours, with these two fast horses, we could do this!


Ping galloped relentlessly in a slightly frantic manner. If you tried to slow him he would speed up so I opted to sit still and enjoy the pain thudding down my hip flexor. The painkillers had worn off, that was it, I was drugless.  We tore down the valley pass to a compulsory checkpoint of this leg, railway with an underpass. The navigation required during this portion of the leg was limited as there were a plethora of riders in front of us now that we could use as a check.


The three riders I had clocked earlier had disappeared, I assumed that they must have also been on fast horses and had vanished from site. However there were two other riders in the distance who were no longer small dots.

“Who is it!?” Erin yelled having found a new lease of life after the promise of a horse station to sleep in.

“I think it's Arthur and Dom!” I called as we galloped full speed towards the hope of seeing other riders.

The thrill of the race was back in our spirits. We were no longer on a glorified quiet hack, we were back with other riders to gallop around with. The thing about the Derby is, that the most fun comes from riding with others. You race each other, you chat, you laugh and it's really good fun!


On arriving at the underpass I checked the GPS, we had already done 10km in no time. We were easily going to get to the horse station! I was so chuffed and became complacent. Emerging from the underpass we greeted Dom and Arthur whom were stood looking at the maps.

“Which way do you guys think?” Dom asked as Erin and I trotted by.

“No clue” I laughed “But if I were to guess I would say that there are limited tracks and lots of hills so we are best to try and find a valley and follow that?”

I did not have a foggy but looking into the distance I could see three riders tearing up the hillside and knew that we did not want to be tiring our horses out. Erin and I dashed off with the two lads now in tow. Sure enough, no roads or tracks were leading through the vast expanse of undulating hills. I found the lower levels on the GPS contour markers and followed these as the crow flew to the next horse station.

“There is going to be a fair amount of weaving through hills!” I shouted to Erin, and now the two guys. “But if we see a hill that looks low we can go over and cut through perhaps”.

The four of us thundered through the undulating terrain, surrounded by the untamed beauty of Mongolian horses galloping freely around us. Whenever we neared their herds, they would dart away with breath-taking speed, adding to the exhilaration of our ride. It felt like a scene from the movie "Spirit," and I couldn't help but hum the theme tune in my head, thoroughly enjoying every moment.


Ping proved to be nothing short of incredible, albeit a touch on the wild side. The sun bathed us in its warm glow without being too scorching, while the stunning scenery unfolded before us like a masterpiece. After three days of striving, we had finally achieved our goal: finding other riders and breaking free from the back of the pack. The weight of pressure lifted from our shoulders, and the prospect of having a place to rest for the night filled us with relief.

Life was good, and the joy was palpable on Erin's face. She was practically chipper compared to the vision of death I had witness a couple of hours before.

 

We made good tracks across the hillside, despite the lads shouting if we were going the right way every now and again. This time I was determined to follow my gut and ignore other peoples suggestions. The promise of a camp to sleep at was too big to risk.

Ping was a fruit loop and showed no sign of tiering over the hills, he could have galloped forever but I was cautious about not leaving the others in the lurch and was all too aware of their horses beginning to slow around the 20km mark. We slowed to a hasty canter, Ping snatching at the bit to take off with every opportunity.

“No no feller, we need to stay with these guys, sorry” I cooed to him. “This is not a tear off and leave everyone moment, this is a get everyone to the next horse station”


Just as my newfound hero complex was getting carried away I spotted a solo rider on a hilltop to our left. They were walking their horse in hand and were clearly a Derby rider from their helmet. They were seriously off course.

“Who is that?!” I called back to Erin

“No idea, definitely a Derby rider though!”

“Lets go and collect them and check they are okay!” I replied.

After all, being off your horse this far from a horse station could not have been a good thing, perhaps they needed help. I veered Ping off to the left and let him gallop on up the hill to the rider. It was Jessie who Erin and I had ridden with on day 1 and 2.


“What on Earth are you doing all the way over here?” I called to her from behind.

“Oh hey, I couldn’t get my horse to move so I jumped off to see if that helped” She frowned at me. “He is a bit stubborn”

“Hop back on and come with us, you are way off course, its this way” I smiled.

She thanked me, hopped on and tagged along for the ride, five riders now cantered along the hills together. My confidence that I would find the horse stop being over-egged. I had instilled confidence into four other riders that I knew exactly where we were going and it was all okay. Deep down I still doubted myself, navigation with old maps was always a bit of a lucky dip! As we continued along our course, the terrain grew increasingly challenging. The once gentle slopes transformed into steep, rugged hills that seemed to multiply with every mile. The expansive flat valley that had guided us was now receding into the distance, leaving us with a daunting landscape of relentless ascents and descents.


As we encountered hill after hill, our only option was to navigate the horses up and over each one, a relentless series of challenges that tested their stamina. Ping seemed to relish the difficulty, but the other four horses began to show signs of fatigue. I checked my tracker, we were really pushing it for time. 10km out and not long until 7 pm. Now this seems like plenty of time, and it would have been on some of the flatter legs we had ridden previously. However, the lack of references points on the blanket of green mounds was beginning to become confusing. The contours on the map and GPS were no longer providing solace as they blurred into one, all looking the same. I felt as though I was swimming in a sea of alphabet soup trying to find a specific letter. We slowed down as I tried to ascertain where exactly we were.  


With the reduction in pace, we were seriously pushed for time and there was no where to camp between these horse stops apart from under the stars. Given the evening weather so far and the storms, this was not an option. We had to make it to the horse station. Tactic discussions started when we all realised that we were not going to make it to the station for 7pm.


We agreed that we could manage a 30 minute time penalty the next morning if we got into the stop at 7:30 but even with the extra time we would only just make it. Pressing on, we urged the horses into a brisk trot and occasional canter, navigating the undulating hillsides with determination. We zigzagged from left to right, seeking to alleviate the strain on the tired horses. Ping remained steadfast in his determination to maintain a gallop, his energy seemingly boundless, like a child fuelled on an excess of sugar.


After what felt like an eternity of traversing inclines and enduring not-so-subtle grumblings from fellow riders about our navigation skills, the hills suddenly gave way to a clearing ahead. In the distance, we spotted a scattering of Gers, we had made it! 

I checked the GPS. "2km guys, that’s the horse stop up ahead," I announced chuffed, as if I knew I was going to find it all along.

“Well done” Erin and Dom grinned.

We decided that due to cutting it close to the disqualification time of 7:30pm we would trot up to 1km out and then get off and walk the horses in, possibly pushing it heart rate-wise. Ping was still pulling, still skittish and still a fruit loop, one wrong move and I would be on the floor.

“At least the horse station is up ahead,” I thought to myself with overwhelming happiness. I could not believe we had caught up and did not have to find a random Ger or shed to sleep in. For the first time in the race, I was about to have a no-drama evening…


1km out we all carried out the routine of getting off the horses and walking them in to stretch our legs and cool the horses off. I stopped with Dom and he hopped off his horse, Ping however would not stop.

"Not an issue I will get off whilst we walk" I figured, after all this was something I was familiar with on the racehorses back in the UK. Without much thought, I flung my leg over and landed next to Ping. My hip flexor flared up in pain and my leg gave way, I hit the floor bottom first and Ping bolted off terrified. I clung onto the lead rope for dear life as Ping dragged me through the dirt as if water skiing. As the rope slid through my hands and I was towed onto my face  I eventually lost grip and off he galloped heading for the far off distance. Leaving me in a cloud of dirt.


“Are you okay!?” Dom laughed.

“EMMELIA!?” Erin screamed from behind.

“What happened there?” Arthur chuckled as Jessie, Erin and himself caught up.

“I am fine,” I said from the floor looking up in horror as Ping galloped off at full speed to the right of the horse station. “I am not sure I will see my saddle again though”  

“He might go to the horse station, we are close enough that he could just go to the other horses rather than into nowhere” Dom reassured me.


I suddenly had the sinking feeling in my stomach that I was so used to having on this event and started to play out all the things that could go wrong so I was prepared.

“I might lose all my kit if he doesn’t go back to the station, if he does go back to the station his heart rate will be sky high from galloping and I will have a four-hour penalty tomorrow” I weighed up. “Best case four hours, worst case no kit. I can live with both of those”

Dom and I continued to saunter to the horse station in front of the others as we watched Ping gallop off into the sunset, looking as if he would disappear forever. Fortunately, a few Mongolian herders from the station had clocked him and the dirt bikes were in hot pursuit. I assumed the bikes had corralled Ping into the station. I worried about Ping's heart rate, he was already wired up and now galloping into the horse station would mean his heart would not be slow at all, I was going to get a four-hour vet penalty just as we had caught everyone up. Even worse I would not expect Erin to stay with me so she would also be gone. I would be playing catch-up again, but this time alone.  


As we arrived at the horse station one of the race organisers, Ben, had his camera out filming my reaction to what had just happened laughing at the state of my now brown, earthy clothes. He reassured me that Ping was safe and sound and my kit was over by the Gers. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

“Just the heart rate to navigate then!” I mused. I walked around to the horse line and saw Ping with a herder happily grazing as if nothing had happened, though he was sweating and breathing heavily.


During the vet check no one pulsed down on the first heart rate check, likely because we were cutting it fine with timings and arrived in at 7:25pm. We all stood for twenty minutes hoping for the best. I turned to Dom and Erin panic stricken. “This horse is not going to pulse down I can feel it, I am going to be here for four hours in the morning”

They both reassured me that they would stay with me the next day as I had helped get them to the station tonight and navigated them through the hills. A lovely thing to hear but I doubted whether they would feel the same in the morning. I nodded and smiled at them saying thank you but told them that they shouldn’t wait for me and that I could always try and catch them up again. After all, we had seen time and time again that sometimes waiting for people was not possible. Especially if you were on a bolting horse.


One by one on the second heart rate check riders passed with the vet signing off their little beaten-up vet cards. Off they went to set up their bed for the night and devour some food. One by one they thanked me for getting them through the last leg. I offered a smile and nodded back to each rider as I awaited Ping's fate.


The vet came over to me and smiled, I am not sure your horse is a true measure of heart rate given he galloped straight into the horse station but lets see. He has had twenty-five minutes now. I was transported back to my first vet check fail. The panic and the gut-wrenching hope that you had passed makes a few seconds feel like an eternity.  

Ping clocked in at 57bpm.

“Not quite there I am afraid, give him a couple more minutes” The vet offered.

I stood, defeated.

“Potts I've got us a sleeping area! Everyone is here! Lucy is in our Ger!” Erin chimed across the camp.

She was full of happiness and hope. I was so pleased to see my friend enthusiastic and well, she was a far cry from the Erin I had been riding with today and I was thrilled to have real Erin back. I so desperately wanted to join in with her excitement for catching up with everyone and making it to a station to sleep but with the threat of a second penalty looming, I could not.

“Right lets go for the final attempt,” The vet said with his stethoscope poised to determine my fate.


Tick, tock, tick, tock… I waited and waited.

The vet moved the stethoscope around and I waited some more.

“please please please please be 56, please” I repeated in my head. If there was ever a time to start praying to a God this was it.


“56” was uttered from the vets mouth.


I nearly fainted with elation. “Really? I asked him “Are you sure?”

“Yes, give me your vet card and this wild one can go back to his herd”

I gave Ping a massive hug, which Ping hated and he charged away. Fortunately, I managed to keep hold of him this time and quickly handed him to a herder before any more chaos could ensue.


Pausing for a moment, I allowed myself to soak in the scene before me. The herders, were busy tending to the horses and guiding them towards their resting place for the night, their movements a comforting rhythm against the backdrop of the setting sun. Nearby, the crew members gathered around the jeep, engaged in lively conversation, their laughter mingling with the sounds of the camp. In the distance, the faint echoes of laughter from other riders reached my ears, a reassuring reminder of camaraderie in the midst of our shared journey. It was a moment of quiet reflection amidst the bustling energy of the horse station, a chance to appreciate everything around me, a rare pause.


I took a deep breathe in, a wave of relief swept over my body and I cried. All the emotions from the past few days caught up with me. Supporting other riders, navigating, being fatigued, the last painkillers, smashing my helmet and in amongst this the pressure of catching up with everyone. A self-inflicted pressure sure, but we had done it. Erin and my only goal for the past few days had been realised, a goal that felt like it may never happen, a distant Derby dream.

I trundled over to the Gers with bloodshot eyes and my kit over my shoulder now buzzing to see who was here and catch up with everyone.


Erin was waiting for me outside of the Ger she had selected for us.

“Passed?!” she asked tentatively“

"Yes thank God” I grinned

“EEEEEEEKKKKKK” She screamed at me “We have done it!”


Our first night with other riders at a horse station was AMAZING. Stories were spread around our Ger as we took turns in bathing in the small metal bowl in the centre of the Ger. Everyone had a great sense of humour with their stories and everyone was very honest about how they felt at the time. As one person bathed the others laid on their sleeping bags wrapping knees, tending to injuries or packing kit.

We had all been having a bad time in one way or another. Illness, falls, injuries, food poisoning, you name it everyone there had been through the ringer. The horse station was jam-packed with around fifteen riders and the atmosphere was full of joy and contentedness at our achievements so far.


Bedtime at the horse station was nice and early. Once the need for food had been met, sleep was high on the agenda. Riders would begin to cocoon themselves up in amongst their kit and drift off to a land far away from the steppe. As I began to drift off I heard hushed tones in the Ger. “We made it Potts, we made it”.

It was a very happy Erin.

“We did go us! Tomorrow we can hopefully have an easier day now the pressure is off” I whispered back.


However, the thing about the Derby is the pressure is never truly off until you cross that finish line…

 

Day 6 Derby Lessons.
  • Just because your horse is tied up and in a horse pen does not mean they will still be there in the morning. They are real life magicians.

  • Fog on the steppe is like thick custard. You may have mornings where you can not see past a few meters in front of you. Get used to relying on your GPS and instinct.

  • Marmot holes may look small on top but beware the ground around them may give way.

  • Make sure your water bladder is larger than 1.5 litres. If it is hot you will easily be drinking two litres. Mine was three and I still finished it every leg to ensure I did not get dehydrated and to keep my body flushed out.

  • Be a bit careful with a herd of horses. Most of the time they will just run off but there is always a chance the stallion of the herd might not be impressed with you coming too close!

  • Pack a half-way pick-me-up snack in your kit and any other snacks that might help with morale after the halfway point.

  • Horses pick up on how you are feeling. I would hope that if you are partaking in the Derby you already know this. But Erin's horse from station 15 to 16 did look after her, he was an absolute trooper and reminded me just why I love horses so much. They are so sensitive and kind to the core, they will look after you when it matters and when you need it.

  • If you are unsure if you can get off your horse in one piece you can ride them into the station. I was a bit silly to try and get off Ping outside of the horse station when i knew he was not calm.

  • When things go wrong ask yourself “What is the worst thing that can happen” Then come to terms with that. More often than not the worst case wont happen but just in case it does at least you are prepared!

  • If you fall off try and keep hold of the lead rein, you do not really want to say goodbye to your kit. Though this is easier said than done and sometimes fingers can be casualties of this!

  • Look after your fellow riders. Yes, it is a race but without each other, you can hit serious low points and get into trouble. The other riders will be your lifeline when things go wrong. Having things go wrong with others nearby is always better than when you are alone.  

  • Acceptable washing can be found at some of the horse stations in the metal bowls, this will be clean and you should not get infections. Always pick the metal bowls over the farm rivers full of dirt.

  • Crying is okay. Crying Is allowed

  • Practice small celebratory dances for when the pain medication wears off.


The next related blog post "The Mongol Derby Day 7: A Fairly Drama-Free Day" can be found here.

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