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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

The Mongol Derby Day 8: Gingers and Heat

Updated: Jun 4

All Photographs by Kathy Gabrielle, Shari Thompson and Bayarsaihan Ochiroo

The last related blog post from day 7 of the Mongol Derby can be found here.


Women riding in the Mongol Derby
One of the best (and most terrifying) Naadam racing horses I will ever have the pleasure of riding.
HS 20-21

Morning broke across Mongolia, painting the landscape with ethereal hues of pink and gold. I watched the colours dance around the grasses outside from within the cosy confines of my sleeping bag, poking my nose under the folded Ger wall. The scene outside was a masterpiece, rolling hills adorned with tufts of verdant grass, and the river meandering like a silver ribbon through our camp and alongside the majestic hills in the distance. These hills were our targets for the day, and optimism from the previous 24 hours ebbed through my body.

“Today is going to be a good day,” I said to the riders around me. “Agreed!” A few replied. The mood among camp had simmered from competitive rushing at the beginning of the race to a hushed tranquillity. Riders seemed content to finish and enjoy the ride now rather than chasing for a top five position.

After a leisurely breakfast, I prepared for the day's journey. Packing kit had become less frantic, eating breakfast was now a joy rather than a need and even number selection from the pots of doom was a more civil affair. As I lugged my kit for the day outside my stiff knees started to cry out for a rest and my hip flexor twinged with every step. A visit to the medic was now necessary “I am just going to see Toby” I called to Erin. She nodded and mentioned she wouldn’t be far behind me.

I wandered past the horse line and ditched my saddle and bags in the tempestuous heat of the day. “Morning” Toby cheerily welcomed from his jeep as he clocked my approach. “What can I help you with?” “These mythical injections I have heard about please!” I replied. “My knees are wrecked and I am struggling to walk, let alone ride”

He grinned, nodded and directed me to the back of the jeep. “Trousers down" He instructed, "which bum cheek?” “The right?” I replied warily. I am not usually bad with injections but seeing the size of this one made the hairs on my neck stand on end. Before the words had escaped my mouth he had pierced my skin. “There you go, all done, when it starts to wear off just ask one of us for another dose” He smiled. “Lets see if it works first!” I replied sceptically, pulling up my trousers. It was going to have to be pretty strong stuff to shake the current pain.


With painkillers administered and the sun beating down on the horse's backs, riders mounted their steeds in anticipation of the day's adventure. I had ended up with a small, thick-set, bay horse who looked just like Shan Yu's horse in Disney’s Mulan. I therefore named him “Hun”. He was totally oblivious to me trying to tack him up and just stood watching the mass of people around him, snorting occasionally if another horse came too close.

Everyone was tacked up and mounted well before 7 am. The morning group had swelled in numbers and debates ensued about the best route forward. Most of the riders were opting to track around the hills, following the river. I had chosen the more daring path over the hills. I knew this was a risk given around was usually quicker than over, however, looking at the map counter lines the hills seemed to flatten out after the initial climb rather than undulate which would not be too taxing. It was also boggy on the flat lands and riding around the river yesterday had not been straight forward. Up, over and dry was my thought. A few of the more experienced endurance riders made it quite clear what they thought of my idea to go over. I ignored them and decided to trust my gut.


7am rolled around and the race steward yelled “GO” causing the group of riders to all tear off in a similar direction for the first couple of kilometres. Trusting my instincts and the guidance of the maps, I embarked on my chosen course and peeled off from the main group, opting for the initial steep climb. Hun was a typical Mongolian machine, his steadfast gallop was unwavering as he leapt over mounds of earth and through the typical low-level foliage. Erin's horse was similar and the two jostled for their nose to be in front. With each stride, the horses seemed to feed off each other's energy, their thunderous hoofbeats echoing up the hillside. Erin and I had once again found ourselves astride magnificent beasts.



As we ascended the crest of the hill, the landscape unfolded before us in all its splendour, revealing a vast expanse of untouched wilderness. Our decision to heed our intuition had been rewarded, the road in front was mostly flat, this was going to be a rapid leg and I was thrilled to have trusted my instinct. As we pressed onward, the heat of the day intensified with each passing minute, yet this was counteracted when a sweet relief of pain swept over my knees and hips. The injection had worked! I suddenly felt as though I could take on anything. “ERIN! The pains gone!” I screamed. “SAME!” She yelled back. “There is nothing!”


Our horses galloped upsides, the stunning landscape unfolding in front of us and we continued to grin and shout about how amazing we felt. A new lease of life meant we rode with purpose now, egging the horses on and pre-planning the next route. Life was good.  



After some time Jessie and Reid came into view to our right. They had also opted for up and over albeit on a slightly different route. Reunited with our fellow riders, we shared tales of our journeys since our last ride together on day two. Memories of days gone by flooded back. It was startling just how much had happened since we had last ridden together and it also hit home at that point how little time we had left on the steppe. Part of me was thrilled at the thought of a rest but part of me was deeply saddened that this epic journey was nearly over.   

"Drink!” I yelled to everyone, cautious of Erin and I being in good spirits and not wanting that to be jeopardised. “I think todays might be a scorcher” Reid nodded and Erin took a glug of water with a smile still plastered across her face. Even potential sun and heat stroke could not steal away how good we felt at that moment with functioning joints.

 


After two hours of galloping, we could see Horse Station 22 in the distance. It was sat across the valley from our location on a small hill. All we had to do was descend our current inclines, cross the grasslands and then a small ascent. Surveying the land ahead, from above, it was apparent that no riders were in front of us from this morning. I turned to the left to search for them down by the river. “Where is everyone?” I asked Jessie “Surely they have not already left the next station?” “Probably behind us, we have been quite quick” She replied. I turned to look again. No riders were anywhere to be seen. “We definitely made the right call” I thought.


As we traversed the grasslands the heat ramped up. “Christ it is hot…” I glanced at my GPS clock “ …and its only 9:30!” Panic set in. I liked heat, but this was too hot already, it was so much hotter than any previous days. I grabbed my sunscreen stick from the front of my bag and slathered myself in its gluelike consistency as Hun trotted towards the horse station. “Drink!” I yelled at everyone, only too aware that today would be the day the medics warned us about. Today there was a real chance of death for riders if they did not stay on top of their hydration.


As we approached the base of the hill where horse station 22 was located a dog appeared. Immediately we all chuckled, remembering the canine that had chased us all down on day one leading into station three.

“This one seems a bit friendlier?” Reid said to us all.

“No such thing, lets just get past him” Jessie replied.  

In single file we walked towards the barking dog, trying to ignore him and keep the horses calm. A tricky situation when you have been chased by similar creatures on the days previous. Everything in your body is telling you to kick on and get as far away as possible.


The dog trotted alongside us, howling to the herders of horse station 22. On seeing us arrive the herders all jumped to attention, seemingly keen to get horses out and observe us all try and ride their powerful steeds.

“We must be the first ones here?” I said to Erin.

“Lucy has been through, but that is it” The station vet interjected “You are all doing very well!”


As Hun and the other horses passed the vet check, I watched on the horizon for the other riders. Eventually, small dots began to appear, this horse station was about to get very busy.

“I think we need to shift it and get on our next horses pronto if we don’t want to be caught in chaos” I panicked to Erin.

“Agreed, I want to make the most of the drugs!” She chuckled. “Also a big fan of less chaos and no falling off!”

After a quick stroke and thank you to Hun, Erin and I ran to fill our water bladders up and empty our human bladders.

“You know where we are going Potts?!” Erin yelled to me as I jogged to the pot of doom to select a number.

“Sure do!” I yelled back. “Lets get on and get going. It is another long one, just under 40 km!”

All calmness had vanished. We were now on a quest to stay safe and try to remain away from horse station madness, after all, that seemed to be where the most falls and issues arose. Aware of how close to finishing the race we were we did not want to jeopardise anything by hanging around fifteen or so riders all trying to mount at the same time.


As I tacked up a slight bay horse with, Erin’s horse was bronking around the horse line with a herder hanging on for dear life. He threw a child aboard the horse and the child cantered the leaping horse over to Erin, shouting to her in Mongolian.

“He says he is safe” The translator said to Erin.

I laughed over my horses back to her “Dead safe that one Erin! Just get on him you’ll be grand!”

In her newfound existence of no pain, Erin took the spirited beauty off the young boy and played tack-up tag.  I flung myself upon my horse with no pain, feeling like I had been reborn. My new horse did not move.

“You aren’t exactly enthusiastic about this are you?” I said, looking down at the horses unimpressed face. He had a striking blue eye and I therefore named Blue. Blue sighed, stomped a hoof on the dusty ground and turned to look at me.

“Oh dear boy, I am afraid we’ve got a long road ahead. A very slow one if that’s the attitude”


HS 21- 22

As Erin tacked up her rodeo horse I wandered off to check our planned bearing with Jessie in tow. The small lad who had brought Erin her horse ran alongside Blue and was chatting away to me, pointing in the direction I was heading. He was so eager to help, smiling and nodding as I rode out of the station. All I could do was thank him and smile.

“I wish I had learnt Mongolian more before coming out here” I said to Jessie who had been having lessons prior to the race. “It would be ace to have conversations with these people instead of one word answers”


Eventually, the boy spun on his heels to go and watch Erin mount. I planned our route out to as far as my eyes could see. It was nice to be able to take some time to look ahead at the landscape in front of you and visually mark your route rather than relying on the GPS. Jessie and I stood a way out from the station waiting for Erin. Suddenly cheering and yelling were heard, I spun around in my saddle and Erin came flying out of the camp on her horse.


 “Just go! I don’t want to stop this thing!” She laughed at us as she tore past us. Blue needed no encouragement and off he took with Erin, eager to keep up. Jessie was on a beautiful small stallion with a flowing mane who was not the quickest. It was not long before she tailed off and it was Erin and I, yet again charging through the steppe.


“Down this hillside, into the marshlands, out the other side and then just follow the river to the compulsory crossing point” I shouted as we galloped down the narrow tracks single file.

As we descended the earth beneath us became sloppy and muddy. We were on the precipice of the marshlands which was a welcome sight in the mid-day heat.


The horses slowed to a trot in the unbearable temperatures, splashing water everywhere. “Ah, that feels amazing!” Erin sighed as we walked through the deeper marshes, offering the horses a drink. "it is so cold"

“The next stretch is all sand and flat,” I said with determination. “We have a long way to go but lets recharge here and kick on to the river crossing”.



The river crossing on this leg was compulsory, if we did not go through the checkpoint on the trackers we were eliminated. The reason for this checkpoint became apparent once we left the marshes and found the sandy tracks that ran alongside the river. Firstly, the river banks were steep and sandy, one wrong foot and your horse would slide down to the river's edge with no way back up. Secondly, the river was exceedingly wide and the water was ferocious, almost rapid-like in areas, gushing at a rate of Knotts through the surrounding landscape, carving into the Earth as it travelled.

“Wow! That’s quite a river!” I called to Erin up ahead.

“Yer I wouldn’t fancy crossing that! I’m glad they’ve shown us a crossing point!” She called back.

“10 kilometres and then we were at the bridge, the horse station is just on the other side of the crossing” I replied. 


Generally, this was a straightforward leg once out of the boggy marshes all we had to do was follow the river until we came across a large town. However, as we trotted and cantered down the sandy tracks the sound of the gushing river taunted us in the inhospitable heat. As we slowly covered ground the horses became weary in the temperature and Erin and I began to find our energy sources depleted too. I continued to apply suncream over my drenched with sweat face, plastering it on in vain over the salt crystals forming on my skin. Blue ran clean out of energy 4km away from the crossing point and Erin’s horse followed suit.



Seeing the positive side in our drugs working and talking about the small pleasures we could enjoy once we were finished in a few days very much got us through this leg as the sandy expanses relentlessly stretched out in front of us. The more drained we became in the heat the more I would check the GPS hoping to be nearly at the bridge. However, each check was met with the covering ground at a glacial pace. Conversation dwindled just as hoofbeats approached behind.


It was Reid, on a fast horse, tearing up the sandy ground around him, heading straight for us.

“HI GUYS!” He cheered as he took off past us. “Keep going!”

Hot on Reid’s heels were the two Ozzies who also took off past us causing a stir in Blue and Erin’s horse. Suddenly, a new lease of life had sparked in our horses and they cantered off with this new herd.


The five of us trotted through the sandy tracks up to the town. This was now unchartered territory. We had been bombing around the countryside with no one to answer to for the past seven days. How would the horses react to a relatively built-up area?


Compared to the British towns this Mongolian equivalent was still very small and quiet, yet a far cry from the steppe. A small building site had a crane clanging around overhead, small cars and farming jeeps tore around the roads and the ground was suddenly littered with old cans and bottles.  People stopped and watched us ride through the town, shouting at us and waving, probably wondering who these weird foreigners were riding through their lands.


On reaching the crossing we could see a rider ahead walking slowly on their horse.

“That looks like Lucy in the blue coat!” I called up ahead to the boys. “The horse stop is just past her”

The five of us wandered over the modern highway bridge, the roads reflecting the heat onto our faces and the horse's bodies, it was as if we were riding in a sauna.

“I am not sure how much longer I can ride in this heat,” I said to Erin.

She looked up at me, no longer grinning. “Same, it’s too hot for horses” she muttered. “But at least we have nearly caught up with Lucy. That’s a good thing, we've not seen her for a long time”

I concurred and continued to focus on keeping my eyes open. I was suddenly dizzy and exceedingly tired. 


2km out and we hopped off the horses to walk them in, I glugged the last of my water down. Blue was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily for a horse that had not broken out of a walk for some time.

“I am a bit worried about this horse, I am going to carry his saddle” I shouted ahead to Erin. “Keep walking, I will catch you up at the station”

Foolishly I thought I could carry the burden of Blue’s saddle to avoid a vet penalty and to look after the horse. I was terrified of a second vet penalty and losing all the time and ground we had made up.  However, this decision to walk and carry the saddle took its toll and drained me of any energy I had left.


It was hot. So hot I cannot even put it into words to do the temperature justice. It was the fieriest day so far in the race, it was the warmest I have ever been in my life. Despite being ginger I love the sun and I love being roasting hot. If I don’t come out of a bath bright red then it was nowhere near scorching enough. Yet this day was too hot for me.


The sun was beating down on my back, my pulse racing and pounding through my temples, sweat poured down my back like a waterfall into every crevasse it could reach and my arms ached from the total exhaustion of carrying a saddle for 1000 meters.  On approaching the station just 500 meters or so out my eyes began to grow heavy with black spots starting to blur my vision. My head nodded, jolting me awake. I was in danger of passing out.

“Keep going Emmelia, there is water at the next station” I repeated in a bid to keep my feet moving forwards.


Over and over I would find myself walking hunched over with my eyes closed, but something would startle me awake like a trip or Blue pulling on the lead rope to stop for some grass.

“I can do this, I can do this, I can do this” I thought as I looked up and saw the station nearing through the mid day haze and my tears.

It was too hot, I needed water, i needed to cool my body down. My arms started shaking around 300 meters out and I realised it was not from the saddle, my whole body was shaking as if I was cold but I had never felt my skin burn like this before. The world swirled around me so I concentrated on my feet, one in front of the other, over and over again, stealing glimpses of the distance I had left when I felt like I would not be sick or pass out.

Lady walks a horse and carries saddle in the mongol derby
Waking Blue into the horse station and nearly passing out.

“Emmelia!”

I thought I was hearing things to begin with. I was only too aware that I was circling the pit of heat stroke and was very close to falling in.

“Keep going, keep going” I repeated, ignoring the voices.

“Emmelia! Over here!” “That’s not Erin’s voice” I thought.


I stopped and looked up, squinting through my sweat and tears. It was a couple of the other riders yelling at me. I took a deep breath, knees shaking, head pounding and continued to walk.

“Get to the station, don’t be sick and throw yourself in the water trough,” I thought. “You’ve got this”


A few meters out from the station I dropped the saddle and kit and continued to walk to the water trough with Blue, ignoring everyone around me. Blue dropped his head immediately for a drink and I dunked my head in the water next to him. I wanted to breathe in every drop and drown in the cool liquid surrounding my face. Whilst repeatedly submerging my head I made a mental note not to be a hero, if I was struggling in the heat the horse needed to carry the saddle.


After some time of plunging my head and glugging down water over and over again i regained sanity along with my vision. I sat for some time in the shade of the water truck whilst the vet took Blues heart rate. He was a steady 53, nowhere near the 56 limit. I had done my job, the horse was okay.


After a sound trot up from Blue and a cooling wash down for us both, Blue returned to the wild. I stood for some time pouring water over my entire body willing my piping-hot skin to cool down. After curbing potential heat stroke I took a moment to register what was around me. It took a minute to absorb the electricity of this station and to see that there was a gazebo full of people here.

Lady scratches horse in the mongol derby
Blue passing his vet check and having scratches

Under the shelter of the gazebo, the adventurist category competitors lounged on the floor with several injuries, some with broken bones or sprained muscles, others recovering from heat stroke and food poisoning. They all looked full of good spirits though despite their encounters.  This horse station was essentially start camp minus a few riders.  I wandered over to the Gers and gazebo to rapturous hellos and hugs. It was like returning from war. I stood chatting to everyone, concerned that if I lay in the group I would never get up. We all chatted for a time catching up on everyone's stories. A few riders including Livia had fallen victim to heat stroke.

“I was very nearly joining you a  minute ago,” I told Livia, “a very very close call”


“Ready to go Potts?” Erin came up behind me with Seb in tow. “Seb! How are you?!” I exclaimed.

“Long story he said, I will tell you all about it when we ride. Do you guys mind if I ride out with you?” he asked “I want to finish the rest of the ride on the horses not in the jeeps” 

“You don’t need to ask!!” I replied “It would be ace to ride with you again! I haven’t seen you since day one when I got us lost. Don’t worry my navigation is a bit better now mind”

He grinned and eagerly went to gather his saddle and kit.

“Give me ten minutes and I will be ready” I said to Erin “I need a break after nearly passing out”

She gave me a concerned look, followed by a supportive smile and then started rallying the troops.

“Anyone else want to ride out with us?” I heard her ask the group as I approached the food Ger.


I sat down in the balmy shade of the Ger and filled my stomach with as much food and water as I could muster. Heat stroke was not going to get me. I was too close now to not finish this race. I consumed everything the herder's wives offered me. Noodles, fermented milk, rock-hard cheese, little bread-like nibbles, and rice in fermented milk. It all went down with the intention of preventing my body from going into shutdown again.


After recreating Monty Pythons Mr Creosote (minus the exploding) I was semi-revived and eager for the next leg with a gang of like-minded riders. Walking out of the Ger and back into the blazing heat was unwelcome but the laughter emanating from the camp overrode the torturous weather.


Livia was also keen to ride out with Seb, Erin and I so we gathered our belongings and marched over to the horse line with a newfound purpose and enthusiasm. Lucy was picking her horse number out of the standard timber pot as we approached.

“GUYS!” She cheered “Lets all ride out as a group, that last leg on my own was hard”

Erin and I were ecstatic to have a group again, especially with riders who were in high spirits and full of life, everything was good and this was going to be a great leg, I could feel it.


I picked out a number and awaited the next horse, praying for the heat to not kill me off now I was filled up on nourishment. I was aware that my clothes were already bones dry again so I dosed my buff in cold water from the water trough wrapped to around my neck and drenched the rest of my clothing in water too, in a further bid to keep the suns rays at bay.

“Is this a bad idea? Should I wait for the temperature to drop?” I thought to myself.

“POTTS” Eric yelled. “here is your horse”

Too late. It looked like I was riding out.


HS 22-23

The next little feller was a small squat chestnut horse, who looked a lot like a riding school pony I used to ride as a kid called Ginge. He was dead easy to work with on the ground, allowing me to be checked out and mounted in a matter of minutes which was delightful at this stage of the ride, especially when the small niggles of pain were beginning to creep back into my body.

As always, I checked our bearing, checked the maps and knew we would be fine, It was a grassland leg, with lots of holes guaranteed but no climbs or major obstacles.

“We can make good time on this leg,” I thought knowing that completing three horse stations was our aim today, we were on course to achieve this.


Leaving the station was phenomenal. Liz came and gave us goodbye hugs, the rest of the riders shouted words of support, Eric and his socials crew took videos and pictures and everyone wished us well claiming to see us soon. Erin and I were thrilled at the send-off, it was a welcome injection of joy that we had needed after the last long, hot, hard leg. We took off out of the station as a group laughing, cheering and sharing stories. The horses were all well-matched and it was a great feeling riding with these four optimistic people on wonderful horses.


Riding with people in high spirits who were not exhausted was also a massive lift emotionally. Seb and Livia brought a new lease of life to the conversations and their enthusiasm for riding ebbed onto us. They brought a stark reminder that this was an incredible experience and reminded Lucy, Erin and I how well we were doing. It is easy to beat yourself down when things get hard and think that you are not doing as well as you should be on any endurance event. However, our two new riders reminded us how ridiculous this challenge was when we most needed it.


Seb and Livia both explained what had gone wrong and their stories in the blood wagon. To be honest, it sounded as if they had been having a great time since their problems in the race. They had been riding when they liked, eating pizza, cheering others on and basking in the sun if they fancied a rest. They were allowed to ride as much or as little as they wished. They had cracked the Derby cheat code, no pressure, but the same wild horses and overall experience.


Group of riders on the mongol derby 2023
Seb, Lucy, Me, Erin and Livia all riding out of horse station 22

The five of us merrily cantered off across the grasslands, all yelling “hole” sporadically to ensure everyone remained seated on their horse as we navigated the cavity-peppered ground. However, this all came to a stop when we stumbled upon a fence. Now in the Derby, there are rarely fenced-off areas due to the sheer space around you. Farmers move around, they do not tend to have their own allocated land. However, as we approached the finish more built-up areas appeared. When I say built up, you could still ride miles and miles without seeing anything but now and again a fence would pop up.

“Left of the fence line!” I shouted to Seb who was slightly up ahead. 

As I shouted Lucys horse tripped and bolted forward. Lucy ended up on the floor and her horse disappeared to the right of the fence, galloping along the fence line.

“SEB!” Erin yelled “Stop!”

He turned on a hair pin, saw what had happened and leapt into action, chasing Lucie’s horse. I stood slightly aghast at his reactions and asked Lucy if she was okay.

“All good” She beamed, laughing at the situation “No idea how I came off from that!”


As Lucy was dusting herself down, I looked up to see that Seb had been joined by two men on dirt bikes. The three men were charging after Lucy's horse, getting ever so close to catching him. Erin, Livia and I tried to create a second line of defence and corner all of them in against the fence line but the space on the steppe was too vast and eventually Lucy's horse managed to outsmart us all and charge back to the last horse station. Erin's horse tried to follow, fortunately, Ginge stood unbothered watching the chaos.


Seb hopped off his horse, offering it to Lucy so she could carry on and ensure she made the cut-offs

“Here have my horse. I am already in the adventure category so it doesn’t matter if I lose time” He said.

I think all of the girl's hearts melted a little bit at this. After all, the last place you expect anyone to be chivalrous is during a competition! In among some of the competitor's egos, it was lovely to see that looking after each other was still of a higher importance to most riders.

Lucy gracefully declined Sebs offer and hopped onto one of the dirt bikes instead.

“Thanks so much, Seb but I have plenty of time, you carry on with the girls and I will catch you all up at the next station,” She said


Off she sped with a smile and wave, back five kilometres or so to horse station 22. Five riders had rapidly become four. After all the more people you ride with the more chances there are of things going wrong.


The following fifteen kilometres of this leg were enjoyable. We all cantered off steadily chatting and exchanging stories. We wondered where other riders were and hoped that hospitalised riders were okay. Around kilometre 20, things started to go wrong. I continued to shout "drink" at everyone sporadically so no one ended up ill. It was still blindingly hot and in these temperatures, heatstroke was still a real risk. I was also aware that Livia had been pulled from the race for heatstroke so I vowed to keep an eye on her as she became quiet.


Erin's horse and Ginge were beginning to struggle in the persistent, pounding heat. Ginge was not a racehorse, that was clear and he would reluctantly trot, I could feel his energy and tolerance dwindle. I continued to chat with Seb as his horse pulled his arms out, desperate to gallop off. Erin and Livia trotted along behind us, growing more silent. After a few kilometres of not hearing much talk behind I turned around to see Erin who looked hot and a bit cheesed off, but coping, and Livia who was absolutely not okay.

“Livia, are you drinking?” I asked concerned

“Yes a bit, I don’t feel very well though and I am really hot”

I pulled back and rode alongside her, she was shaking and had a clammy skin. She also looked to be struggling to keep her eyes open.

“Right okay, we need to get you to the next horse station pronto”, I said with what I hoped was a I am not worried at all voice. I was, however, exceedingly concerned.


Looking at the GPS we had just over five kilometres left, operation "get Livia safe" was formed.

“SEB!” I called ahead “Livia needs to get to the next station immediately.”

I turned to Livia “I think you might have heat stroke”

She nodded as Seb rode alongside us. I looked at Ginge and Erin’s horse, they were in no fit state to trot or canter to the next station at any speed. Sebs horse was pulling his arms out, eager and keen.  I conveyed my plan to everyone


“I am going to message HQ now and tell them where we are, and that Livia has heat stroke and needs a medic at the next station, that should give them a chance to get someone there to meet her in time. I will let HQ know you two are riding into the horse station now. Erin our horses are not going to be able to keep up, they are exhausted and we will definitely get vet penalties. Seb can you get Livia to the next station asap? Your horse seems energetic still? Stay on the horses and ride them into the station. When you get to the station chuck Livia in the water trough straight away until a medic can see her, they will then know what to do. I will message HQ, you get going”


No sooner had I stopped speaking Seb nodded, rode up sides Livia and urged her horse on. They took off towards the horse station, hooves beating across the dusty ground. I messaged HQ explaining the above and that Livia had already had heat stroke once before during the ride. They messaged back that a medic was on route to the station to receive her.

“Okay, she should be fine provided the horses cover the ground quickly,” I said.

“Jeez, that’s scary” Erin exclaimed.

“She looks like a cross between you at the midway point and me on the last leg,” I said, “Not a good mix!”


Erin and I continued to walk the horses towards the station in the distance. We stayed mounted for the first time coming into a horse station. I was all too aware that I was lightheaded and in danger of overheating again, yet I was acutely aware that this could result in a penalty if Ginge was struggling as much as I thought. On approaching horse station 23 we immediately dismounted, hauled our tack off the horses and washed them down in the cool waters of the drinking station. I clocked the vet and asked her if Livia was okay.

“She is fine now, she is with the medic hooked up to a drip” she replied.

Erin and I breathed a sigh of relief just as Seb came around the corner.


“I think we are down to three riders now, Livia is staying here and not riding again today” Seb explained. “She is okay though”

He helped Erin and I wash and tend to our horses ensuring that they were cool and happy. Both horses pulsed down in the 30-minute time frame required and little podgy Ginge went back to the herders with a mouth stuffed with grass. I chuckled to myself, he was a little horse unlike anything else I had ridden on the Derby, he was very much a nostalgic throwback to cheeky, riding school ponies.

Women helps man with his saddle on the mongol derby
Giving Seb a hand at horse station 23

“What is the plan?” Erin asked. The dreaded words to be uttered near the end of each day. These words usually meant we had enough time to ride out, yet not enough time to make it to the next station, resulting in the choice of “to camp or not to camp?”

“Given our track record do we think it’s wise to camp? We have made three stations today which is good?” I replied.

“I would like to camp. I have not had a real camping experience yet and it would be cool to camp with you guys!” Seb interjected.

“I am not sure you’ll enjoy the stress of camping with us” I laughed.

However, I figured having Seb with us might make it easier to find somewhere to stay and he was right! There were only a couple of nights left to experience true Mongolian culture. The three of us looked at the maps and decided to follow the river on the next leg rather than the long dirt road next to the pylons. Rivers usually meant Gers due to the water source and the horses would need water overnight for us to be allowed to camp. We agreed on a route, filled up our water and went over to check on Livia at a makeshift drip station before leaving. She was okay but confirmed that our pack was now down to three riders.

Medic tent on the mongol derby
Seb and I checking on Livia at horse station 23
HS 23 – Camping

Nadam racing horses are the best racehorses in Mongolia. They can race for thirty kilometres galloping full pace. They are small, strong and ever so fit. I had ridden Naadam racing horses previously in the race, however nothing was going to prepare me for the next leg.


Erin, Seb and I wandered over to the station number pot to select our next horses at random. Whilst the horses were being taken from the horse line we reminded ourselves of the plan. Gallop until 6:30 down by the river and find a Ger to stay in. Easy?

Lady picks out a horse on the mongol derby
Picking out my horse at station 23

“4 and 5!” the translator called to Seb and I. Two beautiful matching greys, with shortly shorn manes and bright eyes were brought over to us. The herders leading them would not let go. At the time I thought nothing of it as we tacked up, I was grateful to have someone holding a horse so I wasn’t playing tack-up tag. These horses were not bad to tack up, a bit fidgety maybe but nothing we were not used to by now.


Erin’s horse was left with her, unattended. At this point I thought that was odd. Why were Seb and my horses not being let go of? I wandered over to the sign-out sheet with the translator.

“Those two greys are a pair of Naadam racing horses” The translator divulged “They are used to racing with each other in races”

“Ah, I see” I replied “So Seb and I are about to fly then!”

I sauntered over to number five (this horse I did not name as I was in blind panic survival mode whilst riding him) and hopped on. The hip flexor panged and I made a note to grab another injection at the next horse station. I sat on five for a few minutes being led around the horse station by the herder as if we were in the parade ring at Ascot. Erin mounted and Seb came over to jump on his number four.


“These are a racing pair” He grinned “This could be fun!”

He hopped on and the two herders led our two greys to the edge of the horse station. They clung on tightly to their prized possessions and my herder looked at me with a knowing smile. The anticipation was killing me and the two horses were beginning to get riled up. 

Naadam racing horses are led out of a horse station on the mongol derby 2023
Seb and I being led out of horse station 23 by the horses owners.

“ERIN!” I called back “We might disappear these are racehorses. There is no chance we will stop these!”

She laughed and shouted something at me just as the two herders let four and five go, threw our lead reins at us and jumped out of the way. Without any encouragement, four and five flew.


I have been on fast horses. Plenty of them. Some have been UK racehorses, some bolting ponies, and there have even been a couple of over-enthusiastic ranch mustangs chasing down steers in there. However, no horse I had ever ridden matched up to number five. As the herders released Seb and I into the wilderness these horses took off as if their life depended on it, I nearly went out the back door from the 0-60mph Le Monde start. These horses were not bolting, they were possessed. It took seconds for me to realise we were not going to be able to stop these horses whilst they were together. Seb and I charged across the steppe side by side, as soon as four got his nose in front five would drive himself forward to gain the advantage. They rallied back and forth for six kilometres. The ground beneath us was a far cry from the flat grasslands we had come from. Sandy mounds with sheer drops had begun to form and five leapt off them as if they were nothing, never changing his wild pace. I looked down at the ground when we landed the first mound leap, there were also holes everywhere in the deep sandy earth.

“This is it, this is how I die” was all I could think as five dementedly continued galloping in a blind rage to get his nose out in front of his racing rival.  


“EMMELIA!” Seb shouted to me with a concerned grin across his face.

“I HAVE NO CONTROL!” I yelled back. “NOTHING”

I was terrified especially seeing as the sand mounds were getting taller and five would stop at nothing to continue galloping. Someone could have put the Olympia Puissance wall in front of him and I think he would have given it a good go.


Given the alarming speeds and dangerous terrain, we needed to find the nearby track I remembered seeing on the maps. I looked around and shouted to Seb to look search for a dirt track near the looming pylons. The river was miles away to our right, and we were never going to get these horses down there, they were locked onto going straight to the horizon. Our best bet was to find the long straight path, which would be relatively safe underfoot, and let them do their thing.

 

Eventually, a small, narrow track, wide enough for a single file came into sight. Seb managed to funnel his horse onto the track and five followed, breathing down his neck. The tracks were rutted, hard and they twisted around tall bushes, the bends at some points were savage. Four and five jostled for first place arriving at a double hairpin bend.

“WAHHHHHH!” I yelled from behind Seb as four tried to push his way past five on the narrow path, around the bend. I nearly flew out the side door as four navigated the bends like a professional F1 race car. No pauses, no hesitations, he knew his job and he was good at it. Seb and I clung on for dear life shouting words of disbelief at each other.


After motorbiking these horses along the tight tracks at breakneck speeds the path flattened out and became straight for as far as the eye could see, alongside the expected pylons. I looked to the right, we were nowhere near the intended river, however, this track would tack us to horse station 24. With a long flat road ahead four and five were in their element and continued to plough on and fight for the non-existent first place. This was made worse by the photographers driving the jeep alongside us to take pictures.


During the races in Mongolia the spectators drive their jeeps alongside the race to watch, spurring the horses on. Four and five already thought they were in a race due to their familiarity with each other, add a jeep to the mix and it reignited their engines further. I tried to slow down a couple of times and failed, Seb tried and failed. The issue was not that these were racehorses but that they were a racing pair, taught and trained to egg each other on, to beat each other. The jeep was adding fuel to the fire.

“Is yours getting tired yet?!” I shouted above the hoofbeats crashing against the dirt and the jeep engine roaring alongside.

“No!” Seb laughed back with a beaming smile.

He was thoroughly enjoying himself and I decided I should be doing the same. We were after all on a track now which would take us right to station 24.

I relaxed and accepted that Seb and I were now officially Mongolian racing jockeys, living a real-life experience of how the locals would race. Local farmers videoed us tearing past them on the road and a man on a bike even pulled over at the side of the road to film us race past him. It really was exhilarating.

women riding a Naadam racing horse in mongolia
Clining on for dear life

After some time the jeep took off and left us racing. Seb's horse finally began to drop back, resulting in five slowing to a marginally less chaotic gallop. I took the opportunity to try and bring him to a trot which was an epic fail. As soon as five slowed down, four would lock on behind, catch up and start the race all over again. Seb and I played this game six or seven times before we managed to rein our horses into a walk. We established that it was either walk or gallop, there was no inbetween with these two.

racehorses in mongolia walking
Finally managing to walk

We walked for a moment and waited for Erin to catch up.

“Don’t canter up to us!” I shouted to Erin as fives back tensed and he snatched at the bit at the sound of another horse. “We won’t stop again!”

Erin slowed to a walk and sat behind us both.

“GUYS!” she screamed with laughter “How the hell did you two stay on around those bends!? That was madness! They are crazy!”

“Honestly? No idea” Seb and I replied, now chuckling.

“My little man tried to keep up, but those two are on a different level!” she said in awe.

“Anyway, it is getting late should we start looking for somewhere to stay?” I dragged out the GPS.


We had covered 20km in under an hour. After revealing this to Seb and Erin we toyed with the idea of galloping flat out to the next station. However, pushing the horses to get a vet penalty seemed pointless. Therefore, we opted for camping given it was ten to seven and the sun was beginning to dwindle in the sky. With this in mind, we scoured the vast, empty landscape around us.

“I can not see anywhere to stay” Erin announced concerned.

She was right, there was not a Ger in sight.

“We could ride down to the river?” I suggested looking at the GPS “But it a long way off, around 7 seven kilometres. We would have water though and could sleep under the stars if no one lets us in?”

“How about going back to the house we passed not so long ago?” Seb suggested. “It isn’t too far back?”

We all agreed and walked back to the mobile home we had passed whilst racing. On arriving at the house there were three large dogs lounging in the shade who began to bark as we approached.

“Sain-uu!” We all shouted, hoping that people would emerge from the house.

“Look!” Erin said “There are people inside!”

Surely enough three small children came to the window and waved to us and we tried to ask if we could stay. However, these children were really small and did not understand. I looked at my watch.

“It's seven o clock guys and there is no one here, how about the Ger over there?” I pointed to a Ger around four hundred meters back down the route we had already ridden.

Seb nodded enthusiastically and we all trotted off towards the Ger. Horse number five was once again chomping at the bit to gallop and I was exhaustedly trying to keep him under wrap given we were meant to be calming down for the evening.  After winding through the steppe undergrowth we arrived at a bachelors Ger. Erin and I knew the signs. The area was littered with motorbike parts, bottles and machinery. Two young lads materialised on hearing our voices.


Erin asked if we could stay but the two lads shook their heads and pointed to the house we had just come from. They clearly did not want us here.

“Great, now what, we need somewhere with water so we can not just camp under the stars up here” I panicked.

Seb continued to try and talk to the young boys and after some back and forth one of the boys waved for us to follow him. Seb's optimism and drive for a happy camping experience had paid off. The young lad hopped on a fairly swanky dirt bike, compared to the ones we had seen so far, and drove off towards the mobile home with the dogs and children.

“We warned you it wouldn’t be easy to camp, especially with us!” Erin declared.

Seb was beginning to see how stressful camping could be. Ten minutes past seven and we arrived back at the previously frequented house. The young boy parked his bike and went inside, chatting away to the children. We stood quietly, patiently waiting for there to be a resolution.

“Guys we have twenty minutes until we get disqualified from the race for not having a safe place to sleep, this needs to work” I whispered as we tried to hear the murmurs inside.


Whilst the chatting inside continued a white car pulled up with two women inside. They pulled alongside the house, pointing at us standing outside. The young boy greeted them as another dirt bike with an older man approached. The next five minutes involved the adults and young boy talking as we stood patiently, praying, hoping for a place to stay. Eventually, the women nodded and smiled at us.

“Thank God!” I breathed out “We have finally found somewhere to stay!”

Erin let out a long sigh of relief and Seb grinned at us. We were not only staying in a home but it was a raised house! No rainwater flooding the floor and UVPC windows! The family also had a filled water barrel and horse corral. Camping gold had been struck.

Mongolian mobile home
Our camp for the night on night 8

As I untacked horse five I spotted a clear bag in one of the ladies' hands. It was full of blood and organs.

“I wonder if that is dinner,” I said to Erin, nodding to the bag.

Before she could comment the man of the house signalled for us to follow him to the horse corral. He waved to us, shouted and puffed on his cigarette as he nonchalantly turned away and sauntered towards the pen. We followed him and obediently tied the horses up, offered them a drink and gave them (and ourselves) a much-needed wash down. As the Mongolian man wandered back to the house.


"Hi you three!" Ben the race steward appeared to check our horses for the night. "We saw it was you two and figured we should come and check!" He nodded to Erin and I. "We are okay this time, Sebs sorted us out" I replied. The horses passed the vet check and happily grazed whilst Seb, Erin and I chatted away as the sun began to set. The man of the house returned to us with our hobbles and began putting them on the horses.

“Urm are we not grazing the horses and they putting them in the pen?” I asked the other two.

“He might have a better idea?” Seb asked

Once hobbled the man took the horses off us, led them away from the pen to lush grass and let them all go. He then waved for us to follow him to the house. I turned around to check on the horses before crossing the house threshold, three happy, calm horses grazed on the grass waving in the breeze, they were a far cry from the lunatics we had been trying to stay aboard not so long ago.

“Two days left” I thought with a sinking heart. I was not going to miss the drama and near death, but I was deeply going to miss the horses and the calmness of life on the steppe. I stood for a minute drinking in the splendour of the scene and absorbing everything I could about this moment. 

“You coming in Potts?” Sounded from the house and I was snapped back to reality.


This family consisted of three young children and a wife and husband. We all sat around a pot of boiling sheep's insides. The smell steamed through the house almost smelling of rubber. Erin, Seb and I started packing our kit for the next day, causing the children to take interest. They pointed to items of our kit, smiling at us when we interacted and showed them some of our gear. Once again verbal communication was none existent but this did not limit interactions.


Just as we were packing the last of our gear up the women drained the contents of the cooking pot and cast it all onto a large metal serving tray, three small knives were presented to the children and ourselves to share so we could tuck in. Not understanding what it was we were meant to be doing we waited and watched the family to follow suit. The dad took a knife, cut into a long thing piece of organ that looked like an intestine and put it straight into his mouth.

“I think we just cut off pieces of sheep and eat it,” Seb said.

“When in Rome!” I replied and cut off what looked to be part of a kidney.

Seb and I chomped away happily next to the family, working our way through the anatomy of a sheep. Erin ate some biscuits, something the next day I would wish I had done.

“This is really good!” Seb said, pointing to a long conical-shaped body part. “Perhaps an intestine?”

“Urm, it’s quite penis-looking to me that! But I agree it's tasty whatever it is!” I replied.


After dinner the day light had well and truly vanished.

“Bugger we need to go and find the horses in the pitch black,” I said to the others as we caught sight of the darkness now drenching the landscape.

“Headtorches, lets go!” Seb said with urgency. We had no idea where the horses would be now, as they can still travel quite far with hobbles on and we had been sitting in the house for over an hour.


We wandered over to the spot where we had left the horses, our head torches were useless in the darkness as a dense fog had materialised on the steppe. The Dad of the house had followed us, casually whistling and smoking, following us to see how our untrained eye would fair in a non-light poullted land.


The answer was we had no clue how to find three loose horses in the middle of nowhere, in the fog, with no vision. He told us to turn our head torches off by shouting and tapping his head. With our lights off he was engulfed into the darkness. We stood still, waiting, listening for a sign that he had found the horses.

“If we lose the horses it’s a long way back to the last station” Erin said.

“We should have come out sooner, a bit of a mistake that,” Seb said

“God I hope he finds them” I prayed

We then all started to chuckle at how this evening had turned out. Sheep organ dinner and lost in the night, what was the Mongol Derby? Utterly ridiculous is what.


After an eternity of standing still, blinded by lack of industry, hoof steps and a faint whistling began to sound. A red dot appeared in the fog, a cigarette end! We turned our torches on and sure enough, the man was in front of us with three horses in tow. An utter miracle. Rapturous thank yous were repeated to the man and he just shrugged it off as if we were crazy. He nodded and wandered off back to the house.

“How the hell did he know where to even start looking?” I asked the other two

“How did he see anything? We never would have found them all the way over there, that’s the opposite direction to where we left them!” Seb laughed.

“These people are amazing guys, they are something else” Erin whispered.


We tied up the horses to the round pen and wandered back to the house in awe of the man and relieved to still have horses to ride in the morning.

Everything was tidied up and the kitchen put away on our return, now there were some rolls of fabric laid out on the floor for us to locate our sleeping bags.

We packed for the next morning, attending to our wounds and issues and eventually laid down to sleep as the family rustled around their home also preparing for the evening. The parents changed the children into their bedclothes and laid them down next to us on the fabric. Bear in mind this home was tiny, maybe 4 meters by 3 meters at most. I was laying at the far end with Seb next to me, Erin was then next to Seb, and we were already squashed onto our piece of fabric, not wanting to intrude in the families space too much. Sardines squashed in a can is the expression that comes to mind.

“How are we all going to fit in this space?” Erin asked as the children started to lie down beside her.

The youngest was fascinated by the three strangers in his home and would sit up and stare. I looked over and sure enough we were out of floor space, where were the adults going to sleep?


Once the children were all lying down and ready for bed the parents said something to the children and then said goodbye in Mongolian to us all. We said goodbye back and Erin Seb and I looked at each other and back. The small light went off in the house and we listened silently as the parents walked out the front door. A few seconds later their car door opened and closed. Then the engine was started and the car drove off into the distance until we could no longer hear its chocking engine.

“They have not just left us with their children for the night?!” Erin chuckled.

"Urm, I think they might have" Seb laughed

“Christ they are trusting!” I said “That’s crazy, we could be mass murders!”

“Free babysitting” Seb replied


As the night drew on the house became filled with mosquitos, and the oldest child turned on a small mosquito light at Seb and my feet in a bid to quell the hordes. She then stood and stared at the three strangers lying on her floor. I smiled at her and hoped she knew we were good people who just needed somewhere to stay for the night. I was finding babysitting a stranger's children in Mongolia remarkable and imagined she was probably terrified.


 I did not sleep that night. I laid wide awake feeling semi-responsible for these children that had been bestowed upon us for the night. I lay awake listening to the mosquitoes hit the light and trying to calm the sheep organs now churning in my stomach. A churning that would prove troublesome for the penultimate day of the race.


Day 8 Derby Lessons:
  • Get pain relief injections when you need them. Do not put it off. They honestly make everything better

  • Do not follow others just because they have more experience.

  • Look at the landscape in front of you to make calls on your navigation. Sometimes you might think another route looks easier or better suited based on what is in front of you.

  • Make sure you go through compulsory checkpoints. You will be eliminated if you do not, they are there for your and the horses safety

  • Make sure you take suncream and reapply it.

  • If you are struggling with the heat, stay on your horse and ride into the station, do not walk in and definitely do not carry the saddle and saddle bag!

  • Wear loose-fitting long sleeves to prevent sunburn. Most running tops have side vents in them which are great for this type of circumstance.

  • Learn the signs of heat stroke and hyperthermia. Chances are you may come into contact with these and need to know what to do and when to notice the early signs. You will cover the basis of this in the training days so pay attention.

  • The videographer and photographers tend to be up the front of the race, if you want lots of photos and social media coverage that’s where you need to be.

  • Dust off your saddle pad and wash it when possible to prevent rubbing your horses.

  • Take a buff or rag with you on the derby, it is great when cold for preventing chills down your neck but on hot days covering it with cold water helps to keep you cool and the back of your neck covered.-         

  • If you are hot, pour the water from the drinking points for the horses over you to bring your temperature down ASAP.

  • The more people you ride with the more chances there are of things going wrong. It's certainly more fun though!

  • Listen on the training days during the workshops, you are being taught and told things for a reason. Especially the medical presentation, pay attention it could save your or another rider's life. The medics are not just around the corner on the steppe they can be many miles away.

  • You are going to have to make decisions all the way through the race. However, they are not all as superficial as which way to go and where to camp. You will have to make decisions as to your welfare Vs the horses and risks with penalties Vs your health. You may need to make decisions in regards to other riders well being and how to help them. Time penalties Vs camping out. There are so many decisions you will need to make, and quickly. Get used to making decisions and being accountable for them.

  • If two herders lead you and another rider out away from the horse line and station to let you go, get ready, you are about to be bolted off with pretty decent racehorses. Hold on tight and hope for the best

  • Never give up hope whilst camping. You need to stay strong.

  • Do not leave your horses loose and hobbled into the night. Hunting for them in the dark is impossible.

  • If you lose your horse in the dark a head torch or local herder will be required. Preferably the latter!

  • Remember even if you are camping out you will have a vet or crew member come and check your horse's heart rate. Look after the horses.


The next related blog post "The Mongol Derby Day 9: The Day of Dysentery" can be found here.

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