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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

What in the world is the Mongol Derby?

Updated: Jun 7

The Mongol Derby,
The Mongol Derby,

You have heard me bleat on enough about it, but what on earth is the latest venture? Here is all the low down on the world's hardest, longest and most epic horse race in the world. Seems like a good enough reason to enter, right?


The worlds longest horse race.

The worlds toughest horse race.

1000 km across the steppes of Mogolia on semi wild horses that are not exactly accustomed to westerner's flappy rain jackets and big hats! There is no marked-out route, and it is up to the riders to navigate the wilderness of Mongolia by GPS unaided.

Riders select their own horses at stations positioned every 35-40km testing their horsemanship and ability to pick a winning horse. Select wrong and potentially ride the local moocher who is not up for speeding across the steppe or at the opposite end of the scale choose a feisty bucker that may leave you in a bog whilst he/she runs off with all your equipment.

It is the ultimate test of horsemanship and survival. Here is a taste of what occurs:

  • There are no home comforts, say hello to recycling changes of clothes, being wet one day yet dehydrated the next, probably catching a bug and not having a flushing toilet and being battered by horses that would rather not have you on their backs. All for a delightful 10 days.

  • Do you think you can ride for a long time? Good, now ride whilst also carrying your water, bed, clothing and medical provisions for 10 days.

Mongol Derby start line
  • Fall off? Great! Catch your horse (if you can get to them before they run off across the steppe) and attempt to get back on while they reenact the great escape.

  • Get hurt? Great! Get back on and get to the next horse stop, chances are there isn't anyone around to help. Only push the magic emergency button on the trackers in a serious leg hanging-off emergency.

  • Miss the end of the day cut-off to a horse station? Tough luck you are camping in the middle of nowhere with your horse. Pray to the Gods you don't get eaten by wolves.

  • Fall off and your horse takes off? Oh dear looks like you are walking to the next stop and riding bareback for the rest of the race.

  • Your tack breaks? You only get one set so best make it work. Enter cable ties and duct tape.

  • Get lost? Well, best get unlost and figure out that GPS.


Organised by the adventurists. Home of all the adventures and self-proclaimed chaos! If you are looking for an epic tale in your life then this is a good place to start given that their mantra is “fighting to make the world less boring.”

They now have a branch of world series horse racing events after the success of the Mogol Derby called the Equestrianists.


Mongolia, Asia. A country that is around twice the size of Texas, but with a population of 3 million people, it is the most sparsely populated fully sovereign country in the world.

Mongolias Location on the map
Mongolias Location on the map,

The course is based on the horse messenger system developed by Gengis Khan between 1158-1227. He led Mongolian forces in the conquest of vast areas of Central Asia and China. However, whilst he is mainly recalled for the death of tens of millions of people, Khan achieved the invention of the world’s first international postal service. In order to keep control of his vast empire, good communication was required across his ever-growing lands. To achieve this, couriers on horseback carried messages around Central Asia for epic distances.

“At the postal route’s zenith, a letter could cross from Kharkhorin in the east to the Caspian Sea on the far western edge of the empire, a distance of some 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometres), in two weeks (an average of about 300 miles, or 480 kilometres, a day).”

Ashleigh N. Deluca, National Geographic, August 7, 2014.

The relay structure of the course is to recreate the nature of the ancient system where messengers would change to a fresh horse at specific stops to continue their journey with haste. The course is reviewed each year and unveiled days before the race. No pre-planning here!

How long?

The winners usually complete this race in 7-8 days. The cut-off is 9 days if you want to be classed as an official finisher with bragging rights.

The Mongol Derby
Some of the beautiful scenery I expect to encounter on the 1000km Author Bianca Farmas - Griffith, Photo © The Adventurists via flickr
The Horses

A lot of people make the mistake of referring to the Mongolian horse as a pony due to the equine's height. At 12 to 14 hands, the animals are smaller than the thoroughbreds I am personally used to who tend to be 15 to 17 hands tall. However, what I can gather from watching the previous years races is the Mongolian horse appears to be tougher than anything I have ever ridden with a real "I got this" attitude.

The Mongolian horses are described as “half-wild,” with an inclination to bolt, buck and rear whenever they feel like it. A true unpredictable spirit.

Most riders that compete incur injuries as a result of various falls. From broken ribs and arms to fractured collar bones and legs. I am fully expecting to have my first-ever broken bone during this race.

Rearing horse
These aren't your usual European steeds! The Mongol Derby Facebook page.

Penalties and rules

There are many rules (I have received a handbook full of them) but here are the main ones:

  1. Look after the horses! Horse welfare is the Derby’s primary concern horses must all pass a vet check at each horse station in which the horse must be sound and meet a heart rate of 56 bpm. If the vet deems the horse has not been looked after the rider incurs a penalty or disqualification.

  2. Weight limits! Because the horses are small, riders can bring just 11-lbs of gear and cannot weigh more than 188 lbs. Dressed to ride.

  3. Respect the culture. There are a number of cultural ways of life that riders need to respect and remember when both in the country in general and in the race. Any disrespect to the locals or the culture will be heavily penalised.

  4. Cut offs. 7am - 7pm is riding time. Any moving of the GPS tracker outside of these times means penalties.

  5. NO HELP. Anyone having help will be penalised

  6. No hiding spare snacks in your knickers. Prior to receiving the handbook I was hoping to hide a few mars bars down my pants if I weighed less than the limit. Alas, this is not allowed and filled frisking will occur at weigh-ins.

Vet check
Horse welfare is the Derby’s primary concern. Richard Dunwoody/Mongol Derby

How do you apply?

This is the simple bit. You go to this link and fill in all the information.

How much is entry?

You pay $15,500 USD (£12,758.98) for the privilege of being on the back of temperamental horses, in the middle of nowhere, in foul weather for 10 days. (Price from 2022 application) However, to soften the blow this can be split into monthly payments if needed.

Bear in mind this doesn't include flights, insurance, kit, hotels on either side of the race and mandatory charity fundraising. So if like me you spend 10 years saving up to do the event make sure you save enough to cater for these bits too!

What is the selection process?

After you apply, if the event organisers like the sound of you and think you will be able to cope, you are put through a series of interviews with Derby Veterans and event organisers/founders who really know what it takes to stand a chance on completing this course. They will ask you about why you want to compete, your riding story and history, your hobbies outside of riding, how you keep fit, your lifestyle, how you will train, and your strengths and weaknesses. It is extensive and involved but the two people who interviewed me were lovely and also really helpful when answering my questions.

Top Tip! Have questions for these guys at the interview stage as you will have their undivided attention for a bit and it is always great to pick someone's brain on what they found hard on the race and what their advice is. Listen and take on board their advice!

As a general entry requirement riders must weigh no more than 85 kg (187 pounds) including clothing and provisions for the race and be physically fit. Camping, navigation and wilderness survival skills are vital so don't be surprised if the interviews deviate from riding and go into these too. After all, it is not just a trek through Mongolia! The care of the horses is the most important outcome of the race each year. Riders must have horsemanship skills and veterinary skills to ensure all the horses ridden are well looked after whilst in their care. Failure to do so will result in penalties and disqualification.

So, to qualify for a place you can not simply just be a rider. You have to be a rider capable of (or willing to learn fairly rapidly) veterinary, survival and navigation skills.

Once you have discussed all the above categories with the interviewers they make their selection. You will then be informed if you have been accepted or not. If you are successful you are thrown into a Facebook group with all the other muppets and sent a bible of wisdom on everything you need to know from fundraising to insurance.

Typical riders that have competed previously.

There is no stamp of a rider or formula for acceptance or completion. If you can demonstrate to the organisers that you can ride, are fit and capable of learning the required skills then you stand a good chance of being accepted. They look for variety. All ages, all nationalities, and all backgrounds. Some people may be bankers by day and ride at weekends, others may have a profession as work riders in racing yards, and some may be top event riders. I got the impression from my interviews that it was more down to you as a person than anything else and that you have to have a "can do" attitude and love a challenge. They want people that are going to enjoy and relish this experience, not people that are going to complain the entire time.

Bob riding
Bob Long racing across the Mongolian steppe to win during the 2019 Mongol Derby. MONGOL DERBY/SARAH FARNSWORTH

In terms of who finishes the race successfully, that is a bit of a lottery. As a rider, you only have limited control every time you sit on a horse of any description. I sometimes take this for granted and forget that you are in fact on an animal that could kill you in one fell swoop. In previous none equine adventure events I have partaken in I have managed to be fairly confident that with training and preparation, I will at least finish. With the Mongol derby that is not a given. The environment is unpredictable and nothing I have ever come across. I have hiked mountains and love the outdoors but 10 days in the blistering rain with limited food and shelter whilst being exhausted?... There is no way to prepare for that! It will have to rely on mental grit.

The horses are another variable. It only takes one horse at any stage in the race to have a dicky fit and one fall to take a rider out. Some falls you bounce back from with a few bruises and being sore the next day. However, some falls have horses land on you, kick you, and drag you along the floor until you successfully un-wedge your foot from the stirrup. There is no way of knowing if you will fall in the wrong way and break a limb. No way of knowing if you will fall and get knocked out. It is a variable that I can not fully prepare for. This is an area of the race that if it goes really wrong I am not guaranteed to get through it with mental grit. This is the first challenge I have ever partaken in where some things are well outside of my control.

How did I find out about this?

Every good story starts with an Irish man! My childhood Pony Dillon (very much still loved and owned by me) was bought from Linda Jewell and Paul at (then) Southfield stables back in 2012. Linda and Paul ran a racing yard at the time and Linda also had a passion for sourcing and selling Connemara ponies. Dillon was one of these ponies and I was fortunate enough to keep him at Southefild racing stables in amongst the hustle and bustle of the racing yard.

Jumping horse
Dillon, the childhood pony that is playing an integral part in training 19 years on!

As time went by Karen, Linda Jewell and Paul became my second family. I believe I have spent more time over the years at the stables than at my actual home! I got older, was trusted on the racehorses and my riding improved. Alongside this, I found my passion for OCR, sports adventures and a challenge, the full story to be found here on how this progressed. Whilst I was taking part in all these ridiculous sporting events Paul was always interested and would talk to me about how races and training were going. Most importantly he would ask what the next adventure was. He would very much spur me on to the next exciting thing around the corner. He would mention events such as the Newmarket Townplate, team chasing and the Golden Button Challenge. I would of course go home and read into these and think "there is no way I could do these, could I? However, one caught my eye. The Mongol Derby if I was going to potentially die from falling off a horse it had to be for the ultimate adventure and this was it. Paul had found something that I could not stop thinking about, something that made my stomach sink, my heart race and my face beam with excitement.

Is it safe?

Not really no. Each rider is given a GPS tracker so friends, family and anyone that really cares can follow you. However, it's also used in case things go really wrong and the organisers can come and find you before you pop your cogs.

Do you have to speak Mongolian?

As in any country that you are a guest in, it is good practice to try and speak the basics of the mother tongue. I do not speak Mongolian. I have not started to learn yet. Learning the basics will be a task for the 20 hours plane journey to Mongolia! I suspect a lot of communication will be via none verbal ques and a lot of pointing!

Where do you stay?

If you get to a horse station (urtuss) for the night you can stay in a yurt with a local family that has been vetted by the organisers. If you want to try and get more distance under your belt before the 7pm cut-off and get stuck between horse stations then you are camping. From reading previous competitors' memoirs this can range from sleeping in a goat shed to sleeping in the middle of nowhere with no roof over your head and hoping it does not rain.

Mongolian Ger
The epic ger of the Ulziibat family. Photo by Erik Cooper,

Is there a cash prize for the winner?

Nope! Finishers get medals and the top three get serious bragging rights. If you win...well you may as well be self-proclaimed lord of the horses.

So why am I doing this?
  • I have never looked at something online and had a deep churn of fear and a wave of excitement at the same time. It is hard to explain. For other events, I have been excited, but this is indescribable excitement combined with a lifestyle joy and true unknown adventure.

  • I never researched an event at first glance and have been enthralled for hours watching videos. Until now.

  • Stubbornness is a huge part of it. I had multiple riding instructors when I was younger tell me I was not very good. A few years ago I had a trainer (not at Karen and Lindas) say I was an average rider which stung a little bit as I like to think I am a bit better than that! So I suppose some of this is to try and prove to myself I am better than average.

  • I have never had an event I have not stopped thinking about at least once a week for 10 years. This has always been in the back of my mind and I still get the same overwhelming feeling of pure elation, fear and excitement when I think about it and look at previous race pictures and videos.

  • This is the epitome of a childhood dream coming true. 7-year-old horse mad me, would be so happy if she saw me now.

  • If you are willing to save up for something for 12 years that must be a sign you should do it right?

  • For the standard answer to this question, I am doing it to challenge and push myself further than previous events and to see how I will cope in a true, unscripted, unmarked, unaided adventure.

  • I am also doing it for the culture shock and education in how other walks of life on this planet live. Who knows I might become rather fond of Mongolia!

  • FUN! I love riding horses, it is the only part of my week when I totally shut down from all of life's stresses and am focused on the here and now. On the back of a horse, I am happy and at peace even if I have no control and subconsciously fearing for my life.

Mongolia scenery
Making memories. Photo by: Shari Thompson
What are the chances of completion?

Looking at previous years 50% is the average number of people that officially finish with a position.

Other competitors either do not finish due to injury or retirement or they are placed in the adventure category of the race. The adventure category is where people who can no longer race officially are placed, either due to time elapsed, rule-breaking, or having help from outside sources. An example would be if you fall off, your horse runs off and you get carried forward to the next station rather than walk or ride. You have had an advantage over other riders and likely will be put in the adventure category. Alternatively, some people like to opt for being put in the category to take the pressure off a bit and enjoy the race at a more leisurely pace! People in the adventure category are riding to finish the course rather than compete.

So there you have it. A true adventure I have a 50% chance of completing in 7 months. What's not to love!

More stunning scenery. Photographer unknown,

  • “World’s Toughest Horse Race Retraces Genghis Khan’s Postal Route.” Ashleigh N. Deluca, National Geographic, August 7, 2014.

  • “The Mongol Derby.” The Adventurists, undated.

  • How they play blog, "The Mongol Derby", RUPERT TAYLOR, MAY 21, 2022


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