Wylie vs. the Mongol Derby, Powered by SmartPak: The Race, Part 2 – That Time I Lost My Horse Forever

In August 2017 writer/rider Leslie Wylie conquered her most fearsome feat of #YOLO yet: a 620-mile race across Mongolia. Riding 27 semi-wild native horses. Carrying only 11 pounds of gear. Relying on nomads for food, water and shelter. On a mission to help stop deforestation.

Held Aug. 9-19, the Mongol Derby is widely regarded as the toughest horse race in the world. Inspired by the Genghis Khan’s original “pony express,” there’s no trail or set route, just 25 GPS checkpoints/horse exchange stations to hit over the course of 7-10 days. Now that Leslie is home she is recapping her ride of a lifetime! Click here to read previous stories in the series.

Leslie Wylie and Rebecca “Pixie” Pumphrey setting off into the icy monsoon. Photo by Julian Herbert/Mongol Derby.

Day 2

After a not-long-enough hold the next morning for weather …

… I rode out from my safe (unless you are a mouse) haven into blinding rain and a sub-zero windchill. It felt like we were galloping through a hurricane, with visibility reduced to a stride or two in front of us.

My horse was a great sport about it, pinning his wet ears flat to his head but trucking on obediently save the occasional dramatic spook. Unlike first-world horses, who’ll come apart at the seams over an out-of-place flower pot, at least when this horse gave something the stink-eye it was for good reason: a tendon-slicing heap of broken vodka bottles, a tangle of rusty barbed wire or an open pit full of Soviet-era car scrap. Once he suddenly jumped sideways to avoid a tripping over a dead horse that, with its empty eye sockets, half exposed jaw and rib cage jutting through rotting flesh, I half expected it to rise up zombie-style and chase after us.

Man, I could’ve used a cup of coffee this morning.

My horse and I both were shaking like leaves by the time we made it to horse station #4 mid-morning. I was the first rider in and after vetting out I hightailed it into the ger to warm up by the stove with some mutton noodle soup.

The Mongol Derby, as you’ve probably gathered by now, is not a normal race. I hesitate even to call it a “race”; it’s more like the Hunger Games on horseback. The challenges arrived in regular waves, like we were being watched from some control room by a game master whose job it was to keep the chaos coming. I imagined a panel of buttons representing various threats — cloud-to-ground lightning, wild dogs snapping at your feet, pit latrine full of midges (worse than lightning and wild dogs combined) — and some sociopath puppetmaster pushing them willy-nilly, laughing derangedly while watching us squirm.

In this case, the wrench in my plan for the day was the fact that the next horse station no longer existed.

“Horse station #5 blew over,” veteran vet and event team manager Cozy Campbell shrugged. “The horses have all run off. You may get there and have to wait an hour or two, or it might be down the rest of the day.”

I took the news as a sign to hang out for a while and defrost. Hypothermia was the running theme of the day, taking out one American rider and putting another few on medical hold. As a domesticated creature whose natural habitat is a steaming hot bubble bath, I knew my limits. Cozy handed me a cookie made of yak lard or something. “Eat this,” he said. “It’s basically pure fat. You need it for warmth.”

I mean, who am I to argue with THAT logic? My Mongol Derby weight-loss plan wasn’t off to a great start, but hey, there was still time. Maybe I’d go home with a tapeworm. Fingers crossed!

After a while Ed, the Aussie Olympic pentathlete I began the race with, came blazing into the horse station, accompanied by tough-nut Kiwi Marie Palzer and British sassypants Rebecca “Pixie” Pumphrey. Ed and Marie took one look at me with my hand in a basket of stale sweet rolls and saw their opportunity to steal the lead — if horse station #5 was down, they’d just deal with it when they got there. Pixie’s priorities, on the other hand, were more in line with my own. She joined me in the ger as the two suckers she’d ridden in with thundered back out into the storm.

I admired Pixie from the start. British Airways lost all her luggage, including her riding kit and gear, but she’d kept her chin up despite the setback. It’s hard to convey how much effort Derby riders put into distilling a 10-day supply of survival gear — sleeping bag, first aid kit, utility kit, change of clothes — into a 5K limit saddle bag. Despite a running joke that all I was packing was nine pounds of duct tape and a bottle of my horse’s muscle relaxers, my own gear was meticulously calculated down to the ounce, the result of months of trial-and-error and neurotic list-making. I couldn’t imagine being in Pixie’s shoes, all that preparation out the window. She had to start from scratch in Ulaanbaatar, assembling a new kit from other riders’ spares (I made her a care package of riding clothes), but if she was losing her cool over it she never let it show.

After stalling at the horse station a while, Pixie and I mounted up and rode out together. We were a good match in the saddle, especially when mounted on horses with matching zoom-zoom personalities. We never caught Ed and Marie but had a grand time nonetheless throughout the day, chitchatting about life, taking proper noodle breaks at every opportunity and yet still somehow magically gaining on the leaders …

… and maintaining perfect vet card marks.

Over the course of 13.5 hours that day I blew threw four and a half legs, three of them with Pixie, totalling well over 100 miles. The diversity of the landscapes we traversed was stunning — lush green river valleys, otherworldly sand dunes, mountains ablaze in sunset light. We squealed like little kids galloping through herds of sheep and goats and paused in awe on ridgetops, gazing out on a land unsullied by the western value system.

In the western world, boundaries are a deeply embedded part of our culture. Not only do we build fences around our houses, we crisscross our interior landscapes with them, constantly driven to compartmentalize every aspect of our lives: this vs. that, mine vs. yours, us vs. them. We construct barriers within and around ourselves out of a desire to feel protected and in control, only to find ourselves isolated and hemmed in. How would our lives look without those fences?

On the steppe, there are no fences; property ownership does not exist. The notion of “home” is redefined by the nomadic culture, where permanence is not located in a place but in the self. This idea would become a mantra for me throughout the Derby: my body is my home, my heart an extension of the vast wilderness unfurling in every direction around me.

Day 3

Speaking of bodies, after two days of riding at speed for hours on end, I was feeling pretty creaky. I limped gingerly out of the ger on day three, my clothes still clammy from the day before, and had to give myself a little pep talk before climbing aboard my first horse of the day.

Seven legs down, only 21 left to go!

It was a pretty pitiful pep talk, but to be honest I didn’t have much to work with. I was sore, I was cold, and there was still a whole lot of race in front of me.

The boy’s club of Barry Armitage and Jakkie Mellet, both of South Africa, and Australians Greg Chant and Warren Sutton had caught up with Pixie and I the night before and we all rode out together, despite a bit of squabbling at the horse line. Group dynamics in the Derby are touchy — there are lots of “strong” personalities in the mix, and at the top of the field competitiveness is cutthroat. Riding together can be a tactical advantage, harnessing herd mentality to keep the horses going, but an alliance’s true colors only show when things go pear-shaped.

Which is what happened about midway through our first leg of the day, when Pixie’s horse developed a sudden habit of bolting violently to the left. She got spun off on first offense, acquiring a tough-looking face full of mud, and eventually resigned herself to getting off and walking him to the next horse station. The boy’s club continued on but I hung back to walk in with Pixie.

It’s amazing how quickly your defenses develop during the Derby. Between unpredictable horses and rugged terrain, your senses had to maintain constant vigil. My heart was in my throat everytime I put my foot in the stirrup, knowing that within the next split-second I’d find myself either in the saddle or on the ground. My galloping position quickly evolved from a shiny, happy hover to “gonna take a bomb to dislodge me from this horse” defense mode. Even on the best behaved horses, it wasn’t a matter of if but when your horse was going to hit the deck, and you needed to be prepared to ride them down to the ground and back up again at any moment, at any speed.

At horse station #8, I pulled the plug on my first-pick horse, a scrappy-looking chestnut stallion, when he stood up on his hind legs and pawed the air for what seemed like five minutes straight to avoid bridling. Scanning the line for a second draft, a stunning blue roan caught my eye. Thus far I’d tried to steer clear of pretty horses, gravitating instead toward rough-and-tumble allycat-looking types, but this one was downright sexy: the color of a summer thunderstorm, with eyes like a film noir detective and striking triangle brands on his shoulder and hindquarters.

He stood stock still while I mounted him, cantered out of the station like a gentleman, and by 10K in had me convinced that he was not just a good-looking creature but a rational one as well, perhaps even with a code of ethics. That’s when I made a rookie error that would haunt me for the rest of the Derby: I decided to — wait for it! — dismount and take off my raincoat.

Game over. Horse: 1, human: 0. Thanks for playing. Goodbye! 

He bolted even before my feet hit the ground. I managed to keep hold of his lead rope but after a few feet of being dragged across the rocks on my stomach it slipped out of my grasp. I jumped up and watched in disbelief as my Mongolian dream pony disappeared over a ridge, never to be seen again.

Literally, we never saw him again.

The brilliant thing about the Derby is that it’s structured to allow riders the freedom to get in heaps of trouble, but if things go too far (for instance: if we get injured or our horse runs away forever) we can press a button for help. There’s a penalty attached, of course, but sometimes your options are limited. Not wanting to spend the next week of my life searching for my lost horse on foot, I reckoned that this was a button-press situation.

Sweet Pixie insisted on hanging out with me until help arrived, and sending her away was even sadder than losing my horse. We’d been a dream team, and at this rate it seemed unlikely that I’d catch back up to her before the finish line.

After a while a couple Land Cruisers full of crew came to my rescue. When I told them my horse had buggered off, Cozy leaned out the window with a tube of Pringles. “Eat this,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”

Cozy is so wise.

We drove around for a while searching and dispatched some herders on motorcycles to scout out the area, but my horse — along with all my stuff, which was attached to him — was clearly long gone.

They drove me back to station #8, where I hid out in the ger to avoid the parade of riders passing through.

I was comforting myself with some sweet rolls when race ref Maggie Pattinson walked in and made me an offer so terrible I couldn’t resist: I could ride on, using an extra saddle that had shown up at the station, just one catch … it just didn’t have stirrups.

At that point anything seemed like a better option than sitting around feeling sorry for myself. I asked the translator to explain my situation to the herders: If I was going to be riding 40k without stirrups, I needed a horse that wouldn’t be trying to assassinate me the entire way. One herder pulled a plain looking grey horse off the line and, to prove its sanity, not only vaulted on but proceeded to stand up on the horse’s back as well. I’ll take him! And with that, I was back in the hunt.

It turned out to be the most beautiful leg of the Derby, the path unwinding like a ribbon through a green valley rimmed with pastel-blue peaks. Questions tugged at my sleeve — would I be able to walk after 25 miles without stirrups? what would I do without my gear? — but I brushed them aside. No use wasting energy on things you can’t control.

Galloping along I felt light and weirdly unhinged, like a balloon cut loose from its string. What did I need that I didn’t already have? My body is my home. My heart is free.

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