After a two year absence, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, The Mongol Derby, was run twice this year to make up for lost time due to Covid. The first race in July was won by American Deirdre Griffith and South African Willemein Jooste, but the second edition had a more homely feel to it with two Mongolians amongst the strong starting pack.
Based on the ancient horse messenger system used by Genghis Khan, in a country where the horse is king, at 1000km the Mongol Derby is the toughest test on the planet for equestrian endurance riders. Whilst horses are changed roughly every 35km at checkpoints strung out throughout the country, riders must endure being in the saddle for up to 200km a day and face the challenges of riding over 28 different semi-wild horses, with varying temperaments and bucking abilities, the inevitable falls and mishaps that happen along the way and navigating through challenging terrain, from giant sand dunes to freezing mountain passes.
The thirteenth Mongol Derby kicked off on the 10th of August with a truly international field: 46 riders, from 12 different nations. Swede rider Olof Sundstrom taking the early lead on day one.
Whilst the weather changed on day two, from blistering sunshine to near freezing rains, the lead didn’t. Then disaster befell the leader on day three, as Olof awoke to find his horse missing. He’d chosen to camp out alone to gain extra riding time, rather than spending the night at one of the horse stations. In this scenario riders “hobble” their horses (loosely connecting their front legs together with rope to prevent them being able to roam too far), but Mongolian steeds have a knack of managing to hop away, as Olof found out. Whilst herders found the Swede’s horse, he had to hitch a ride to the next horse station and sit out a two hour penalty, his lead gone. By the end of the day eight riders were vying for the lead, spread out between horse stations 9 and 10.
Day four brought rain — a lot of it — which meant a new set of challenges for competitors, but not enough to separate anyone from the leading pack.
Day five saw two riders drop away from the leading group, with six making it to horse station 17 together. American and Mongolian riders where showing particularly well with the six made up of Abbi Bell (USA), Bilegbat Erdensukh (Mongolia), Callie King (USA), Erdene-Ochir Uuganbayar (Mongolia) Rochelle Latka (USA) and Victoria Wang (China).
The morning of day six presented a new twist for the Mongol Derby. Station 17 was a “lottery station”. Normally riders get to pick their horses from a line-up, first come first served, but at lottery stations (as used throughout the Gaucho Derby – an epic Patagonian race with pack horses, also run by Mongol Derby organisers The Equestrianists) riders have to ride what they’re given.
“This levels the playing field somewhat, and, to be frank, makes the whole thing a damn sight more exciting as a spectator sport,” described Tom Morgan, founder of The Equestrianists.
Despite an initial fall from Rochelle Latka, on a particularly lively steed, the first lottery station did little to separate the riders up front, with the Mongolians local skills coming in handy when Erdene-Ochir’s stirrup leather snapped and the two men (riding together) managed to fashion a replacement from a goat leather lead rein.
Stations 19 and 20 were also lottery stations. Riders are allowed two picks and can swap their first horse for another if they’re not happy with their initial decision. Both Abbi Bell and Victoria Wang took advantage of this after their first picks were a little too “spirited”, opting for safer, but perhaps slower, rides. This saw them both fall behind the leaders, as did Rochelle Latka, leaving just American Callie King in joint lead with the two Mongolians at horse station 21.
Day seven saw Callie sneak ahead of the Mongolians, with Erdene-Ochir finally hitting the deck as he was thrown off a particularly acrobatic livewire, proving even the locals can get caught out. He quickly made up for his mistake by rapidly catching Callie, before overtaking her to take the lead into the evening, with Callie just ahead of Bilegbat, Victoria and Rochelle.
With only three legs of racing left on the final day (at least for those at the head of the race), riders were on edge. Little separated the top five and everyone wanted to ride fast, if they pushed too hard however they risked getting a penalty (added time at the end) if their horse’s heart rate didn’t drop quickly enough, which, at this stage in the race, would inevitably mean throwing away any chance of a win.
In the end it was the Asian riders who got this fine balance right, with Erdene-Ochir Uuganbayar managing to keep hold of his overnight lead and 19-year-old Bilegbat Erdensukh and Victoria Wang crossing together in joint second, Callie King taking a very well fought fourth place.
“It’s brilliant for the race to get its first outright Mongolian win and I hope riders from around the world continue to get inspired by The Mongol Derby,” Tom Morgan said. “Life in general is overtly manicured, we need a bit of toughness and chaos to dig deep and find out what we are really capable of.”
Comments from the finish line:
28 years old
Current City/State/Country of residence
Mongolia, Tuv province, Altanbulag soum, 2nd bag
What was it like crossing the finish line as the winner of the world’s toughest horse race?
“I’ve never crossed a finish line like this before so I never knew what that was like. When people welcomed me with cheers, milk and a Khadag (ceremonial scarf), it was amazing. I thought to myself how wonderful Mongolian culture and tradition is. The most beautiful moment was when I was coming in through the banners. I have never competed in a big international competition like this before, so winning this is truly an honour and brings me great pride. I think of it as one big lucky strike in the one life that was granted to me.”
Do you have a favourite memory from the race that you could tell us about?
“It was the times I spent with the other amazing racers from overseas. We communicated with each other using body language and hand gestures. If we (the Mongolian riders) were also abroad, we would’ve faced all the challenges they were going through in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. So helping them along the way, using hand gestures to communicate with each other, was the most memorable moment for me.”
You had such a positive attitude for the entirety of the race. How did you keep your spirits high even through adversities?
“Throughout the race I thought to myself how wonderful it would be if we all treated each other so nicely, kindly and with a big smile. I am a man who always has a smile on their face. I thought to myself that we as Mongolians should show the world that we are people with joy and happiness on our faces, not melancholy or anger. They probably wonder what we are like.”
You rode a few legs with Bilegbat, the one other Mongolian competitor. How was it being able to ride together?
“Riding with Bilegbat was great, we used to talk about crossing the finish line together but unfortunately he received a 4 hour penalty at station 22. He said to me it would be ridiculous to wait for him for 4 hours, so I rode on. I didn’t think to compete with Bilegbat, but rather wanted to bring fame and glory to my country Mongolia, to cross the finish line showing our way of life that is so intertwined with our horses and animals. It was awesome riding with Bilegbat, he is very talkative and we discussed every topic during our rides together. We became very close and had many discussions.”
There were a lot of new things you had to learn for this race including the navigation systems and the vetting process. How was that? Is there anything you learned during the race that you will keep with you?
“What I learned is how to use a GPS, which I’ve never used before. GPS shows you a direct way, which was a bit difficult. When I followed the GPS direct line, there would mountain after mountain. When you cross over many mountains, your horse wouldn’t go eventually. But I learned my lesson in the end. Instead I used the topography map and tried riding through the open plain. Otherwise, there would be mountains. Horses wouldn’t really go over rocky hilly terrains no matter what. English is definitely needed when riding with other fellow riders to understand each other. I learned a few words and phrases from my fellow riders.
I’ve learned several sentences and phrases that I can use when meeting with foreign people, which I’m keeping to use later. As Mongolians we’ve never listened to the heart rates of the horses, we only ride them when we need to, but in truth we should calm the horses when we reach our destination. From the race and vet check, I’ve learned to keep the horses calm and to love them. In the future I’ll be keeping these vet parameters, as I love my horses.”
JOINT SECOND PLACE
31 years old
Current City/State/Country of residence, City/State/Country you are originally from and what’s your link to New Zealand?
I currently live in Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand. I am originally from Beijing, China.
“I was working and living in New Zealand for around 5 years, but none of my family is living in New Zealand – everyone is back home in Beijing.”
It’s the world’s toughest horse race for a reason — what was the toughest part for you? Can you describe a moment where you really had to pull through either mentally or physically?
“The toughest part for me was the pre-race preparation before flying out to Mongolia – it was like a mental torture sometimes. The Mongol Derby is not something you see or experience every day, so I did not have any clue whether my preparation was in the right way or not. I tried to contact the previous riders for tips or to study the YouTube videos uploaded by other riders, but still I felt quite unsure and anxious all the time about the race. I made a training plan for myself, but every day I felt I hadn’t trained enough, so the three months before August I was always living in anxiety, and I had to convince myself that the gym work was progressing.
During the race I did experience some tough time, but not too bad. One moment I did not expect was between HS22 and HS23, I made a wrong horse selection and my horse parked half way – he wouldn’t move at all unless I got off and led him forward. It was about 12km away from HS23, and it was in the hottest time of the day. There were several big mountains in front of us. When I realised that I had to walk for the rest of the leg, I was a bit lost and did not know what to do. Luckily it didn’t take too long for me to get my brain to work again. I calculated the time and it wasn’t too bad, even if I walked to HS23, so then I accepted the reality and pulled myself together and started walking forward.”
There were several highs and lows in the race — what was your high?
“The highlight was riding a beautiful grey horse from HS25 to HS26. I spotted the horse because he was wearing a special halter, and then the herder led him out of the group and he just looked strong and fast. When I rode him out of the horse station I could not hold him at all. At one second I thought I was going to die because if I lost my balance and fell off at that speed I definitely will have some serious injury. Then he slowed down slightly and I got all the control back. He just kept going for the rest of the leg at an enjoyable speed, and remained in balanced movement. Very special horse.”
A lot of riders race to raise funds for a charity close to their hearts. Who was your charity and how did you decide to raise funds for them?
“There are three charities…
Steppe and Hoof, Mongolia (www.steppeandhoof.org)
Steppe and Hoof is set up to help herders and their animals in Mongolia. Without the local herders and the mighty Mongolian horses we could not enjoy the Mongol Derby at all, so they need to be looked after well.
HOPE Equestrian Therapeutic Centre, China (www.hopebeijing.org/english/home )
As a Beijing local, I hope that more people in China could get interested in horses, and that they can also understand that horses are not just for entertainment or competitions, sometimes horses can help the general public in their daily lives.
Beyond the Barriers, New Zealand (www.beyondthebarriers.co.nz/page/about )
They give retired racehorses a second career to develop and help them to find a good home after racing. Definitely plays an important role in the racing industry and I respect them a lot.”
What was it like crossing the finish line in second place of the world’s toughest horse race?
“It still feels unreal. I did not expect I could get the second place tie because there are so many riders who are more professional than I am. I would have been happy enough if I just completed the race without any penalties, so this result is like the icing on the cake.”
JOINT SECOND PLACE
19 years old
Current City/State/Country of residence
Mongolia, Tuv Province, Bayan Soum, 3rd bag
What excited you most about this race and the challenge that comes with it?
“The moment the race started and everyone bolted out of the start line was truly an exciting moment, I felt so many different feelings all at once. I thought to myself, “Wow, I guess this is how competitive and fast we’ll be competing throughout the race!” But I came to learn that that wasn’t the case at all. When it comes to moving from horse station to horse station, it’s mostly a game of who is smarter and more tactical. I had to learn to navigate, make sure the horses’ heart rate and physical well-being was sorted and also to let the vet know the horses’ scars and scratches. I always had to remind myself to not forget to do this.”
What is your background with horses? And what is your current day-to-day like?
“I was four years old when I first rode a horse and I was five when I competed for the first time in a horse race. I passed out on the horse during the race so I wasn’t able to place above 5th place. The second time I raced, there was really heavy rain and I got really hypothermic. An ambulance had to come and get me. A day in my life would be; in the summertime, I’d get up at 5am, work with my horses and graze them. From around 11am until 7pm, I’d just be outside tending to the horses, watering them, scraping their sweat, and at night I’d water them again and let them graze. My summers are usually spent outside with the horses, in the middle of the steppe.”
You were in last place after the first day of the race and made an incredible comeback, passing 10 people on the second day. Tell us how you kept your mind in the race and managed to pull off such an impressive feat.
“It didn’t feel difficult as I figured there was definitely an opportunity when I noticed how most of the riders weren’t far ahead of me.
When I found out I was in the lead I had much control. There wasn’t much need of staying in the stations for a long time. With only a cup of tea in my system I saved a lot of time, as opposed to the other riders who seemed to stay longer.”
What was it like crossing the finish line in second place of the world’s toughest horse race?
“Thinking back now, I think my excitement stole a lot of my recollection of how I crossed the finish line. I wasn’t fully aware of what I was doing but I remember crossing hand in hand with Victoria Wang as we understood each other through hand signs very well. When I stood up raising my hand she instantly got my intention and we trotted in together.”