Derby Diary #3


Derby Diary #3

The Equestrianists

Mongol Derby

…and they’re off!


Start camp survived, training rides tested, the riders line up on Day 1 of racing not knowing what the next ten days may bring. Some will crash and burn; some will persevere through hardships previously unimaginable; but each and every rider will come away with memories that will sustain them for the rest of their lives.

Leslie Wylie: “If post time at the Kentucky Derby were a polite tea party, the start of the Mongol Derby would be a stein-smashing bar brawl. All around me, mayhem: 42 white-knuckled, steel-faced riders mounted up on tiny horses with steam blowing out their ears, the most civilised among them skittering around like popcorn while others spun like tops or flat bolted through the crowd.

These were the descendants of Mongolian warhorses and for all they knew we were charging off into battle, having missed the memo that Chinggis Khan’s mighty empire fell several centuries ago. In the final moments before the race a couple riders were still endeavouring just to climb into the saddle, their mounts issuing a buck-spin the moment they put their foot in the stirrup despite the herders trying to hold them down.

We’d been randomly issued horses for the first leg of the 28-leg race. Mine was midnight black and moved with a cocky mob-boss swagger, and I wanted desperately to stay on his good side. Ed Fernon, an Australian Olympic pentathlete whom I’d gotten to know on the six-hour bus ride to start camp, pointed out that I’d drawn the winner of the Naadam children’s race that had been our afternoon entertainment the day before. So he was basically a kid’s pony, right? Surely I could handle that. As the countdown began I lingered near the back, hoping to avoid fallout from the frontline and just run with the pack for a while.

Derby chief Katy Willings, who throughout the race somehow always managed to look like a glamorous starlet on an African safari holiday, counted us down. Three, two, one…My horse lunged forward, haunches gathered underneath him like a genetically mutant greyhound. I chucked him the reins, figuring he could better navigate the pandemonium without my amateur-hour input. He hung back for a few strides, apparently did a few quick physics calculations in his head, and then surged ahead, deftly manoeuvring his way through the frantic horde. We gained speed and seemed to get lower to the ground with each horse we passed, until suddenly we were out front and somehow still gaining speed.

This was NOT part of the plan.

This is how not part of the plan it was: I didn’t even have my Garmin GPS navigator turned on, figuring I wouldn’t need it for the first few legs as we’d just be going with the flow. Now, with a growing gap between myself and the field, dozens of riders following my lead and tears streaming from my eyes from the wind, I had only the vaguest sense of what direction we were supposed to be heading. I pulled the navigator out and punched its buttons haphazardly, trying to pull up the correct track. Finally a disembodied arrow showed up, hovering meaninglessly over a grey screen. Not helpful.

I yelled back to the nearest rider, who happened to be Ed: “Dude! You gotta keep up! I don’t know where I’m going!” Between me pulling back and Ed kicking on we sprinted along together for a solid chunk of the leg, him yelling directives while I veered wildly in a number of directions, most of them incorrect. The steppe landscape is deceptively difficult to navigate, an undulating carpet of seafoam green in every direction with maybe a hazy mountain in the distance to aim for if you’re lucky.

A handful of riders eventually caught up and we arrived at the first horse station together, where a vet checked our horses’ heart rates (they had to be below 56 within half an hour of arriving), hydration, gut sounds, soundness and overall condition. If they weren’t up to par on any front, riders received a time penalty in accordance, to be served at one of two penalty urtuus later in the race. Horse welfare is at the forefront of the Derby, and the penalty system is in place to encourage good horsemanship throughout.

My horse sailed through vet check like a champ and I headed up to the gers, where the host family had set out boiled water and food, in this case a giant vat of fried noodles. I scarfed down an entire plate, not caring in the least that other riders were already mounted up and heading out on leg #2. At least I know what’s important in life: carbs.

After I’d eaten, refilled my hydration pack and sorted my GPS woes, I wandered out to peruse the next batch of equines. Riders were allowed to select their own mounts, first come first serve, and I felt like a kid in a candy shop eyeballing several dozen horses of all shapes and colours. Before I could make a decision a Mongolian girl, maybe 13 years old, took me by the arm and led me excitedly to a wild-eyed, giraffe-necked chestnut. “Choo!” she said, making a gesture like a rocket ship. The infinite wisdom of horse-crazy teenage girls cannot be denied: Sold!

Climbing aboard was a bit nerve-wracking — as soon as I got a leg over the horse leapt into the air — and when the herder let go we were off to the races, literally. The horse bolted with blinding speed, his head practically in my lap; I could have been steering him by his ears. I had zero brakes as he took off into the great unknown, zooming past a couple of riders immediately. All I could do was hold my breath as he nimbly leapt and dodged the knee-deep marmot holes that claim so many Derby contenders every year.”

Read more on Leslie’s adventure during the Mongol Derby on Eventing Nation –

Erin Nagle: “I remember waking up on starting day oddly calm, zero pre-show nerves. I weighed-in my gear quick and easy and was ready to go when the torrential downpour hit. My ger was called first to mount up and I got a super calm little chestnut. We just hung out to the side while everyone mounted up. By the time we were ready to line up I was soaked to the bone. Apparently the term “water-proof” has alternate meanings. When the start gun fired my little red horse grew a set of wheels and we were off! I was right next to Ben and Linda and I remember Ben looking at me saying, “Ww made it off the start line!” I yelled back to him over the thundering of hooves and pouring rain, “Now to HS1!”

Then, complete black out. I was on the ground with a mouth full of blood. I had no idea what just happened. I was on all fours doing a quick body scan to make sure all my limbs were still intact. I still couldn’t see a thing but I heard Ben next to me. I asked if my teeth were still there and he said yes. I asked if my nose was broken and he said, “Uhhh I think so”. But you don’t need your nose to ride so sputtering blood, I made a sad attempt to stand up, and another sad attempt to yell to someone to go get my horse. The Intrepid Medics showed up faster than my vision returned and much to my dismay, they told me there was no way I was getting back on a horse. Turns out my horse and I went head-first into the ground from a full gallop. He did a wonderfully acrobatic somersault and body slammed me on the way down. Whether it was a dreaded marmot hole, the slick mud or just an unfortunate misstep, I’ll never know. Ben and Linda were able to catch my horse and event manager Erik rode him to a nearby family for a full vet check up (the horse was cleared and his owner came and picked him up).

The medics brought me back to camp, taped me up and we hit the road – eight hours on a bumpy dirt road in-fact. I was bleeding all over the place, hooked up to an IV with the medics giving me shots and pain meds. I got to the hospital and they wheeled me around at top speed for CT scans and full body X-rays. By some magical stroke of luck, I only managed a broken nose, bloodied face, a couple of slightly fractured ribs, and some shot nerves. I was convinced I was going to go back out and if you know just how relentless I am, you won’t be surprised that I did, but not after a strict 2 day observation and clearance by doctors.

Once I was finally cleared to leave I was picked up in a luxurious Prius and whipped back out to the steppe. I quickly realised sleeping on the ground was going to be a real problem with a busted rib cage but I didn’t come all this way for nothing. I woke up the next morning with my face so swollen I could barely get my contacts in but I did, and I saddled up.”

Photo credits: Ian Haggerty and Erik Cooper

The Derby attracts riders from all disciplines and from all walks of life. For some, it is the culmination of a lifetime of adventures, and for others, it’s the kicking-off point for greater things to come.

Will Gunning: “I had never done anything like this before. I had done demanding hikes and climbed mountains but until the Derby, I hadn’t even travelled by myself. Getting picked for a 1,000km horse race in Mongolia rocketed me to being an adventure junkie (in my own mind, anyway). The biggest attraction for me was to be able to ride and race horses across an amazing landscape. These animals’ endurance is amazing and something I’ll never be able to explain or forget. The Mongolian people are amazing; I wish I had a better word to describe them, but they are. Always smiling and happy, generous, and welcoming. By the end of the race, I realizsd that all you need is food, fresh water, and love from your family. That’s all it seems the Mongolian herdsmen needed. They were all so happy.

We were delayed at the start of the race while they sorted out some tech issues, so when we did start, the feeling of the adventure and speed of the horses I chose made the whole first day unforgettable. I also can’t forget the moments I had with some individual riders, the stories we shared, and things we learned about each other. Kathy Gabriel, Karrin O’Loughlin and Rocking Rod Herman – just to name a few – some of the best conversations I have ever had.”


Devon Horn: “I remember swinging up onto a blood bay gelding with a split ear for the start, and my heart beating so quickly that I couldn’t breathe. My hands were shaking on the reins and it seemed like the race would never start. I tried to keep my partner out of the fray as horses wheeled and kicked, milling around the start line. Suddenly, a rider to my left slumped off his horse in a dead faint. I just knew I’d be next.

The medics sorted out the fallen rider (nerves!) and his horse was caught. Suddenly, someone started a countdown, and my horse bunched underneath me. Wait. Wait a second. What’s happening? My heart’s going to give out. Nope. It’s done. The thunder of hooves across the step and my gelding swinging into a beautiful ground eating lope. My brain frantically trying to catch up. What had just happened? Ah. We’d started the World’s Toughest Horse Race.

After a few miles, I fumbled my GPS out and veered my mount off from the pack. We settled into his pace and went off on our own into the wilds, crossing a low river, and skirting farmlands until being stonewalled by a mountain pass. All the way up and all the way down, I kicked myself for going off alone. “You’ll be the last place rider into station 1,” I berated myself. “You should have stuck with everyone for the first leg, at least.” Station 1 was deserted by the time I came in, bay gelding happily grazing as I unpacked him. Morosely, I asked Maggie, “How far back am I?” And she said the magic words:

“You’re first in.”

The Equestrianists

Mongol Derby