December 1, 2020

Category: Mongol Derby

I Came, I Swam, I photographed


This may be the world’s longest, toughest horse race but it’s really a full-on cultural immersion. It’s an opportunity for the riders to surround themselves with a world that exists beyond the boundaries of city streets and trendy shops. The riders come face-to-face with Mongolian culture in ways they could never have dreamed, and in the process, often make unexpected but fantastic connections. Somewhere out there is a Mongolian family with some photographic mementos from a rider who passed by:

Brooke Warton ~ “My favorite Mongol Derby 2018 moment was when I got into an urtuu (horse station) relatively early, yet too late to ride out and make it to the next one. The vet had to leave and I was left on my own with a wonderful herder family. After they fed me, there were a few hours of daylight left, so I started taking pictures of the horses. This turned into the family wanting pictures taken of each of them holding their favorite horses or with their little kids on horses. It was a two hour photo session. I made sure to get the family’s information, and I was able to print the pictures and send them back with the Derby crew the next year.

The generosity of the herders and their families stood out the most to me. It didn’t matter if they were part of the Mongol Derby or not, they were always so welcoming and friendly, and they would offer you anything they had. I’ve never met a more generous culture. Anytime a herder wanted to suggest a horse for me, I took their recommendation because I thought it was a compliment when they wanted to pick one for me.”


To Swim or Not To Swim…Cozy’s story highlights the navigational conundrums that riders often face in the heat of the Derby:

Cozy (Campell Costello) ~ “It was about day 7 and Ben De Rivaz and I were trying to catch Will Grant, our American companion. We’d fallen behind a few days ago, and our day had been heavy with adventure, but we’d been making good time. As we approached our next checkpoint, Ben and I were ecstatic. According to our GPS, the next horse station was just 2km over the hill. We had time on our side and planned to get a quick meal, relieve ourselves, select some new horses and crack on to the next checkpoint. It had been a hot day but we were in high spirits as we approached the top of the ridge. As we summited the ridge, we could see the gers in the distance. The problem was the ridge was in fact the bank of a river.

Our hearts dropped. I kicked my steed on to assess the stream for possible crossings. After two hours of traversing up and down the river, nothing. I’d fallen into a deep channel of marsh and was soaked, and it was getting cold. Ben’s horse wouldn’t move and just stood in ankle deep marsh whilst I continued searching. I rode down to the bank where I thought the best crossing spot was. At that point Helen the head vet had come down in her car to the opposite side of the bank. “What are your guys’ plans?”, she screamed across the water. “What are our options?” I replied. “Well you either cross now as you’re approaching curfew for riding hours. Or you ride 20kms back to a bridge and ride 20kms back here and we’ll see you tomorrow.” I turned to Ben, “I’m not doing a 40km round trip to reach a checkpoint that is currently less than a kilometer away.” Ben nodded. “Let’s swim this bitch.”

Ben’s horse wouldn’t lead or cross anyway we approached. Our plan was that I would breach the watercourse first and he would follow behind. If his horse would not go, he would ride back to the bridge and do the round trip. It was an emotional time as Ben and I had been riding the entire Derby together. We embraced in case Ben’s horse didn’t follow me and we were forced to separate. I urged my horse on. He sniffed the water and leapt into it. We started swimming and I turned around to look at Ben. His horse was pacing on the spot, mustering the desire to leap. “C’mon, c’mon” I muttered under my breath and no sooner had I said that, Ben’s horse leapt into the water. We were doing it. I’d taped all my electronics to my upper arms and helmet to try and keep them dry. My entire saddle and saddlebag were both submerged. I tried swimming alongside my horse but the saddle started to rotate with the current, so I kept my toes in the up-current stirrup and kicked myself along with my other foot. My valiant steed powering on through the river. All of a sudden. I felt him getting his footing and we ascended the bank on the other side, water pouring out of every piece of clothing and tack that I had. I turned to Ben and saw that they too had crossed the river. We were ecstatic and turned to the cheers of Helen and her Mongolian comrades.

The Mongolians were impressed by the swim. They handed us a beer and we trotted the last 600 meters into the next vet checkpoint, giggling like little schoolgirls, soaked, but full of adrenaline. There’s not many memories that stick with you in life, nor people you bond with during testing times, but for me this is a story I’ll never forget.”

Photos by Richard Dunwoody