Photograph by Charles van Wyk, The Adventurists
Published August 6, 2014
Before most of the world woke up this morning, 47 riders from around the globe had saddled half-wild horses and set out on what the Guinness Book of World Records has called the longest equestrian race on Earth.
The goal—beyond not getting seriously injured—is to ride a 621-mile circuit (1,000 kilometers) of Mongolian steppe in less than ten days.
Fewer than half of the riders are expected to make it across the finish line. The rest will either quit or be carried off the course by the medical team. Broken bones and torn ligaments are common, frustration and bruised egos the norm. Every rider will fall off multiple times during the course of the race, says Katy Willings, the race chief and a former Mongol Derby competitor.
The race route is modeled on the horse relay postal system created under Genghis Khan in 1224, which was instrumental in the expansion of the Mongolian Empire. Guided by a local escort, specially appointed postal riders would gallop more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to a morin urtuu, or horse relay station, where another escort would be waiting with a fresh horse.
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 kilometers), in two weeks (an average of about 300 miles, or 480 kilometers, a day). Postal riders continued to deliver the mail until 1949, when the Soviet Union—which then controlled Mongolia—shut down the system in an attempt to erase the history of Genghis Khan from the country.
"The horse stations were not permanent but rather a responsibility that rotated so that each family provided the compulsory service for a month each year or two," explains Dandar Gongor, 86, a former escort. From the age of 12 to 15, he carried the riders' mailbags while navigating them to the next horse station.
"You would meet all sorts of people," he says, referring to the postal riders. "Some were kind and would tell you folk stories while you rode. Others were arrogant and mean. We would let the next urtuu supervisor know what kind of people they were, and this would help him decide if [the postal rider] would be given a well-behaved or difficult horse."
According to the Adventurists, the United Kingdom-based company that created the race in 2009, the course changes about 25 percent from year to year. One of the main concerns is ensuring there are enough reliable water sources along the route.
Would-be competitors submit a written application and are interviewed by phone. There is a $13,122 (U.S.) race fee, which covers the cost of the horses, medical and veterinary support, GPS and tracking devices for each rider, interpreters, vehicles, and pre-race training.
Aside from selecting the riders, the Adventurists also take care in choosing each individual horse for the race. The Mongol herders have introduced the horses to the feel of a bridle and saddle, but the animals are far from broken and are quick to buck or bolt.
This year more than a thousand horses were needed. The herders who own the horses are paid for each horse they supply. The Adventurists declined to answer how much each herder is paid per horse but claim that these payments are "a massive part of the families' general income."
A few days before the race, the riders are required to attend a pre-Derby training session where their abilities are assessed by Western and Mongolian equestrian experts. The riders also receive a detailed map of the area, a GPS, and a spot tracker, which is required to be attached to their person rather than to their horse in case they are thrown.
The spot tracker lets race officials know where each rider is at all times in case of emergencies and allows race watchers to follow the competitors' progress online. Each GPS is programmed with the coordinates for each of the 25 horse stations, which are spread 25 miles (40 kilometers) apart.
Riders must stop at each station and switch horses to prevent injury or exhaustion of their mounts. "This is not an endurance race for the horses," explains Willings. And just like in Genghis Khan's time, local Mongolian families manage each urtuu, providing food and sleeping arrangements for the riders.
Further complicating the challenge, the widely varied Mongolian landscape is difficult to prepare for: high passes, wooded hills, river crossings, wetlands and floodplains, sandy semiarid dunes, rolling hills, and dry riverbeds, as well as the famous wide-open grasslands. Of course, all of this terrain is navigated while adjusting to the erratic temperaments of a new semiwild horse every 25 miles.
It is much more a mental challenge than it is a physical one, Willings says. "I think anyone can cope with anything for a weekend," she says, "but over ten days, you get buffeted by good and bad fortune a lot."
Though the riders are allowed to abuse their own bodies in any way they see fit, the Adventurists take extra precautions to ensure the safety of the horses. Before the competition begins, the riders are weighed wearing their riding clothes, an empty pack, and an empty water container, while holding their Mongolian saddle and bridle; in total they cannot weigh more than 187 pounds (85 kilograms). They are allowed an additional 11 pounds (5 kilograms) in their packs after being weighed.
When a horse and rider arrive at an urtuu, a veterinarian will check the horse's metabolic conditions, hydration, physical soundness, and heart rate. The Mongol Derby uses the endurance heart rate standard of the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the governing body of equestrian sports, which mandates that a horse's heart rate must return to no more than 64 beats per minute within 30 minutes of stopping. If the horse's heart rate does not return to 64 bpm by this time, the rider receives a two-hour penalty.
Race organizers take these rules seriously. Last year, the rider who crossed the finish line first was penalized two hours because her horse's heart rate didn't return to the 64 beats maximum in the allotted time, and the second rider to finish—Lara Prior-Palmer—ended up with the winning time.
These kinds of rules force the riders to keep their horses' welfare first. "The race is based on Genghis Khan's idea, but our execution is much more modern and, dare I say, a bit more responsible," says Willings.
Though the horses are generally no worse for the wear after the race, the same cannot be said for the riders. "Oh, there have been broken bones, torn ligaments, a broken pelvis, a punctured lung, broken collarbones, lots of ribs ... and once a neck," says Willings.
But more riders are signing up every year. Last year, Prior-Palmer, a 19-year-old British rider, won the race in seven days, making her the first female rider to win the Mongol Derby. This year's field includes riders from 16 countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Australia, the U.S., the U.K., Iceland, China, and Ireland.
Rose Sandler, a 32-year-old biochemical engineer from Pipersville, Virginia, has been preparing for the past four months. She was a last-minute addition to the competition when a place opened up unexpectedly. "I've been told that it breaks you down to the basics of human existence," she says.
From the moment she was given a spot in the race, Sandler has been talking with past Mongol Derby riders, training with her gear, and honing her strategy. "I'm in it to win it, but not at the exclusion of enjoying everything else about it," she says.
Sandler has been meticulous to the last pound about what to include in her pack: backup batteries for the GPS and spot tracker, a camera, fruit, medical supplies, water purification drops, electrolytes, sleeping bag, down jacket, raincoat shell, extra socks, super glue, two different kinds of antibiotics, zip ties, and protein bars.
Sandler says the best advice she was given was to listen to the herders. "I've been told that if the herders tell you not to take a horse that you want to take or if the herders suggest that you take a specific horse, you should probably listen to them because they know the horses."
Another rider, Per Michanek, a 59-year-old Swedish equine veterinarian, has a different approach. "I'm going to try [to win], but it's not really that important," says Michanek. "I want to finish."
Much more relaxed in his preparation for the race, he has been trying to ride 62 miles (100 kilometers) every day, "just to know what it's like." He has been riding every day for the past 40 years and believes that accumulated experience is enough to get him through the race.
His gear: an inflatable mattress, light waterproof clothes, storm lighter, paracord, multi-tool, sewing kit, antichafing plasters, presents for Mongolian kids, video camera, batteries, emergency beacon, solar charger, mosquito repellant, pipe and tobacco, heart-rate monitor, wet wipes, toothbrush, soap, razor, and flashlight.
He is purposely not packing food, thinking it a waste of precious space. However, he is packing a ukulele because "if you can't speak with the Mongolians, you can at least sing with them."
Michanek is concerned he is at a disadvantage compared with the female riders. "I think it's very difficult to win as a man because the girls weigh less," he says. And although he is older than most competitors, he has hope: "I've ridden horses all my life, and basically it's the horses that do the job."
Why a Horse Race?
Though the competitors have varying levels of experience, one key element brings most of them together: their interest in learning about riding from those who have been said to do it best—Mongol herders.
"High Asia is where horses were first saddled and tamed and ridden, so it's one of the oldest equestrian cultures, and they really admire and respect the horse in a kind of spiritual way," Willings explains.
The horse is deeply ingrained in Mongolian culture.
Every ger, the herders' portable yurt-like homes, has ropes made from the tail hairs of its owner's favorite horses, and the countryside is littered with rock cairns called ovoos where herders have placed tails or skulls of particularly beloved horses.
Willings says that Mongolians-despite their deep affection for their horses—view them differently than Westerners view the animals. "They are not pets. They're not for school. They're not for leisure," she says. "They're working animals, and part of the family, and a great symbol of a family's wealth."
As such, the horse is deeply ingrained in Mongolian culture. There is a special song for the horses that finish last in the race during the annual Naadam festival so that they do not feel sad about losing.
Herders write songs for their horses and serenade them as they watch over them or when they are milking their mares. The national drink of Mongolia is fermented mare's milk, also known as airag. Besides riding for the title of the 2014 winner of the Mongol Derby, the winner also gets the honor of drinking the first bowl of airag.
Willings says Mongolian horses are unique for several reasons. Genetically, they are considered to be horses despite being the size of a pony. A horse is typically 5 feet (157 centimeters) or taller at the base of the neck. While on average Mongol horses are only 4.6 feet (143 centimeters) tall, they are considered horses because of their head structure and bone size.
Despite their diminutive size, today's Mongol horses are the same breed ridden by Genghis Khan's conquering warriors—able to run long distances, even from Mongolia to Poland and back, and to withstand a wide range of temperatures, from -40 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 to 30 degrees Celsius).
They also can handle rugged terrain. The Mongolian steppe is peppered with marmot holes, something all previous Mongol Derby riders learned to dread early in the races. With any other horse, the marmot holes would spell serious danger because the holes are waist deep. "But because these horses live in this environment year-round, they just know," says Willings. "They read the ground so cleverly. They are geniuses in their natural environment."
At the end of the day, win or lose, Willings says that interacting with the Mongol horses is a magical experience. "You're privileged if they allow you to ride them," she says. "It's like you've been invited into their animal kingdom."
Man....that makes my two hour ramble out on BLM land look so tame. And here I was all proud and everything of me and my mare (combined ages 91 !) :)
Great admiration for those who take up the challenger and wonderful news about the Mongol horses with their great abilities.
We do the same thing with commemorative rides of 're Oregon Trail or the Santa Fe Trail, but we tend to do it in luxury. We should something similar with the Pony Express route. This is a very interesting and informative article.
Great story. Do we Americans have any kind of commemorative ride to follow the trails the Pony Express riders used?
Riding Endurance in the US, for almost 20-years - this race has got to be the toughest ever! Riding a different horse every 25-mi. would be so challenging in itself! My hat is off to all who finish!
This is so entirely fascinating, especially keeping with tradition. Yes, it is a privilege if these horses let you ride them and a secret love affair b'twn the horse & rider. I find the new gear & tack amusing, as compared to the wear & needs of older, not necessarily ancient, riders. I don't know when the Mongolians first used stirrups, no less protective head gear. I don't think many fell off, back in that day and the people were shorter and lighter. Sturdy, hard riding, strong beasts of burden, they were the pride of every mans' family; less than a month old, the baby being held, and riding wrapped inside his fathers' coat. An interesting, well written summary of this ancient sport, today.
tHIS WAS SUCH AN INTERSESTING ARTICLE..I USED TO RIDE FOR YEARS AND IT IS AN EMOTIONAL EVENT FOR RIDER AND HORSES...I AM SURE. WELLDONE.
What a lovely article. So well done. In not many words you gave me the feeling of being on the horse!!!! So descriptive and interesting. Good job....
What a great article and pictures. It conjures us images of "Genghis Khan's conquering warriors", that whisks us away to times of yore, and we share the adventure in (young or old bodies) in the safty and comfort of our homes. Thank you National Geographic!
I have spent three years living and working in Mongolia, travelling from Khazakhstan in the west to the Chinese border in the east (at Boor Noor) and from Khovsgol in the north to Sainshand in the south on numerous occasions. I have been present at the national Nadaam festival and local Nadaam´s as well. Winters were cold and summers short but hot with intermittent heavy rain whenever temperatures peaked.
It is a beautiful country in all of its seasons and the people on the whole were both proud of their history but also welcoming and kind. In spring they long to be in the countryside, where so many were brought up, yet now a very large percentage of ex herders live on the outskirts of UB in poor conditions, with homeless sleeping in apartment block corridors in winter to escape the cold, eating out of waste bins - in short living a thankless existence. What has this proud nation been reduced to?
And for wealthy sporting westerners to briefly visit for the sake of an endurance horse race and to gain prowess to me seems to have more in common with those that went to Africa and India for sport (in those cases to shoot wild animals) years ago, than it demonstrates a caring, interested group of people wishing to share something of what Mongols have and assisting them while preserving their tradition.
Yes the race draws parallels with Genghis Khan´s postal service, hardship, horsemanship skills etc, but that is for the glossy magazines. Is it a spectator sport - no. Does it benefit the Mongol economy to any degree - no it does not - and as for some of the comments such as "what a wonderful trial for horse and human" I despair - the human had a choice. Enter or Not. The horses had no choice whatsoever.
Beautiful piece. I love this article ! ! ! Thank you Nat'l. Geo. for sharing this with your readers.
Unlike U.S. Collegiate Sport, the spirit of truly amateur sport lives on in this wonder-filled amazing race.
In mid 2006 I spent a month in Mongolia and traveled approximately 3,600 kilometres through the country. One of the many things that impressed me was the horseriding ability of even very young children, perhaps 5 years old, who would ride bareback at great speed with the rider's head remaining perfectly level regardless of the terrain that was being traversed.
I am very impressed with the article- nat geo- thank you-very informative- amazing horses, riders and owners.kudos to all that are involved.
Wonderful article. But I was a little disappointed that it said nothing of how the horses are shod. A very important aspect of such a long race. Barely broke horses are not easy to shoe. Did they ride them barefoot? Did Genghis Khan shoe his horses?
What an interesting horse race and it being shared with the rest of the world through this article. I am so glad that I subscribed to National Geographic on line, they have such interesting stories and outstanding pictures.
I really enjoyed reading about the exploits of the competitors in this "race". As an ex-marathon runner (now living in Turkey) reading this account of the race has inspired me to get off my a** and try to get racing fit again. I haven't run seriously for over 25 years so that is quite a challenge!! We all love a challenge, and whether it's on horseback or not doesn't matter ... I just need to get my 64-year old body into shape (the mind is definitely willing)!
Reading this has only increased the great reverence and love of horses that I already had. Thanks for these great photos and this fascinating story.
I wonder how many horses are injured during the race. The horse in the bottom photo looks ready to keel over.
Interesting to note that they are real horses, although diminutive in size, but not ponies, as evident from their legs too. In medieval India too there was horse-relay postal system. Very informative article
Vets from the Equitarian groups in the states, especially CVM are part of the team that monitors and assists these amazing horses.
This is truly the most amazing race in the world, without peer. And, an Australian won it this year. A good friend of mine. She rode those magnificent little HORSES like she'd been born on one, and earned the respect of the herders and the Derbyists alike. It's my dream also, to go with her next time. Because there will be a next time.... The Adventurists run a ripping good show!
i think the writer trying to describe ancient Mongolian Postal system. Real horse race is different. Real horse race is based on this postal system. No packs, not many days, no adults.
@Brad Morton they are horses it says in the article that they are one of the oldest breeds and it says they are Mongolian Horses
@Brad Morton They are horses not ponies. I liked this article and I like how the race has rules about working your horse to hard cause some people wouldn't care about the horses they just care about the money. Very good article! Would like to do the race if it didn't cost so much money. :)
Only problem I find with this article is that these are ponies, not horses. The only difference between ponies and horses are their size. If you don't believe me look it up. Genghis Khan's warriors rode Mongol ponies just like these.
Genghis Khan was born on a horse or put there at birth . The race is wonderful I wish I could participate.
Horse riding is in their genes. In fact, history remembers Mongolians as the great horse tamer. It is their culture and tradition.
@Elissa Sangi As far as I know, the Mongolians invented the stirrup, this gave them an edge over the many peoples they encountered during the expansion of their empire.
@Mark Rikard Yes, by and large all barefoot, and actually left mostly untrimmed: they leave the feet to natural wear. I competed this year and it was incredible to see how a particular horse's conformation was compensated for in the feet.
When the feet are addressed by the herders, a common trimming method is putting the horse's foot on a wood block and chopping off the excess toe with a hatchet! Amazing horses; amazing culture.
@Barbara Nichols Far more riders than horses! :) This year I saw two who had knocked themselves with their own feet, and one who needed drip fluids because he refused to drink from the scary pink plastic water trough he was given.
All of my mounts sunk into rodent holes, pulled out the next stride, and demanded to gallop on, and others trotted boldly across rocky bits for miles I'd never even walk my horses from home across. They're the hardiest equines I've ever seen. I only wish I could have snuck a few home!
@Barbara Nichols -Looks more to me like he's looking for some quick grazing if he can get away with it. Mine adopt this position evry chance they get,....
@Brad Morton The Mongolian horses have never been bred with a pony breed, hence, no pony blood (hence, not ponies).
@Brad Morton certain breeds, regardless of their height, are still referred to as horses and not ponies. While technically their height would classify them as ponies (anything under 14.2hh), their breed would distinguish them as horses.
@Jennifer M. @Brad Morton I agree
with Brad. I breed Highland Ponies from Scotland. My stallion is 14.1 hh and my mare is 14 hh. I believe that regardless of breed if its not 14.2 it's a pony. I have numerous people take a look at my "ponies" and comment "those aren't ponies those are horses" Just like the 19th century western cow ponies that certainly look like horses in the photographs.
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