I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
There is a branch of equestrian sports called endurance racing. Events are held all over the world in which horse and rider complete courses across natural terrain. One-day events are usually between 50 and 100 miles in length. Nothing comes close to the Mongol Derby of 1,000 kilometres or 621 miles.
Following Genghis Khan
The endurance race owes its existence to the Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan (1158-1227). A brilliant general, he led his Mongolian forces in the conquest of vast areas of Central Asia and China. Historians estimate that his military campaigns led to the deaths of as many as 40 million people.
On a more positive note, Khan is credited with creating the world’s first international postal service. To keep control of his huge empire, he needed good communication within its far reaches. To achieve this, couriers on horseback carried messages over long distances; the system was called “Yam.”
Relay stations were set up along the route so that galloping riders could pick up fresh horses. National Geographic tells us that, “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).”
Today’s Mongol Derby is a recreation of this ancient messenger service.
Mongol Derby Horses
The race is organized by The Adventurists, a company based in the United Kingdom that says it is “fighting to make the world less boring.”
Each August, riders from around the world compete in the 1,000 km trek. Organizers provide more 1,500 Mongolian horses for competitors and they pick up new ones at stabling stations that are spaced every 40 km. When not involved in the Derby, the horses are worked by herders who are paid for supplying them.
At 12 to 14 hands, the animals are smaller than thoroughbreds that are 15 to 17 hands tall. But it would be inadvisable to think of them as ponies; these horses are tough, with amazing endurance. The Mongolian horses are described as “half wild,” with an inclination to bolt whenever they feel like it.
Few competitors complete the course without taking a tumble from these frisky animals. Broken collar bones, legs, wrists, and ribs are the result.
Mongol Derby Rules
The organizers are strict about who can take part in the event; it’s not for those whose only equestrian experience is to have ridden on the back of a donkey at a fall fair. There’s an interview process to weed out the dilettantes. Fewer than 50 entrants are allowed in each year.
Importantly for the organizers, entrants have to pay £11,375 ($15,421) for the privilege of bouncing around on the back of horses that may not always be of the most amiable temperament for ten days through fair weather and foul.
Getting to Mongolia is the competitor’s responsibility as is accommodation before and after the adventure.
Riders must weigh no more than 85 kg (187 pounds) including clothing and saddle, and be physically fit. Camping and wilderness survival skills are vital.
The Adventurists say “The Derby is an adventure first and a race second, come and enjoy the spectacular ride and compete for the podium places but always remember the welfare of the horses comes first.”
At each change station, incoming horses are examined by a vet to determine if it has been overworked; if the animal’s heartbeat does not return to normal within two minutes the rider is given a two-hour time penalty.
The Mongol Derby Race
After training and familiarization, riders set off on the first day together; there are no cheering crowds in bleachers. They face a gruelling ride across grassland, bogs, rivers, and mountains. Then, there’s the weather; Mongolia is a place where it’s possible to experience “all four seasons in a single day.”
Each entrant is equipped with a detailed map, GPS receiver, and a satellite tracker. Medics are on stand-by and they are usually needed.
At the end of each day, competitors are lodged with Mongolian families. Accommodation is basic and does not include a bricks-and-mortar building; a yurt, called a ger, is what they get with no hot and cold running water and no Netflix.
Speaking as someone who has experienced the ordeal, Jocelyn Pierce notes that “Riders basking in the glory that is finish camp are now anywhere between five and 15 lbs. lighter; have gaping wounds on shins, shoulders, legs, and bum cheeks; are aching from being bucked off, dragged, kicked, or from simply being in the saddle for 100+ hours. They are sleep-deprived and spent, trying to put the pieces together of what they’ve just endured.”
And, their banks accounts are probably at least $20,000 lighter.
In 2019, 17 of the 44 entrants pulled out of the race, nursing fractures, exhaustion, or illness. The coronavirus pandemic meant there was no race in 2020.
The 2019 winner was Bob Long from Idaho. At a time when many of his contemporaries are thinking about rocking chairs on front porches, Long set a record as the oldest competitor to enter the race. The 70-year-old Long also set a record for the fastest finish of seven days, four hours, and 33 minutes.
- The postal rider system set up by Genghis Khan was still operating in 1949. But the Soviet Union, which controlled Mongolia at the time, shut it down. The Communist leaders in Moscow did not want Mongolians to feel connected to their past because this might promote nationalist feelings and opposition to Soviet oppression.
- Mongolian culture is centred on its horses with herders writing songs about their animals. The country’s national drink is called “airag,” and it’s made from fermented mare’s milk. The lucky winner of the Mongol Derby has the honour of drinking the first bowl of the beverage.
- Long riders are people who travel huge distances on horseback. In 2004, Australian Tim Cope completed a 10,000 km (6,213 miles) trek from Mongolia to Hungary.
- For those who are daunted at the prospect of galloping across 1,000 km of the Mongolian steppe there’s The Gobi Desert Cup. It’s a mere 480 km (298 mile) jaunt through Mongolia and operates in much the same way as the Mongol Derby.
- “10 Things You May not Know About Genghis Khan.” History.com. July 29, 2019.
- “World’s Toughest Horse Race Retraces Genghis Khan’s Postal Route.” Ashleigh N. Deluca, National Geographic, August 7, 2014.
- “The Mongol Derby.” The Adventurists, undated.
- “Life after the Mongol Derby.” Jocelyn Pierce, Practical Horseman Magazine, August 16, 2019.
- “Meet the Western Australians Who Took on the Mongol Derby, the World’s Toughest Horse Race.” Ellie Honeybone, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 4, 2019.
- “Meet the 70-Year Old Who Came to Mongolia to Race the World’s Toughest Horse Race, and Won It.” Breanna Wilson, Forbes Magazine, August 20, 2019.
- “2019 Mongol Derby Race Summary.” Louise Crosbie, Equestrianists, September 2, 2019.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 06, 2021:
Ready to take a run at it DW? After you mate.
DW Davis from Eastern NC on January 06, 2021:
Thank you for this excellent and informative Hub. I had heard of this race but never knew the details and history behind it.