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The Mongolian Derby

Mongolian Derby

The Mongolian Derby came to our attention about four years go via a Facebook post. One of the riders was requesting sponsorship. The team at the office thought it was a valiant cause, and from there, we were hooked. We watched the unbelievable race unfold with anticipation and great interest to learn more about the daily happenings.

The Mongolian Derby is an equestrian endurance race extending 1,000 km through the Mongolian Steppe and is known as the world's longest and toughest horse race. The course recreates the horse messenger system developed by Genghis Khan in 1224. The first Mongolian Derby was raced in 2009. Over recent years, the participants — both men and women — number around 20–25 of each, playing the role of the messengers and representing different countries.

The exact course changes every year and is kept secret until shortly before the race begins. The terrain will invariably include mountain passes, green open valleys, wooded hills, river crossings, wetland and floodplains, sandy semi-arid dunes, rolling hills, dry riverbeds and, of course, open steppe.

The entry fee for 2020 was over NZD20,000 and provided the rider access to 25–27 nomad herder- owned horses, a support team, pre-race training and access to the support stations along the way. Riders must change horses every 40 km at the support stations. Along the way are vet checks to monitor the condition of the horses, and the vets may impose time penalties if the riders push their horses too hard along the trail.

To gain entry as a competitor, each rider must demonstrate that their riding skills are strong enough to endure the harsh terrain of the race. The horses themselves are semi-wild and may not cooperate with the rider, adding one more level of difficulty to the race.

Riders will spend 13–14 hours a day in the saddle, and the race lasts ten days. To complete the race is an accomplishment in and of itself, as only half the racers usually reach the finish line in any given year.

In preparation, 1,500 Mongolian horses are vetted and trained for the Derby each year. Each horse is catalogued and checked thoroughly by a professional vet team before being allowed to join the race. They are then vetted before the riders take them on their less-than-40-km run and then scrutinised again after completing the leg. Riders are not allowed to continue until the horse is given the all-clear.

These horses may be smaller in stature than what some riders are used to. Mongolian horses were the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the 13th Century and carried the all-conquering Mongol armoured warriors across half the world. Diminutive, sturdy, fearless, wild and unbelievably tough, they have changed very little over the centuries.

Of the three million horses inhabiting the steppe, the great majority of them live in large, semi-feral herds, surviving temperature extremes from -40°C in winter to +30°C in summer. They mostly eat steppe grass, drink water as they find it and are rarely given any extra nutrition by their herders. These harsh conditions are certainly not what the typical equine enthusiast has experienced before. The strength and hardiness shown by these special horses are admirable.

Along with the riders and horses, there is also over 500 crew who support in various capacities: 

families who host the riders, herders wrangling the horses, vets looking after the horses, medics looking after the humans, event managers problem solving, a country director working tirelessly, horse managers running sections of the course, HQ staff managing the race, a race director, camp managers and camp staff, media crew pumping out content and an army of some of the best translators and drivers in the country. It is one huge undertaking — exciting, thrilling and quite mind-boggling.

The journey never fails to capture the imagination of participants and spectators alike. Eyes around the world are glued to screens, following the action and sharing in the triumphs and tribulations of the competitors.  

It certainly is neither an ordinary race nor derby but a huge, hard-going adventure that ignites the imagination and determination of riders all over the world. If you would like to learn more, perhaps even train and put it on your wish list, the next Mongolian Derby is scheduled for August 2021. 

For more information, click here.