EQA interviewed several adventuresses who competed in the “World’s Longest and Toughest Horse Race,” the Mongol Derby. They reveal their biggest mistakes and most successful strategies in this grueling race, which takes place over 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian steppes and re-enacts the Genghis Khan messenger “pony express.” You ride semi-wild Mongolian horses and swap horses every 40km. During the Derby, you’re only allowed 5kg of gear and must rely on your own navigation and wits to find your way to each horse station and eventually the finish line. It’s an intense race with riders from around the world competing for bragging rights and a completion, of which many fail to accomplish.
Author: Krystal Kelly
Here’s our interview with several previous competitors from the Mongol Derby. We spoke with Charmaine McQuaid from Ireland who rode in the Derby in 2018, Hinke van der Werf from the Netherlands who also competed in 2018 and Katja Joachim from Germany who competed in 2014. Also included will be a few tidbits here and there from myself, Krystal Kelly, a Californian who competed in 2014.
Question: The Mongol Derby is notoriously brutal for riders. It is a difficult challenge and takes a special kind of person to sign up… so, what made you sign up for this race?
I was champion Irish lady amateur jockey when I was 22. I quit race riding when I moved to the UK to be with my now ex husband. I’ve always been competitive and really missed race riding so when I got divorced I wanted to achieve something else for myself and that came in the form of the Mongol Derby.
I saw the adventurists’ rickshaw race in India. I don’t do too well with traffic so I thought I’d try my luck in Mongolia.
I learned about it by accident. A neighbour wanted me to do the Mongol Rally with him and a friend. Upon researching I stumbled over the derby. I spent the next 2 nights with research and former rider ́s stories and then wrote my letter of motivation at 2 am and sent it. I just wanted to know if I could do it and how much my butt could possibly hurt after 1000km.
Q: Were you in it to win it? If so why and how did your plans change as the ride took place. Did you win it?
I don’t think I was ever in it to win it. The prize is in passing the finishing line in one piece!
The first few days I was quite competitive and each time I checked into the horse station I’d be annoyed if I wasn’t in the first 20. But then the main herdsman Unenburen advised myself and the two girls that I had joined up with ( Gemma & Jeannette) that we were in Mongolia and that we should not just ride in the race without taking in the scenery and the nomadic hospitality! So that night we finished earlier rather than racing on to the next horse station and we stayed with a family who roasted a goat in our honour.
My goal was to reach the top 10 within 10 days. To win the race was absolutely in my mind, if it’s not, I wouldn’t sign up. It’s not a tour where you can find your limits. I finished on day 7 after a bad start and got the 7th place and the “Vet’s Choice Award.” I like the last one the most.
I came in with the last group of 14 riders. If I had somehow found myself in the top 5, early on in the race, I would try and win it and I still think that would have been the case. However, I was really bad at navigation and rode with different people during the first 4 days. Then I caught up with the Boys from the Household Cavalry and stuck with them. Fun and camaraderie over success and just helping each other to survive.
Q: Did you make any friends on the derby? If so please share one story about a friendship you made and a crazy situation that happened that made your friendship closer.
Nobody can explain the comradery amongst the Mongol Derby competitors. You really do make friends for life from all corners of the world. I think one situation was where Gemma, Jeannette and I got lost in a bog. It was really quite scary, we felt our horses hind legs sink in the bog. We worked as a team to find a solution to get out and in the end decided it was easier to make the horses go into the river that was going through it and swim or walk it way out of the bog rather than sink in mud and never be found!
I made several friends during the Derby that I´m still trying to see and/ or travel with on an annual basis: Bonnie Mc Rae, Sarah Cuthbertson, Rose Sandler and Amy Wallace-Whelan. Funny enough, of those people I really only rode with Rose for the first 1.5 days. The contact with Jade and the Cavalry boys is today limited to the odd Facebook conversation and birthday greetings.
However, I remember being in contact with Rose before the Derby and we decided to share a hotel room in UB before heading to start camp. When I arrived at the butt crack of dawn I was afraid to wake her up. Upon entering the room there sits Rose in a room that is 50 shades of messy – surrounded by gear, luggage, odd bits and pieces. I will never forget that picture. And there was me, meticulously packed and organized with an XLS spreadsheet containing all my pieces of kit, their exact weight and a choice of priority (1-3).
Q: How tough was the derby? Can you list one difficult situation or time when you felt like giving up?
The Derby is tough!! No other way of explaining it. I did feel like giving up when after a torrential day of rain and soaked to the skin with no way of drying my clothes I have to say I questioned myself, why did I sign up?
I loved it from the start to the end. It might be a positive mindset but I had only a few moments were I thought I might lose control or collapse. I had one moment when I was stuck in the swamp, I was totally exhausted, scared on a crazy wild horse and I thought that I might lose my 7th place. That was a terrifying experience for two minutes. But you need to cope with it, otherwise you shouldn’t join the derby.
It was tough especially riding at the rear of the field. In 2014 there were 43 riders crossing the start line. We often would come to a horse station during the day where not enough horses would be available for our group of 4-5. Two incidents stood out:
Day 5 when I considered a carry-forward: there were not enough horses at the horse station and the herders didn’t want to give me any of the ones on the line because they thought they were too dangerous. So they called over a little boy, made him dismount and gave me his paint horse. After about 2/3 of the way the horse was spent and we walked all the way in the midday heat.
Upon arrival it turned out that the horse was only 4 years old and he really had trouble recovering. I was so angry at the herders and sorry for the poor horse. Then it transpired that again there were not enough horses there for the number of people, it was getting late and we were still supposed to cross one of the 2 high passes on the next leg. So I just said f*** it give me a carry forward I don’t care anymore. But then miraculously they found me a really decent horse that didn’t even try to kill himself or me on the next leg, unlike some of my co-riders.
I think it must have been day 4: I had been given the best horse ever I rode in the derby for crossing a mountain pass and rode into the next station glowing and super excited about the horse. So one of the herders picked a horse for me that was “very good”. To give the locals a bit of a show I liked to gallop the horse out of the horse station and also blow off some steam in the beginning. It soon transpired that this particular horse had no brakes at all and it just bolted. I caught up with Musse who was facing a similar challenge with his horse and we decided to bolt together.
Soon we ran headlong into marshy ground, I tried to cut across to the foot of the hills to reach dry ground and not wear out the horse. Then suddenly it sank into the mud all the way up to the girth. I dismounted and totally panicked because the horse wouldn’t get out and I was also in to the knees. Nobody could come close to help for fear they would also sink. The horse got out of the muck eventually and as soon as we were on firm ground and my bum back in the saddle he took off and bolted all the way to the next station.
I managed to pull him up a kilometer before and walk him in. He had a heart rate of 56 upon entering the vet check. I was contemplating if I really wanted to attempt another chance at premature death on the following day or throw the towel in and go home. After some chocolate the medics gave me the world looked much brighter and I decided to ride on the following morning. Shoes were wet for 3 days though…
Q: Did you finish the derby, if so why do you think you were able to finish? If not, why didn’t you finish?
Yes I did !!! It took 8.5 days and I rode past the line with Gemma & Jeannette.
I was not the strongest, fastest, smartest or most experienced in the field but I had prepared myself mentally and because of that I could finish.
Yes I finished. It was a combination of perseverance, good Teamwork with the guys, the fact that I only had mild food poisoning – but that for 6 days straight, drank enough, often put caution before speed and of course sheer luck. Also I tried to take it one leg at a time and tried not to think too much about the remaining distance of the race. The thought of a hot shower and food that’s not mutton noodle soup at the finish line. And after day 5 you just develop a routine of getting up and on the horse and through the stations. Plus you don´t care anymore if you´re dirty and probably stink.
Q: List a few of your derby battle scars / wounds or illnesses.
One of my falls where my horse stumbled galloping because of sore feet, I badly sprained my finger. I taped it to the next finger but 8 months later I still can’t get my rings back on !
I lost 7 kilos of weight within a week, broke my metatarsal, had some infections because of losing toe nails.
Funny enough I only had Diarrhea from day 2 in training camp to day 6 of the race. Nothing exciting. Oh and a morning of vomiting off the horse after having mouldy toast with jam for breakfast…
I didn’t get ill but I did feel pretty broken at the end of it. Luckily I had no real bad injuries but even the sheer intensity of riding for 16 hours straight each day was enough to cause me some serious body pains from old riding injuries. I wouldn’t have made it to the finish had someone not given me a back brace to wear under my shirt on day 2 of the Derby! Read More Tips about What to Pack for the Mongol Derby.
Q: How did you cope with the Mongolian diet?
The Mongolian diet is awful!! If you are vegetarian then I’d say stay at home ! I don’t like mutton or milk so it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Some of the dumplings were ok but the milky tea with salt in it made me gag. As for the dry, hard, sugarless donut type things you got for breakfast, well I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything so dry. All I can say is thank god for the few Snicker bars that I had with me.
Not! I loved the food but my stomach couldn’t cope with the Mongolian diet. I threw up every day.
I prepared by eating at every dodgy kebab place in my hometown Mannheim for a month. Besides that I just ate what was put in front of me, avoided the curd cheese and if the lumps of fat and other stuff in the soup were really gross I washed them down with soup without chewing them. Really enjoyed the tea.
I had been living in India for two years straight before heading to the derby (and yes I ate street food in the local “Dhaba’s” and drank the water from the tap and did all of the things your not supposed to do…) so I could pretty much digest steel at that point. I didn’t have any trouble eating the food but the problem was the families in the Ger’s kept feeding the SAME THING breakfast, lunch and dinner.
After day 5 or 6 I about had enough and decided I would go hungry. I teamed up with a french guy and together we would purposefully route our GPS to every Soum even though most were an extra 10 km detour! We would stuff our faces with Coca-Cola and little “Mongolian Donuts” and sweets and then continue on our way. We knew we weren’t going to finish in the leading pack of finishers, but hey, that cola was worth it! (Besides it’s not like you get anything for crossing the finishing line first!)
Q: Did you stay with the locals outside of the horse stations, any interesting experiences with the locals?
Yes I did. It is the most humbling experience to stay with a nomadic family. The fact that strangers can ride up to their home and be made feel so welcome is the most amazing experience of the Derby.
The Mongolians will give you whatever food they have. The children usually speak English and translate for the parents. They love to hear where you have come from and what you are doing . The next morning you are helped tack up and they then have to take photos of you to mark the occasion. Truly amazing!
The locals are AMAZING!! They all were so friendly and treated me as their friend/daughter. The most memorable moment was playing horse race with a beautiful family and my stay with my Mongolian grandfather. He looked and acted as my grandfather and even though we couldn’t barely speak to each other, we could communicate. I still have a picture and I would love to see him again and show him this picture. He needs to know that he is famous in the Netherlands with many people asking about him!
Not outside the horse stations. After an unpleasant experience at the end of day 3 at the horse station I decided to play it safe and not overnight elsewhere. In the middle of the night a man came into the Ger we were sleeping in (with 8 people I think) and sat next to Jade and stroked her hair and her hand. The cavalry boys tossed him out and one went to sleep just by the door so he couldn’t come back in.
Toward the end of day 1 there was a couple standing in front of their Ger beckoning us over. So I rode over with Rose, Musse and Per. They offered us Airag and asked us to come onto their Ger but unfortunately we were too late and really had to push it to reach the next horse station before cut off time.
Leaving a horse station, Jade and I were chased by 2 guys on a motorbike that tried to grab the reins of our horses. We raced them and I whacked one of them in the face with the lead rope when they came too close. We managed to get into undulating terrain that was fine for the horses but not for motorbikes and lost them
Similar story of a few little boys – maybe 10 years old. They came riding over from a group of Gers and wanted to race our horses. I’m always up or a race so off we went. When one of them tried to grab the reins of my horse I hit him with the lead rope. Very practical tool that lead rope. Comes in handy quite a few times!
At another station the boy of the family was totally fascinated by my helmet with the racing cover and the racing goggles. I put the helmet on his head and hit it with the hand so he ́d experience the protection of the helmet. Both of us and the family laughed a lot. Later he wanted me to choose his fat paint pony as my next ride but his father insisted I take another one. The boy was so disappointed and I felt really sorry for him so I gave him my spare pair of racing goggles.
Q: Tell us about your favorite horse from the derby! Why was it your favorite?
I had a little grey stallion. His mane came further down than his knees. When we were coming into the horse station I saw him being ridden in by his herdsman. He begged me to take him. The herdsmen get paid for each horse used by the Riders. I was a bit wary as I worried he wouldn’t have been rested enough.
I needn’t have worried. He was a gent and he flew but the best bit about him was we had to jump across a river into a bog. The little guy took a massive leap from one bank to the next but didn’t quite make it. We both had our noses touching the bog!! I was waiting for a very muddy and wet fall but he steadied himself, gathered his strength and then scrambled over the bank. Not many horses would have got themselves out of the situation.
He was a star. When I told his herder how good his stallion was the smile on his face was one I’ll never forget. The nomads definitely love their horses.
I had many favorite horses. Most of them were strong and bolted for 30 K! The last horse was pure gold in color and in his speed. He brought me within two hours to the finish line, so I could finish 3 minutes before time. Another horse also bolted all the time, I called him Blue because of his blue eyes. We had a 30 K mountain pass to go and he literally flew over the mountains within 2 hours. I wish I could him bring home!
I think it was horse station 10 or 11. It was the second station of the day. The herders wanted to give me that chestnut horse which I was suspicious about. It looked like a pregnant mare but turned out to be a gelding with a really big rib cage. The owner had a lot of ribbons on display for successes in local Naadam races. I decided to go with the horse and he was fantastic. He was really strong and fast, at the same time controllable (unlike others I rode) and just a joy to ride. He was sure footed and didn’t set a foot wrong. I couldn’t stop smiling and he passed the vet check with flying colors on the first attempt.
Q: Tell us about your LEAST favorite horse from the derby and the difficulties this horse and you experienced.
It was a little grey on leg 6. He looked so pretty on the line but after 8 kms he decided not to go faster than a walk , that leg took me almost 6 hours. It was also six hours on my own with no water as my camel pack had leaked . To make it worse I took the long route over the mountain. The more I screamed at him the slower he walked! The only plus was I able to dismount and mount on my own to have a wee because he was too lazy to run away.
The first horse just had a bad day I guess. He wouldn’t move haha! Took my almost hours to reach the first horse station. I was the last one of all of the riders. It was a really friendly and nice looking horse but just not in the mood for a race.
Ugh. There was this grey gelding. 3 herders had to hold him so I could get on. Once I was on he froze and threw himself to the ground. On the second attempt I got on and immediately whacked him with the lead rope on the bum and we shot out of the station before he could come up with more stupid ideas. He hang violently to the right.
I’ve been riding track work for over 16 years and dare to say I’m good at braking and steering also horses that are a bit more strong headed. Not so this bugger. I had to pull on the left rein with both arms only to make him go more or less straight. Heather tried riding next to us but he just slammed into her horse. Not surprisingly this cost everyone quite some energy and the horse was pretty much done 5 miles from the next station.
Jade and I had also gotten lost and ridden a big detour. About 2 kilometers from the next station the horse just lay down and refused to move anymore. I managed to drag him with force the remaining distance and was really glad to hand him over to the herder. He passed the vet check immediately with a heart rate of about 54 or 56 – grrr…
Q: Looking back at the derby, what’s some advice you would give yourself that you wish you’d had earlier?
I would have taken waterproofs and I would have loved to have done it with somebody.Being in a pair has many advantages. As a woman on my own I didn’t feel comfortable to ride out if I had an hour left and camp out on my own.
I would also have taken a Go Pro to capture more memories!
I regret nothing but for a next time I would eat a little more before the start.
- Download the topographic map of Mongolia onto my GPS.
- Practice navigating better at home not only at start camp.
- Be more creative with gifts for the families that run the horse stations and the kids.
- Don’t use “waterproof” shoes – once they’re wet it takes forever to dry.
- Stick to the road/ dirt track if there is one, very lush, green ground always means water and boggy/ difficult going that’s tiring the horse – or swallowing it.
- Choose your own horse and don’t rely too much on the herders and especially interpreters.
Q: The derby is notoriously expensive. How did you come up with the money to pay for the derby?
It cost me almost £14,000 pounds by the time I paid for everything. I did have a few great sponsors and I did a go fund me page where family and friends donated but I will still be paying off a large bank loan for the next year or two!
I just saved money through working hard.
I was going on a Sabbatical anyway. So I re-purposed the part of the travel funds that was allocated for Australia and New Zealand and instead I rode the Derby. Also my Dad sponsored 10% and I put all gear requests on my Christmas and birthday wish list.
If your signed up for the Derby (or considering it) and wondering “How on Earth am I going to pay for the Mongol Derby?” We’ve got you covered! Here’s your coupon to enroll in our online course: How to Get Sponsors: Get paid to travel!