A Mongolian Horse Race: 7 Tips For Survival

mongolian horse race survival guide feature image

Maybe you’re curious about entering or just wondering how competitors survive the world’s longest and toughest horse race. Either way, you need to read the following tips! We’ve got gear suggestions, emergency snack ideas and what to do if you’re a woman in the middle of a Mongolian horse race mounted on a crazy steed. And you absolutely HAVE to pee!

Author: Hebe Webber

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We’re going to be sharing Krystal’s tips (the EQA Founder) for surviving the Mongol Derby; the world’s longest and toughest horse race. Every year in August about 30 to 40 riders from all around the world travel to compete in this Mongolian horse race.

We want to wish everyone good luck in future derbies! And we want to share with you some of Krystal’s personal survival tips. She completed the Mongol Derby back in 2014 and it’s definitely an adventure!

TIP #1 Language skills

Learn some Mongolian. But we know when you’re sitting in America or wherever it seems little bit difficult to try and pick up a few words of Mongolian…. not a problem! What you need to do is get there a couple of days early. To the capital city of UB (Ulaanbaatar).

Because the first time you sit in a taxi heading towards your hostel or where ever, you need to talk to the taxi driver. For example, you could ask: how do you say hello, how do you say how are you. And most importantly give me the fastest horse please!

Which bring us to another tip with learning some Mongolian. You can actually pre-print a letter in Mongolian. Something to the effect of “Hi, I’m competing in a horse race. Can I stay with you for the night and maybe you can offer me somewhere to sleep and some food”. So Krystal had a letter just like this when she was riding in the derby and it did actually help quite a bit.

And you would be surprised (although the Mongolians don’t speak any English) how much you can actually communicate with them just by miming and playing charades!

Krystal standing beside her horse after arriving at one of the horse stations during a Mongolian horse race
Krystal after arriving at one of the horse stations. Or we could say after surviving another 40km!

TIP #2 Your horse knows what its doing

Leave your horse alone! They don’t need you. They don’t need your opinions. What would Krystal do when she picked a horse and they had it saddled and ready? She would check her GPS which direction she needed to go. Then she would get on. And as soon as the horse starts running you steer. Maybe even with two hands (it’s up to you, depends on the horse) into that general direction and just let it FLY.

And then leave your horse alone. Krystal rode mostly in jumping seat, in forward position. She didn’t have much use for reins on most of the horses. Mongolians also have a little lash. You can use this to encourage the horse if you have a lazier one.

Honestly, you have the horse for 40km. You’re not going to be able to convince it to do very much. Leave your horse alone. They know the land and the terrain. They know what they’re doing.

Krystal had a horse which was galloping full speed. In a valley where there was lots of Marmot holes. She did’t know what a Marmot hole looked like. So… she trusted that her horse knew. And at that speed that he was running, if his foot was to go into a Marmot hole I’m pretty sure they were both going to get killed. So what she did she do? She just let him have the reins and said you steer! Don’t kill us!

Krystal cantering along the grassy steppes on a black horse during a Mongolian horse race
LET IT FLY! Remember: leave your horse alone!

TIP #3 Emergency Snacks

Bring some oatmeal! Krystal hadn’t thought of this personally herself. One of the other riders did. They ended up scratching towards the end of the derby. And when they did, they gave Krystal some of their oatmeal. Which was in a ziplock bag.

At that point she had been living (breakfast, lunch and dinner) on Mongolian food. Which was fine, she didn’t mind it. But it was the same fatty noodle soup every day, 3 times a day. And after 7 days or whatever Krystal was just sick of it! So they handed her a little bag of magic (oatmeal)… and that little baggy it saved her life! It got her to the finish line of a Mongolian horse race!

Some dry oatmeal. This is needed to survive a Mongolian horse race!
Oatmeal is a life saver during a Mongolian Horse Race!

If you’re looking for other tips about what to pack specifically we have the perfect thing for you. Krystal made a Mongol Derby packing list. It’s got everything you need in there, so you don’t have to worry. She already knows all the rules. Like you can only take 5 kg of stuff etc.

She put together a list based on her personal experiences and other previous Derby competitors. What type of boots they wore, what type of what type of jackets. Even what type of breeches! And type of sleeping bag! She has everything on there, so be sure to click on that link. It’s going to help you a lot!

TIP #4 A family affair

This one might surprise you, especially the ladies travelling alone. Don’t stay in the horse stations! Krystal actually recommends staying with the local families not affiliated with the derby. We know it’s a little bit scary when you’re a woman travelling alone as she did.

As long as it’s not a ger filled with only men. Make sure that when you’re ride up to a ger that you see ladies around. Families, children playing, all things like that. You basically hand your horse to the guy. He is going to help you with your horse. And the family is going to welcome you in!

They’re going to feed you and make you drink the airag (fermented mares milk) and they’re going to spoil you! A lot of them actually gave Krystal their bed, often there is only one bed in the ger. They refused to sleep in it while she was their guest. They’re really going to welcome you. It will be an amazing experience!

If you stay in the horse stations you’re going to be crammed in there with 10 to 15 other riders. They’ll probably be grumpy and stinky just like you. Trying to win or whatever it is that they’re doing. So Krystal highly recommends staying with the nomadic families. That’s part of the experience; meeting the Mongolian people!

TIP #5 Intuition knows best

If you have never used your instincts before, you better tune in. You’re gonna need to use your gut feeling. The feeling you have in your belly and your instincts. The GPS is going to tell you go this direction. But it’s NOT going to tell you how to navigate through the mountains or the marshes or whatever it is.

Krystal mounted on a Mongolian horse ready to start another 40km of the mongolian horse race. There are camels in the background
Get on horse. Smile for camera. Point in general direction of GPS. GO! You can see some Mongolian camels in the background.

So when you’re looking at a situation, whatever the obstacle is in front of you, you really need to tune into your gut feelings and your instincts. THAT is what’s going to help you cross the finish line of this Mongolian horse race, more than anything else.

More than the little blue dot on your GPS and more than whatever gear and equipment you have packed with you. It’s going to be your gut, your instincts and your determination to finish. 

Also when you’re choosing horses, use your gut and your instincts. The Mongolians might recommend you some really awful horses. They might recommend you some really good ones. But always, always use your gut feeling.

If it looks like it’s a bit of a wild one or a little too much for you, don’t do it. What’s the point? It’s not worth falling off and getting injured or getting scratched from the competition. So use your gut!

TIP #6 Don’t do a Mongolian Horse Race Alone

Ride with someone! And we think a lot of people forget about this. Especially if they are very focused on winning. If they want to win and they want to go go go. But you’ll be surprised to know that actually there’s quite a lot of people who have finished the Mongol Derby first with someone. With a person that they’re riding with. So you know, yes. You might be determined to win. But it doesn’t mean you have to suffer. It doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.

It’s actually so much more fun if you ride with someone. And trust us, according to Krystal, on the Mongolian steppes the type of friendships you’re going to make are lifelong. You’re not making friends, you’re making like brothers or sisters or second cousins. You’re making deep bonds with people.

Krystal really recommends riding with someone. It just makes the experience so much more fun. When she started this Mongolian horse race, she was determined to do it as a solo adventure. She was going to just ride by herself. Because she was so used to traveling and working with horses in crazy countries alone. And after day 3, she realized how miserable it was. And how awful it was. She just wasn’t having any fun.

And so on the morning of the 4th day, she teamed up with another rider. They ended up finishing together. It was the BEST decision she ever made in the Derby. They became really good friends. They still keep in touch to this day. A lot of the obstacles and challenges that they faced would have been a different experience if Krystal had been on her own. Krystal really appreciated having that company and companionship on this crazy Mongolian horse race!

TIP #7 When you gotta go… you gotta go!

This one is for the ladies mostly. If you’re riding, especially on a crazy fast horse with no brakes and you REALLY have to pee; there is a solution.

Firstly, you need to point your horse to a river. You gotta find a river somewhere. You can usually look it up on your GPS if you don’t see any. Ride your horse into the river. Put it knee deep in water. Then that way you can hold the reins in one hand and undo your clothes with the other. Then you can kinda squat a little bit, while the horse is dancing around in the water.

If it’s knee deep it’s not going to be able to jump around too much. You will be able to dismount on and off your horse so much easier knee deep in water. Because some of these Mongolian horses once you’re off …they’re not going to let you back on.

An open Mongolian landscape with a river cutting through as can be seen during a Mongolian horse race
Find a big river, put your horse knee deep in it. You know what to do next.

So you need to get off, do your business and get back on while they’re still in the water. And they can’t do anything about it, it’s great. Because of this trick you will need tall boots which are waterproof. Krystal had some. What she used and what she recommends is actually in that Mongol Derby packing list article. So be sure to read that.

I think it’s going to help you quite a lot. Of course, we have several recommendations from other riders but this is what Krystal personally did and it was very effective!

I look forward to hearing your comments if any of these tips work for you and maybe you have some other extra tips that you would recommend to others. Please let me know, that way we can help each other!

Krystal Kelly competed in the Mongol Derby in 2014. She is on a mission to visit every country in the world, and is passionate about adventure travel and women’s empowerment. Especially in unique countries! Found out more about what she does here

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Want to know more about competing in the Mongol Derby? Check out our interview with previous competitors.
There are so many ways to see Mongolia! One adventuress traveled across it with a horse, a dog and a camel. Read about her experience here.
You can also check out our World Travel Guide For Equestrians for where you can book your next adventure to Mongolia!

Published by Krys Kolumbus Travel

Krystal Kelly is a California girl on a Quest to see every country. She is a professional equestrian adventuress and has worked internationally with horses since 2010. Since then she has worked at professional competition and riding stables in Egypt, Italy, Romania, India and Bhutan! "I love travelling and I love horses and I am very blessed to be able to do both of my passions for a living!" She now has her own company, Krys Kolumbus Travel where she strives to empower women to travel and provides resources, tips and online courses to encourage women to travel SOLO to unique destinations. www.kryskolumbustravel.com www.krystal-kelly.com

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