Asia Life

The Mongol Derby: Genghis Khan’s Equestrian Gauntlet

The world’s longest horse race retraces the route once used in Genghis Khan’s postal system.

Jonathan DeHart

When 19-year-old Briton Lara Prior-Palmer rode across the finish line of the fifth annual Mongol Derby astride a Mongol horse earlier this month, she became the first female rider to win the equine race, considered the world’s longest and most grueling. While many would jump at the chance to ride across the vast expanses of Mongolian prairieland, the Derby is not for the faint of heart.

“It is the most extraordinary and bizarre race, it's like the Tour de France crossed with Snakes and Ladders,” Prior-Palmer told CNN.

At 1,000 kilometers – or 833.2 kilometers, according to Guinness World Records, which gave it the nod for the world’s longest horse race – the Derby loosely follows the former routes established by Genghis Khan when he laid out the nation’s once formidable postal system in 1224. It was the world’s first long-distance postal system and is based on a network of horse stations.

In Khan’s day, “They were travelling all manner of distances, some many thousands of miles,” Tom Morgan, founder of The Adventurists, told The Diplomat. “We've heard it said that they could get a message from Kharakhorin (the ancient capital) to around where modern Poland is in about 12 days. But these message systems were still in use up to the 1960s in some form. We spoke to one of the old riders as part of our research for setting up the race.”

Riders who compete in the Derby stop at a total of 25 stations, located every 40 kilometers, deliver their mounts (in mint condition), swap steeds, and recoup for the next arduous day. They risk life and limb as they charge across the grassland, which is carefully battle tested by members of The Adventurists’ team, which puts on the race. Along the way, riders have a chance to get a taste of local culture too – if they don’t opt to sleep beneath the open nighttime sky or dart ahead to keep a leg up on their competitors. Westerners who brave the steppe in the Derby are required to raise at least 1,000 pounds ($1,551) to be donated to a rainforest charity called Cool Earth.

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“The riders can stay with local nomads who eat lots of meat – mainly mutton – and drink mare’s milk,” Shatra Galbadrah, a resident of Ulan Bator who works as the Mongolian liaison for the race, told The Diplomat. “If you're a vegetarian it's going to be a tough time.”

A lack of access to organic greens is the least of the riders’ worries. The official race website puts it like this: “This is no guided tour, or pony trek. There is no marked course, no packed lunches, no shower block, no stabling. That’s the whole point. It's just you, your team of horses and a thousand kilometres of Mongolian wilderness. And possibly a GPS.”

Morgan added that the danger stems from “the combination of remoteness and the wild horses,” Morgan said. “Horse riding at the best of times is pretty dangerous, but throw in the Steppe and the semi wild nature of these horses and it gets pretty risky. To date the worst injury has been a broken neck, but we get a large number of riders having to withdraw every year from injury. It's certainly not safe.” Of 30 riders who competed this year, around half were injured – many of them bucked off their horses – and did not finish the race.

So imagine: you’re in the middle of the Mongolian backwoods with a horse and maybe a GPS. A 40-kilometer ride awaits you each day, followed by a succession of overnight stays in local families’ gers (portable homes). Not to mention, Mongol horses are free-spirited in ways that Western riders are often unaccustomed to. The organizers wrangle 1,000 of the free-roaming stallions from the herds maintained by local nomads in the months leading up to the Derby. After giving them training, it’s off to the races for the largely Western equestrians who turn up.

To be successful in the Derby, “I think it is much more about the mental profile of the rider than their physical size or shape,” Morgan said. “It's the getting up early morning having had little sleep, spending all day in the driving rain, putting up with the pain and discomfort for days on end, that gets you up to the front of the field. The main thing is to get as many hours in the saddle as possible.”

If anyone has put in the requisite hours for saddle mastery, it is the Mongolians, whose relationship with riding has been somewhat overshadowed by rapid modernization. But the link is still there. “It is definitely more popular to be on Facebook than on horseback,” Morgan said. “Mongolian traditional culture is still a strong part of modern life in cities, and a lot of people head out to the countryside on a regular basis, but like anywhere that is growing so fast, tradition plays a decreasing part of everyday life – especially among the young.”

Even novice Westerners are discovering the magic of Mongolia’s plains. “Just jump on a plane and find yourself a horse,” Morgan said. “It's pretty easy to go on a trek in Mongolia. Any number of travel agents will help you out. But if you want to take on the biggest and toughest horse race on the planet there is only one place to go.”