Monday 6th August and Tuesday 7th August – Training
Monday and Tuesday have been preparation days, where we learnt about the Mongol Derby history, the different elements of the race, the Mongolian people, their culture and most importantly, the horses.
We have been told repeatedly how the Mongol Derby itself is greater than one competitor and while being a race, it’s important to race the right way: respect the horses, the people and their culture.
The first few lectures cover safety and fairness, vet procedure and race rules. We are issued our hobbles, identical to what we bought, along with a saddle and bridle. We are then introduced to the Mongolian horses.
Our instructor, who doesn’t speak a word of English, along with his interpreter, who also appears to speak no English, take great delight in telling us (via hand signals largely) that the Mongolian horses are like none other, and take huge pride in telling us they are semi-wild. Their laughing, smug looks and constant reminder of the “semi-wild horses” is mildly concerning.
We were shown how to use our issued hobbles, which basically constitutes keeping your head as far as possible from the horse to avoid being kicked or struck at. The instructor, again, took great delight in seeing us all try to put them on while offering little or no instruction.
We were then given our first taste of riding a Mongolian steed. We are given a loop of 6km to ride and get a feel for the horses and the heart rate levels. It’s a welcome break from the lectures.
As we wait our turn at the camp we can watch other riders head out. It’s a combination of chaos and entertainment. Most are walking and trotting. All starts well, riders coming and going in groups of 5. We see the first buster, and another horse that comes back without a saddle on. We now begin to realise just how small these horses are. Our turn comes and is relatively free of trouble. It settles the nerves to finally ride the horses. We ride together, sharing our thoughts and after 3km Rob has suggested a race, which of course we all undertake.
We are given a tour of a local horse monument that honors some of the great horses of the Nadaam horse race, which is the pinnacle of horse racing in Mongolia. To be part of the horse monument we are touring a horse must win the race 5 times.
The next morning, we are given a navigation lesson with the GPS, which has the four of us front row. Jack already has flat batteries, Henry is still working out how to turn his on, Rob appears to have last year’s course and Ed is too occupied by food to care. Each of us hopes that one will work it out.
We have another practice ride on different horses to test out our navigation skills and make sure that we were able to find our way from one place to the next and that we can managed to keep our saddle packs, carrying all our essentials, on the saddle.
Jack did his best to get thrown off, taking off without doing his gear bag zip up. As the contents flew out of the bag, his horse shied each time until the entire contents of the bag were lined in a trail behind him. After he trudged back and collected his belongings one by one, we saddled up and took off, GPS in hand, for the last ride before the start line.
The final piece of information we received was the medical briefing which, in the off chance we had forgotten somehow, outlined the potential dangers of the Derby. The two head medics are guys with army background and fill us with both fear and confidence at the same time. The risks of the Derby are reinforced, race ending injuries outlined and we all agree that there is a significantly higher chance of one of us quitting well before being medically retired by these guys.
We have been told of some course changes and given new coordinates due to the local herdsman moving their camps without notice because of flash floods with the recent rain.
The final evening, we were treated to a Mongolian Concert involving a contortionist, Mongolian music, throat singing (it’s as bad as it sounds) and traditional dance. It gives us further insight into the Mongolian culture and we can’t believe their genuine love of horses. Each song or dance is named by or in honour of the horse. They are idolised and worshipped by every Mongolian.
The night ends with riders, crew and the local helpers and herdsmen introducing themselves and giving a toast individually to the derby, before sculling a full cup of vodka. Perfect pre-race remedy.