Semi-Wild Mongolian Horses, the Empty steppes…and me.
“Khorton muur un mara bon.”
I look the Mongolian man directly in his eyes as the words escape my lips. The only words I could speak in Mongolian translated to: “Give me your fastest horse please.” The hardened man’s eyebrows lifted out of both curiosity and respect. He sized me up, as if assessing which of the line of 40-summod horses would be most suitable for me.
Standing at 5’8 and with natural blonde hair and green eyes, I stood out to say the least. Not to mention the fact that I was a woman. And I was solo…
In Mongolian herder’s eyes, horse riding is a man’s sport. Funny, considering you often witness small children of both sexes galloping bareback atop these ferocious animals backs during the Nadaam horse races. I was not unfamiliar with the mentality of the Mongolian men standing before me.
After all, I had spent the past four years living in male dominated countries with horses—all of which had similar experiences with the local men. But if being in charge of a stable full of 70 horses while managing Indian and Egyptian grooms during my international work abroad taught me one thing it was this: Act like a man, talk like a lady.
By looking him in the eyes while addressing him in his mother tongue, I was given respect.
He motioned for one of the younger men to grab the horse he had chosen for me and I watched as three of them struggled to throw the saddle and bridle on. The horse leapt and jumped in the air, as if it had never seen a saddle before.
I was used to this sight and spent my last few moments of stable Earth checking the GPS coordinates. I flung myself onto the horses back and before I could get both feet in the stirrups the horse launched into a full-blown gallop.
The power behind his stride was enough to cause tears in my eyes from the force of the wind, even with my ray bans. I let the reins dangle loose as the horse raced through the steppes.
I knew it was marmot territory and that one wrong foot could end my riding career—or life—forever but something inside me told me to trust the thundering hooves beneath me. He knew the land better than I ever could, I rationalized.
The horse tore through the valley before ascending a mountain.
I smiled as the speed of the horse beneath me reached a hidden 6th gear. I was astounded by the force of this incredible creature. It hadn’t looked like anything special when the herder brought him to me, but the grin from his face and shine in his eyes told me that this horse was indeed special.
40 kilometers to the next horse station with no brakes and wonky-steering made for a spectacular ride. I was floating on the clouds as I reached the next horse station.
The vet began through the procedure of checking the horses pulse and I was astounded again to find out that although this mighty pony had spent the past two and a half hours galloping full speed, he wasn’t even breathing heavily. I passed the vet check and approached the next line of horses.
I found the man in charge, the herder keeping a curious gaze on me as I made a bee line towards him.
“Khorton muur un mara bon,” I eyed him directly. The man sized me up, letting a coy grin escape the corner of his mouth as he pointed towards my next mount.
At this point you might be asking yourself, “What is the Mongol Derby?”
To that I would say, it is the “World’s Longest and Toughest Horse Race” according to the Genesis Book of World Records. This 1,000-kilometer horse race takes you through the Steppes of Mongolia on over 30 semi-wild Mongolian ponies. You have between 8-10 days to finish this brutal race (though only half the people who enter typically finish) and you win…nothing.
That’s right. The winner only gets respect. And the entry fee is enough to make you gag. (About 10,000 GBP.)
“Who would be crazy enough to do something like this?!” You ask.
Mostly skilled equestrians from all disciplines compete. The Mongol Derby is very strict and selective about who can participate and riding experience is necessary. That having been said, it has happened now and again that someone trained for a year or more JUST to participate. Some of which may even have finished…
“Is it really all that tough?”
The Mongol Derby is downright extreme. It takes someone with a serious pleasure for pain to consider participating. I personally am a professional show jumping rider and FEI II Coach and I’ve worked with horses in over 13 countries.
“Did you finish?”
Yes, I finished on Day Ten without any assistance from the crew. I finished with a total of 1,128 Kilometers under my belt (I got lost a few times.)
If after reading this, your still hooked on signing up, here are my Top Ten Survival Tips for the Mongol Derby:
1 – Learn a little bit of Mongolian. Even just to say hello or to be able to ask for the fastest horse paid off!
2 – If you’re a woman, never sleep in a Ger camp with only men. These are bachelor Gers and if there are no women present, ride on to the next Ger. Also look for Gers with families and be sure the men don’t drink too much in your presence.
3 – Most derby riders lose before the race begins. They over-psyche themselves or don’t prepare mentally or physically for the challenge. This is NO PICNIC. You must train any way you can.
4 – A lot of riders drop out due to food poisoning or stomach / digestion issues. Living on the local traditional airag and fatty soup might not be your cup of tea, but its all your have access to for 10 or so days. Eating street food in India for two years allowed me to develop the ability to digest steel. I never got food sickness while there. Now, dining in India may be unrealistic if you live in America, but it doesn’t hurt to start eating from local street vendors and checking the yellow pages for the lowest rated places to dine nearby!
5 – If you don’t find joy and pleasure in challenging yourself to the physical and mental limits, you may want to reconsider the Mongol derby
6 – Having a piece of paper that’s been translated into Mongolia—for example: Hello, My name is Krystal. I am competing in a horse race. May I stay here tonight? It is a great way to break the ice when you wander into some family’s home.
7 – Don’t be afraid to make friends and team up! Only one person can win the derby, but plenty can finish! In my opinion, finishing is winning. Better to make everlasting friendships to help you through the shit-bits than to nearly kill yourself for a fifth-place finish
8 – It will suck. Period. But at least you will have some awesome stories to tell afterwards! Stay positive and keep your focus towards the horizon…no matter how bad it gets!
9 – Never refuse a sip of the local airag, but if you can’t handle the taste or just don’t want to get drunk, pretend to take a sip. They won’t notice the difference. Politely decline the 2nd or 3rd offer but always take a “sip” of the first round.
10 – Follow your gut instincts! Maps and logic won’t be of any use to you on the steppes. Throw it out the window and trust that inner voice inside you.
I can’t say I am not a competitive person, heck I’m a professional Show Jumping Rider and Coach!!! Of COURSE I am competitive! But when it came to the Mongol Derby, to finish is to WIN. (Let’s face it the winner only get’s bragging rights and two days less riding time…) I didn’t want to win, so much as I wanted to FINISH. I was hungry to conquer this Derby. I wanted to prove myself and do it on my own, blonde girl style!
I had been living in Egypt, India, Romania and remote places so I knew I could digest steel and the local Mongolian “Airag” (Fermented Mares Milk) and cuisine wouldn’t be a challenge for me. But being a woman in this male dominated country WOULD BE. So I was smart.
For me, this race was originally meant to be a solo trip. A true test of survival skills, horsemanship and strength as I braced myself to tackle the steppes with nothing more than me, myself and a half-crazy horse. The first two days of the adventure, I did exactly that. I hardly had time to eat as I worked like a machine, riding one horse to the next and galloping wildly from sun up until sundown until my body would collapse in the evening from exhaustion.
And then something inside me changed… I had a revelation. A gut instinct. A feeling within. Hadn’t I already been working and living abroad solo for nearly half of a decade? Hadn’t I already proved my skills and solo prowess while living alone in India, Egypt, Bhutan and more? The answer was yes.
Around day three I teamed up with my new best friend from France and we ended up riding the grueling race to the end. We finished together on day ten after 1,128 kilometers in the saddle. No showers. No beds. And string after string of crazy Mongolian Ponies! But we did it! [Read the full article-Why I Stopped Being a Solo Traveler During the Mongol Derby-published on Pink Pangea]
So, if your thinking about tackling the Derby, be sure to get in touch with me or check out my podcast below where I was featured on WHOA! Podcast. I share lots of stories which you can listen to on my podcasts page. Listen in and ENJOY!
*Krystal is still active in the Endurance community and has a new goal in sight. She plans to CROSS AND ENTIRE COUNTRY on horseback!!! Be sure to check back regularly on her adventure and if you would like to invite her to ride at an endurance ride hosted by your facility or to hire her as a Mongol Derby coach in preparation to your big ride, don’t be shy!*