Journey to the Mongol Derby: The Longest and Toughest Horse Race in the World

Photo © The Adventurists via flickr

BY BIANCA FARMAS-GRIFFITH

Part One: Mongolian Horses & Mongol Derby 101 

In Fall 2018 and on the cusp of turning 30, I woke up one day with an intense desire and determination to participate in a race that I had long known about, but previously wanted nothing to do with. In December 2018, two months after submitting my application and completing my interview, I was accepted to participate in the 2020 Mongol Derby.

The Mongol Derby is a self-navigated, point-to-point endurance race based on Chinggis Khaan’s ancient Mongolian postal system from 1224. Using strong and resilient riders and horses, Khaan’s vast network of horse stations across his empire made it possible for important messages to travel around 2,500 miles in just a few days. In 2009, The Equestrianists, a group striving to change peoples’ perspectives and “make the world less boring”, recreated this postal system, and thus began the annual Mongol Derby. 

Every Summer, a group of ~40 brave riders take on the challenge of a lifetime: riding 1,000 km (roughly 620 miles) across the Mongolian Steppe in 10-days, with stops every ~25 miles to check in and change horses. Riding time each day averages around 12 hours, with strict start and stop times to ensure rider and equine safety. The route (which changes every year), pace, and adventure in between these stops are up to the rider. Sounds fun! What’s the catch? Mongolian horses stand between 12-14 hands, and although small, they are mighty! These steeds carried the infamous Mongol warriors across millions of square miles in the thirteenth century, aiding the empire in conquering almost a quarter of the world’s population. These horses are fit, healthy, barely broke, and not used to our way of riding and the intimacy we crave with our own domesticated horses.

Photo © The Adventurists via flickr

Pegged as one of the oldest equine species, Mongolian horses haven’t changed much since the prime of their conquering ancestors. Outnumbering Mongolia’s human population, these horses have mostly remained independent, wild, and free. With minimal human interaction, they must endure the harshest conditions; temperatures in Mongolia reach a staggering low of -40 F in the winter and a high in the mid-80s in the summer. Their hardiness is strengthened by the Steppe’s variety of unforgiving, and unfenced terrain, where they are left to graze and fend for themselves. The horses are primarily used for work during the short summer but are also used for milk, transportation, and racing. 

Deeply embedded in Mongolian history, horse racing is a hugely important aspect of Mongolian culture. There are several important races throughout the year (Naadam Festival being the most famous) where 7 to 13-year-old children race bareback across the Steppe for victory. 

Prior to the Derby start, the Equestrianists provide 3-days of pre-race training (including route and map discussions, emergency preparedness, and race protocol) and outfit each participant with a GPS and satellite tracker. With 1,500+ horses and 40+ riders at 25+ different stations across ~620 miles, the crew has a lot to keep track of. The Equestrianists employ a large team of vets, medics, translators, herders, and organizers, all ready and waiting to ensure the health of the horses and riders and to tend to any emergency they may have. A team is also stationed at headquarters in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, where each rider is traced via his or her satellite tracker. 

Photo © The Adventurists via flickr

The horses’ health is of the utmost importance in the race; each horse is only ridden for one ~25-mile leg and is carefully pre-selected and vetted by the Derby crew earlier in the summer. Each rider is responsible for his or her mount and must return their horse to the next station in excellent condition and with a resting heart rate no higher than 56 bpm within 30-minutes of arriving (FEI endurance rules require 64 bpm within 15-minutes of arrival, thus the Derby errs on the side of caution). The race vets and managers impose time penalties on the rider for any violation or if they deem the horse has been mistreated, with the penalties increasing in time with each infraction. Other rules and regulations include rider weight, pack weight, riding time, and sportsmanship, all to ensure the health of each horse.

My mount Cindy at a rest stop during a safari across the Namib desert, April 2019. Photo courtesy of author

I first learned about the Derby in 2014 from a past competitor while on a horseback safari in Botswana. Thanks to a multicultural upbringing, I have always loved traveling internationally, however, it wasn’t until graduating college that I began my true adventure trips. After falling madly in love with Africa, I was determined to travel there every year for an epic adventure on horseback. I am lucky to have galloped amongst every animal from the Lion King in Botswana, Kenya and Namibia, and am thankful for my time racing across the sands of Egypt and meandering through the ancient ruins.

Posing in front of a young bull elephant in Kenya, August 2018. Photo courtesy of author

With each trip, my appetite for adventure, adrenaline, and remoteness grew. After my trip to Namibia in the Spring of 2019, the longest and most desolate safari of my experience portfolio (~200-miles over a week of riding), I applied and was accepted to the Derby.

So, do you think you have what it takes? Stay tuned for the next part of this journey: the training, preparation, and COVID postponements.


Bianca is a Hunter/Jumper rider with Mike Edrick Stables in Agoura Hills, CA. At 32 years old, she has spent her life combining her passion for travel and horses and is currently navigating the trials and tribulations of the Amateur Equestrian. To follow her journey to and in the Mongol Derby, check out her Instagram page listed below. You can also live-track her progress through the Derby via her satellite tracker by navigating to the Derby website (beginning July 23, 2022). Follow her on Instagram @BFG_MongolDerby2020

Interested in learning more? Visit the Mongol Derby website for full details and information!

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