The Mongol Derby: Chasing Genghis Khan’s Ghost in The World’s Toughest Horse Race

WHAT: Ride in the Mongol Derby

Horse riding is a dangerous pursuit. Horse racing even more so. Then there’s the Mongol Derby; a multi-day, Mongolian horse race recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s longest and toughest equestrian challenge. For ten days each August, the Mongol Derby welcomes riders to join them on the Mongolian steppe, climb into the saddle, and brace themselves for the ride of their life. The competition requires grit, raw determination and the ability to throw a punch in the face of adversity – characteristics held in droves by the man who inspired the race.

Riders and horses on the Mongolian Steppe
Photo Credit: Richard Dunwoody. The Adventurists

It Might be in your DNA

As well as being history’s most accomplished murderer, Genghis Khan (much like his many horses)  was a world champion stud. According to legend, Khan´s endurance in the bedroom was something many men would kill for, which Khan did, frequently and often. In 2003, folklore became fact when a DNA study found Khan’s genetic thumbprint to be present in around 16 million men alive today. And you don’t sire that kind of genetic legacy by sitting around.

Khan was constantly on the move, marauding throughout Eurasia laying claim to anything he wanted. To do this, Khan created the Yam network, a long-distance postal relay system consisting of stations 20 to 40 kilometers apart. Khan´s best horsemen, riding Mongolia’s fastest horses, would gallop between stations passing on orders and relaying military intelligence. This communications network served as the central nervous system of the largest and most feared empire in history and gave Khan the advantage needed to conquer Eurasia.

800 years later, The Adventurists, a British company behind the Rickshaw Run decided Khan´s ancient paths would make the perfect route for the world’s longest, toughest, and funnest horse race. Thus was born the Mongol Derby.

Riders line up for the start of the Mongol Derby. The world's longest horse race.
Photo Credit: The Adventurists

Beyond the required horse riding experience, the 1000km race is a test of fitness, endurance, and savvy. Mongol Derby competitors must be able to organize, strategize, self-support, and navigate through the mud, rivers, mountain ranges, and plains of the Mongolian Steppe for days on end. Their toolkit consists of a GPS unit, a list of Mongolian phrases should they need assistance from local herders and a barely broken-in Mongolian horse to carry them from one waypoint to the next.

HOW

This is not a guided pony trekking vacation. There’s no set route, no packed lunches, and no hotel rooms.  It’s just you, your horses, and hundreds of miles of remote Eurasian wilderness. If you think you’ve got the minerals to enter the Mongol Derby, the first step is to submit an application via their website. If you’re riding resume looks up to scratch, then you’ll receive a call from the race organizers. The basic entry requirements are:

RIDING EXPERIENCE

Animal welfare is a top priority. Consequently, organizers can only accept those with a proven ability to look after themselves and their horses under race conditions.

WEIGHT LIMIT

Riders must weigh in at no more than 85kg fully dressed. (187 pounds) Saddlebags may contain no more than 5kg of kit.

LISTEN AND LEARN

After arriving in Ulaanbaatar, your next stop will be the classroom. During pre-race training, riders are briefed on medical and veterinary procedures and the technical obstacles that the Mongolian wilderness will throw at them. The Mongolian steppe has humbled even the most experienced riders, so pay attention.

Preparing for the longest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby
Photo Credit: The Adventurists

PHYSICAL FITNESS

It’s the longest and toughest horse race in existence. Organizers need to know you’re not going to flake out. Before heading to Mongolia, riders are urged to put in as much saddle time as possible.

ENDURANCE

The Mongol Derby consists of  28 stations, each around 35km apart. Upon arrival, riders dismount, stretch, eat, drink, select a horse for the next leg, then remount and keep on riding. While riders may cover up to 100 miles per day, each horse will travel only a single 25-mile leg. The horse stations are first come first served, so the quicker you are, the quicker you remain.

CAMPING AND SURVIVAL EXPERIENCE

If you balk at the idea of bedding down in remote areas or enduring the day-to-day living conditions of Mongolian nomads, then the Mongol Derby isn’t for you. Organizers need to know that if you’re lost, stuck, or injured you’ll be able to take care of yourself and your horse until help arrives.

HORSEMANSHIP

Mongolian horses small physical size is in sharp contrast to their massive attitudes. They don’t appreciate being patted on the head and don’t come when you whistle.  However, what they lack in size and obedience, they make up for in spirit, strength, and speed. Impervious to heat, cold, thirst, or hunger, the physical and mental makeup of these sturdy, fearless beasts hasn’t changed since Genghis Khan used them to conquer half the world.

Unlike western horses, Mongolian horses are free to roam wherever when not performing work tasks. Independence is in their DNA, meaning Mongolian riders relinquish a level of control, trusting that the horse will find the best way through. Novice western riders often mount Mongolian horses expecting total control. Instead, the horse rebels. Riders are strongly advised to familiarize themselves with these horses’ unique nature before setting out.

Rider gets bucked from horse
Nope! Photo Credit: The Adventurists

ENTRY FEE

The Mongol Derby cost of entry is steep (around $13,000)  and doesn’t include other expenses like travel costs, medical insurance, gear, training, etc. However, the entry fee makes more sense when you consider the event requires 1,400 horses, 24-hour support crews, medics, pre-race training, and more. Many riders cover costs by gaining sponsorship or offering media coverage.

 

The mongolian horse race is the longest in the world
Photo Credit: Creative Commons
WHERE

The expansive majesty of the Mongolian Steppe. The Mongol Derby race route changes from year to year depending on conditions. The exact route will be revealed before the race starts.

RISKS
  • The Mongol Derby is the longest and toughest horse race in the world. Beyond enduring physical discomfort in harsh elements, riders are on a semi-wild Mongolian horse breed famed for stubbornness and a bad attitude. Injuries to riders include punctured lungs, broken collarbones, broken ribs, and exhaustion.
  • This grueling Mongolian horse race is a hardcore, old-school adventure. Nevertheless, organizers understand the real dangers involved and won´t leave riders stranded should the horse manure hit the fan. All competitors are given an emergency SOS transponder. If activated, the nearest available response team will be deployed, made up of race staff, medics, and vets if required.
REWARDS
  • A powerful, inspiring journey in breathtaking scenery, among one of the last true surviving nomadic cultures on earth.
  • Bragging rights at having competed in the world’s longest horse race.
  • As much Mongolian vodka as you can drink.
  • Mongol Derby Organizers use the race as a way to drum up support for charities. As well as the adventure, you’ll also be helping a good cause. In years past, riders have raised huge amounts of money for many great causes.

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