Derby Chief Katy chooses the photos from 2015 that make her salivate like a hyena chewing on a pack of Opal Fruits. Photos taken by Saskia Marloh.
This was taken around five minutes before the 2015 launch. The start camp is such a crucible of excitement and tension and anticipation. Riders learn so much in the three days of pre-race training; rules and penalties, navigation, emergency protocols. Then add to that the elation of first contact with the horses and their fellow competitors. The pace is furious and actually it is as fatiguing as the race in many ways, just a sensory and information overload.
I had asked all the riders to give the horses a good warm up before the start gun fired and Gerda Pohl, has taken her mount away from the crowd to trot past the start flags.
She is emitting relief from every pore, and the horse’s deep blink makes him look paternal, almost beatific; “I’ll look after you, you just hang on”, he seems to be saying. They are sharing a brief moment of repose and quiet in the frantic activity which has preceded it, and which will surely follow in a couple of minutes.
With the Derby you never know what you'll get when you put a foot in the stirrup and lever into the saddle. That is one of the tests of the riders; their bravery, their composure. It looks like Gerda is happy with her horse and just for an instant it’s just the two of them. Everything else will fall into place.
Now we're into the first couple of furlongs of a 1000km horse race. It’s about the only series that even remotely resembles a traditional ‘horse race’.
The first shot is a peach. Saskia has caught that universal euphoria, and five different riders’ subtly different reactions to it. Every one will be thinking “This is it! It’s really happening.” The Derby is a year in the preparation, from the organisers’ and the riders’ side. Huge risks are taken and sacrifices made to get to the start line. Many save up for several years to afford a place, and for most it will be the pinnacle of their horsey and adventure lives. They will all be balancing a giddy desire to just burn it across the steppe - witness Amy Johnson’s (far left) involuntary arm aloft, she might as well be shouting “I’m the King of the Woooooooooooorlllddd!!!” - with the creeping realisation that 1000kms is a very, very long way. There is a very, very long list of obstacles between them and a safe and successful completion. Elise, in the white hat, looks like she is giggling hysterically. I cannot look at this photo without smiling. That moment and that feeling is the culmination of so much work by so many different people. And it’s only about 30 seconds in.
The second shot, of the field streaming away into the distance, is quite poignant. Many of these riders won’t see each other again until they reach the finish line 10 days later. Behind the camera would have been the start camp, the relative safety and structure and certainty. Ahead is just….Mongolia. Everything they need, everything they have, is attached to them and their horse. Or going to have to be improvised at some as yet undetermined point in the future.
When your Mongol Derby is working, it’s pretty intoxicating. The first image is Louise Crosbie, a very classy rider, on the opening day. I love how simultaneously encumbered and outstandingly free she is. Encumbered with all that clobber hanging off her (believe me, you would never choose to ride, even for one day, with that weight and volume of kit attached to you) and free because she is fantastically well-mounted and hurtling across a beautiful valley as if she was born to do it.
Pre-race training invariably involves making some very tough decisions about what you cannot live without for ten days, vs. what you cannot carry for 1000kms. Louise isn’t travelling light, and the temperature is nudging 40 degrees and yet the overwhelming feeling from the photo is one of lightness. All the difficult decisions about what the hazards are and how to manage them are irrelevant now. It reminds me of learning to dive, of being hamstrung by all the kit until the moment when you finally flop into the ocean and everything starts doing its job. And all of a sudden you have superpowers. That is what the Derby gives you, on a good day. Superpowers.
Pat Sells and Louise Crosbie burning across the open country. I think if you know horses very well you can see how much fun the horses are having. The Mongolian horses are renowned for being big personalities and they have a strong herd instinct. Frequently they are quicker in pairs and threes because they love to compete with each other and I think that is what we are witnessing in this photo; two horses thoroughly enjoying kicking up some dust and feeling their own strength.
This is a beautiful image showing rider and horse tackling what looks like some serious country. What could be very intimidating - those big forested passes over the horizon, and the incline to the immediate horizon, with the great unknown beyond, doesn’t appear to hold any fear for horse and rider.
There’s a popular quote, “in riding a horse we borrow freedom.” I think this shot encapsulates it well. There is great freedom to explore on the Derby thanks to the power and energy of the horses. Elise Poitrinal, is in exemplary balance as ever (Saskia didn’t capture a single instance of her looking fatigued or heavy on the horse), and that beautiful horse is cruising along beneath her. A really classy partnership.
This is Pat Sells again much later in the race. This time in foul conditions; you can see the water splashing off horse and rider. I imagine Pat is suffering, you can see he has tucked one hand down into the horse’s mane for a bit of warmth, and he will probably be wanting to rotate that hand to stop the other one from seizing up from cold.
The expression of grit and nonchalance on the horse’s face is fantastic, nostrils wrinkled up in distaste and ears pinned back against the wind. He just doesn’t give a shit, and the faster he gets Pat to the next urtuu, the faster he can get off and de-frost. The horse holds all the aces here, Pat is just a grateful passenger.
This is the kind of horse that you can imagine taking into battle back in the days of Genghis Khan’s campaigns; he’s not just going to carry you, he’s going to empty the tanks and fight for you. In any equestrian discipline I find it unbearably moving to see horses really ‘try’ for their riders. Usually that is a product of a long established partnership, generations of selective breeding, and a huge amount of conditioning of the horse to please its rider. And here it is, in the ‘wild’. Sensational.
This encapsulates a huge amount of the less glamorous, behind the scenes work needed to bring the Derby to life. You can see a huddle of Derby crew; vets, interpreters and herders poring over our horse catalogue. The horse looks on nervously, like he’s arriving at a nightclub hoping his name is on the guestlist.
Every horse used on the Derby is selected six or seven weeks in advance of the event, numbered and photographed. We check each horse for soundness, fitness, age, type and temperament. That's two full weeks on the road with an international vet peering into mouths, picking up hooves and feeling tendons, cataloguing each and every horse as we go with their owners.
It’s our most important period of bonding with the herders who lend their precious horses to bring this adventure to life. We discuss the preparation of the horses in detail, and go over the cut and thrust of the race, how the logistics will work on the days their horse station is in action. There are inevitably a few substitutions as horses in their herds get injured in stallion fights, or come back from a race not firing on all cylinders but overall, we have a remarkable system for tracing, training, returning and taking care of the equine stars of the Derby.
This shot of Daniel Reeds is a corker. He’s mid-transition between what looks like the first and second legs of the day. The late morning light is pretty dazzling and the sun will be beating down. He has an air of irritation and bewilderment, and it’s an expression we see a lot. To stay one step ahead of your own physical deterioration on the Mongol Derby takes a lot of concentration and good housekeeping at the horse stations. Looks like he is on the hunt for a top-up to his hydration pack, and that of his riding partner (his fiancee, Sarah).
You need to sign in to the station, present your incoming horse to the vet team for a check up, get fed, watered, check yourself for signs of fatigue or dehydration or abrasion, select your next horse and saddle it, navigate the ‘slit trench’ toilet, check the GPS for the upcoming leg - will we cross water or have to go looking for it, is it hilly or flat, is it longer or shorter than the average 36km. Whilst keeping all your essential gubbins with you and under control of course. The fastest can nail this routine this in five minutes but on average it’s a good thirty every time.
This is a great portrait of the crews in action on the Derby. Cozy, one of the vets, is listening to the horse’s gut sounds as Byeronie Epstein, the rider, looks on. You can see the dried sweat all down the horse's flanks. It’s hot and Byeronie would probably like to get out of the sun for ten minutes but this cannot be hurried or interrupted. Meanwhile Cozy’s interpreter Enkhzorig is busy with the paperwork; recording the horse’s pulse, the time it arrived and all the other veterinary parameters Cozy is checking.
Meanwhile the herders are hovering, ready to take the horse to water, and eventually home again, once he has been given the thumbs up from our team.
The entire back-up system relies on live tracking of riders and crew; a dynamic chess board of who is where and what support they will require in the ordinary flow of the race and in emergencies. Keeping all the riders on that map is therefore mission critical, so Caroline, a highly qualified equine vet, is moonlighting here as a technical consultant. I can almost hear her saying “have you switched it off and switched it on again?”
Cassie meanwhile has that same expression Daniel shows in the earlier shot. She’s looking on towards the next leg, the next horse, the next station, she’s wondering if she’ll make the next stop by tea time or sun-down, she’s faintly irritated at this delay. Again we are exposed to the weight of kit and caboodle she needs to ride the Derby; all those buckles and fastenings and improvisations to make her rig comfortable for 1000kms (relatively…). She has clearly prepared fastidiously for the Derby. To top off that kick-ass rig with those ridiculous sunglasses makes her even more of a rockstar. Love the Australian flag on her cheek too. It’s never too serious for a flash of pink, or patriotism.
This one also shows the lighter side of the Derby, and that it is a family affair. The horse stations are real family dwellings, and the hospitality, and horsepower, comes from these very authentic sources. Contracts underpin who does what and when, but basically, the Derby runs because we engage families to just be themselves; hospitable, hardworking, and horse-centric.
That kit is Byeronie Epstein’s, the eventual winner of the 2015 race. I imagine she is mid-last minute pre-departure procedures, the sunscreen, the knee strapping, the GPS re-set. All serious stuff, and she was never at a horse station more than 10 or 15 minutes, such was her momentum and drive to win. Meanwhile this little tyke is on school holidays and this must be a favourite horse of his, so dad has just slung him into the saddle while it’s empty. The horse looks like a kid’s pony, a bit round in the middle and very gentle. He probably fired into action 5 minutes later and sucked that tummy in but for now he’s looking after his little charge and keeping his powder dry for the 40km dash he’s about to undertake.
The 2016 Derby launches on August 4th. You can follow all the action on the Mongol Derby blog here.