This shot shows two riders powering away from a horse station with Mongolia unfolding rather vertiginously in front of them. I love the loose horses grazing peacefully out in front of them. The valley looks silent and undisturbed, almost timeless, except for these two riders thundering through, apparently heading for the hills. I am sure they’ll bear left before they have to start climbing! Navigation on the Derby is a balance between picking the shortest route and the easiest ground, to minimise the effort required of horse and rider.
These two pictures show something of the physical toll on the riders, and the determination required to stay in that racing rhythm and keep getting back on the horse for another round.
I love this shot of Sara Klymkowsky on the left. Horse and rider both look spent. The horse’s condition is just cosmetic: He is caked in sweat and mud but a picture of strength and toughness.
For the horsey connoisseurs, he has almost ideal Mongolian horse conformation; a handsome head, deep body, an uphill shoulder and big powerful front, a small triangular backside, good hip to hock angle and distance, and strong short cannon bones.
You could probably ride the whole 1000kms on a horse like that and the trophies and statues the Mongolians commission have this aesthetic. The red tag at the base of his mane looks like a badge of honour. Sara, I am sure, will have held her horse for the vets and offered him water, and the herders will have shoo’ed her away to sit down and take five minutes. She looks like she has crumpled to the earth, it’s quite an inelegant pose for such an elegant woman. She is momentarily lost in her adventure, trying to draw the strength to get up and repeat the exercise. By the light I’d say this is late afternoon, she could have ridden another 40 kms that day.
The right hand shot of Paddy Woods and Bruce Chernoff is another outstanding one. Often it is only when you stop on the Derby that you notice the physical toll being exacted on you. Bruce, on the right, looks a bit disconcerted by his early-onset trench foot, and you can see that both guys are suffering. All the items of kit and clothing strewn around the ger suggest a loss of control and a sense of relief at letting it go momentarily. Dry your feet, work your hands until your fingers come back to life. Then you can worry about winning the race.
The light in this shot is great. I don’t know if Bruce’s feet actually were blue, from cold or from the dye in his boots and breeches, but you can't help but feel for him. There’s no romance or comfort here. They are hanging on to the basics. I imagine conversation was limited, both men look quite lost in their own thoughts, like Sara in the previous shot.
This one is a nice counterpoint to the ‘grit’ and toughness shots The Derby is tough and at times everyone becomes ‘lost’ in their own adventure, in their own mental tussle. But occasionally you are snapped out of this reverie by just the loveliness of ordinary Mongolian life, which you get to see up close and personal, as you ride through it.
This is Patrick Sells on the approach to Urtuu 19, in Arkhangai province. You can see he is reaching up to switch his camera on, I think he is probably looking at the scene in front of him and pinching himself. Why rush? Sometimes you’ll badger yourself to move one place up the running order: the rivalry between Pat and fellow rider Will Graham was a treat to witness, and not first ‘Derby within a Derby’ we have seen. At other times, you have a reason to slow down and just experience other aspects of the event.
In this case, the kids from the Urtuu family, Sanj, herding the calves at milking time. And playing with their bikes. In paradise. Many riders come home with fresh eyes, on so many subjects, including the big ones; work, family, wealth, time. Meeting and living with the families is a huge part of this. What is very ordinary for every other living thing in this photo, is very exceptional for Pat. You can see him savouring the moment.
This photo of Sophie Wilford is infectiously joyful. Her punch of the air looks so natural, her relief and elation so palpable, you almost feel like applauding all over again. It’s impossible to build a finish line that is remotely worthy of the adventure these horses and riders have just completed. A few flags and some anaemic bunting were about the best we could manage in the cut and thrust of setting up the finish and the horses wouldn’t go near anything more elaborate anyway, they are far too wild for pyrotechnics. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, I think you could say she was over-reacting. But in the context of the hazards and the distance she has successfully navigated it seems entirely appropriate. Kev Price-Moor, one of the 2011 riders, once remarked that “This is our Everest”. That is what her salute acknowledges.
This is a really special moment. The herder for the final station on the 2015 Derby, Batsukh, was a wonderful man with an even more wonderful set of horses. He had prepared them meticulously, and all the riders had a fantastic ride in to the finish line.
Here he is with Braden Cameron, offering him a lock of the horse’s tail hair as a parting gift. This is a deeply symbolic gesture. When their favourite horses die, Mongolians often offer tail hairs or the heads to the gods of earth and sky presiding at the ovoos, or cairns, which mark the sacred passes and high ground. Batsukh is really offering Braden the horse’s spirit and blessing.
The Derby allows very different people to bond and become friends over a shared respect for and love of the horse. I think Batsukh saw a fellow true horseman in Braden and wanted to acknowledge it. No translation required, this was a show of mutual respect and admiration which transcended all the apparent linguistic and cultural barriers. A worthy end to this photo round up.
The 2016 Derby launches on August 4th. You can follow all the action on the Mongol Derby blog here.