It’s an open secret the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, is something of a logistical miracle. It would be hard to conceive of a more ambitious equine adventure. In fact the man behind our potent blend of fresh horses at 40km intervals, supplied at designated horse stations, and prepared for running by herders employed specifically for their upkeep, is none other than that infernal ambitious chap, Chinggis Khan. Scourge of his school reunions, but the beard that launched a thousand ambition-based self-help books.
Anyway, we’d like to lift the lid a little on just how this modern incarnation of his Morin Urtuu (Horse Station) horse messenger system, originally conceived as a military intelligence fast-transmission service, and later in operation as a postal system until the Soviets shut it down in 1949, is brought to life for the Mongol Derby, for 2 weeks every summer.
This year’s edition will launch at 10am sharp(ish) on Sunday August 4th, GMT -7. You can follow all the updates from the adventure LIVE.
The mission is two-fold; we need good men and womenfolk, and we need their horses. Sounds simple.
1. Family selection. 25 families to cater, shelter, rehydrate and at times re-galvanise the Mongol Derby riders, at 40km intervals for 1000kms. The tricky part of this mission is that there is never a guarantee of finding families, anywhere. We know from the lie of the land and the flow of the water where a good place to live and graze your herds in the summer ought to be. But as for actual locations, we run blind, and stop and ask.
Every urtuu we fix, every family we enlist, depends on all the subsequent ones falling into place. In charge of the negotiations and introductions is Shatra, Chief of Mongolia branch. She scrutinises gers for cleanliness, offspring for cuteness, and tea for saltiness. Meanwhile, Chief of Horse branch, enquires about availability and condition of horses in the area, and at the family’s disposal. While some have hundreds of horses, others have almost none and enlist their friends, family and neighbours. “We have no horses, but we do have some very fast cows”, laughed the father at what is now urtuu 6.
In short, we require a little bit of luck, and to help this along, we call on the gods of the sky and the earth. As well as a strong thread of shamanism in Mongolian culture, there is a vibrant Buddhist culture, and we stopped in at a beautiful temple to one of the most important lamas in the last half a milennium, Zanabazar, to pray for the solid preparation and safe passage of the Mongol Derby.
Some families will move to a location designated by us in order to be in the right place to be our Morin Urtuu. For most, however, they are simply ‘at home’, with their herds, keeping the tea hot and the curds around room temperature in fevered expectation of the riders’ arrival.
It is remarkable that folks who have never heard of the Mongol Derby take in our explanation of the event, and their possible role in it, and then sign up as an urtuu family, all without raising an eyebrow, in about 30 minutes flat. Such is the strength and depth of the Mongolian culture of hospitality towards strangers. Especially strangers on horses.
2. Horse selection. 850 horses, in groups of 28-33 (we start factoring in rider attrition after, oh, 150kms….), all over 5, sound, good strong heart and lungs, no wheezes or murmurs, not too fat, not too thin, not too crazy, not too dull etc…
The photos on the left show the ground jury at work selecting horses for the 2013 Mongol Derby. Barbara Thielman, a vet on the 2012 race wielding the stethoscope, and on the right is Katy Willings (me) sketching the horse ID, and Unenburen discussing the training of the horses with the herders.
Vetting involves an overall health check, but selection also requires an analysis of suitability based on type and attitude. Some families have hired out their horses for ‘tourists’ before, and need a little gentle persuasion that just because the fiery little chestnut decked a Japanese tourist 2 summers back, it doesn’t mean one of our Derby riders couldn’t handle it.
As well as giving each selected horse a numbered ribbon round its neck, we catalogue the horses using a passport-style ID. White hairs, whorls, tattoos and colours are all drawn and described, with colours in Mongolian and English. Comments describe the horse in a little more detail; for example, “chunky but athletic”, “my gran could ride this one”, “wild, kicks at stethoscope – beware” and “cracking; lean, lot of bone, big moving”. These notes and IDs help the vets who staff the horse stations work out who is who, and also helps us ensure that the right people get paid the right amounts, the right horses are prepared and delivered to the morin urtuus on Derby day, and the riders have some info on selecting their dream mount. Whilst substitutions inevitably happen, around 97% of the horses we select at the end of June report for duty in early August.
Sometimes it’s a one-by-one negotiation to get that dream horse. It’s usually worth it – this is an good example.
"Other times, we have to do some pretty hardcore negotiations to get our way. "What's that? You wish to see my horses? Hmm. I suppose that could be arranged". This lady of the house was only satisfied once Barbara had paddled in the river with her and given her a lollipop. The lengths we go to in service of the Derby really do beggar belief.
Sometimes help comes from the unlikeliest of sources. 5 minutes earlier this stallion was busy tending to his herd of mares and their foals. Now he was more than happy to round up his comrades for Derby duty under the instructions of his herder. " alt="Sometimes help comes from the unlikeliest of sources. 5 minutes earlier this stallion was busy tending to his herd of mares and their foals. Now he was more than happy to round up his comrades for Derby duty under the instructions of his herder.
Other times, we had a flood of horses to choose from (herd doesn’t always cover it). The family at Urtuu 14 had some 300 horses, and after an energetic 4 hours herding in various herds and sub-herds, we simply waded out into the melee to secure our last 3.
So there you have it; art and science seamlessly combined to bring the Derby riders enough horse power to, well, get another Guinness World Record, hopefully. Next time you see a Mongolian horse out on the steppe, sporting a red, yellow, pink or blue ribbon round its throat and looking, well, just a little more suave than all the others be sure to show him the respect and appreciation he deserves, for he is of a special breed; The Mongol Derbyist.