After a two year absence, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, The Mongol Derby, has been thundering across Mongolia’s steppe for the last eight days. In one of the closest ever races, an American rode in joint winner yesterday, as Wyoming claimed its second winner in two races.
Based on the ancient horse messenger system used by Genghis Khan, in a country where the horse is king, at 1000km the Derby is the toughest test on the planet for equestrian endurance riders. Whilst horses are changed roughly every 35km, at checkpoints strung out throughout the country, riders must endure being in the saddle for up to 200 km a day and face the challenges of riding over twenty-eight different semi-wild horses, with varying temperaments and bucking abilities, the inevitable falls and mishaps that happen along the way and navigating through challenging terrain, from giant sand dunes to freezing mountain passes.
After the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 editions, the twelfth Mongol Derby kicked off on the 23rd of July and looked set to be one of the most fiercely contested races to date, with 46 riders, from ten different nations, competing for the prestigious win.
Day one saw young Kiwi pair, Sam Edney and Annie Hackett, take an early lead, as other racers suffered navigational errors and falls. By the end of day two riders had found their groove, and four had caught the Kiwis, as six riders bunked down together at station six – the race is made up of twenty eight stations, strung out along the route. Riders aim to be at one by the end of the riding day, but can opt to, or unintentionally, wild camp or try and find a friendly Mongolian family with space in a ger.
By day three riders were pulling out of the race with bruised and battered bodies (some chose to ride on with broken bones) whilst others served time penalties for riding past cut-off times the night before. The names changed, but the end of the day still saw six riders neck and neck, amongst them experienced riders Irishman Patrick Heffron and Brit Chris Walker.
The pair’s navigational nous saw them take a slender, but clear, lead on day four as the race hit some serious mountainous terrain and the weather deteriorated to ‘cold, wet and miserable’ – a sudden change for a field up until now more concerned with getting enough water on board than shaking it off.
Day five and the pair kept their lead, just, as they chose to wild camp only 18 minutes ahead of a chasing pack of seven, including American Deirdre Griffith (despite being at the very back of the race at the end of Day One) and South African Willemein Jooste. Patrick and Chris rode out front through days six and seven, but never with enough of a lead to relax and, with just a few hours riding left, on the final day (the morning of the 30th), Deirdre and Willemein passed them – a perfect example of how tackling the Derby as a team can carry you a long way (sharing navigation, helping each other out of scrapes and generally keeping up moral). They crossed the finish line together to win the toughest horse race on the planet, leaving Chris and Patrick to finish just behind to take joint third.
Deirdre, 34 from Jackson Hole, became the second person from Wyoming to win the race in a row, after Bob Long in 2019, whom she spoke to before the race.
At the finish line she commented: On being at the back of the race on Day One
“That was demoralizing. I decided with fellow rider Lena Haug at start camp that we would head the straightest route. We underestimated the elevation and so it look us a long time to reach station 1. That was one of my best horses of the Derby and it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t get to race him against the front of the pack. Overall though, I think it was a blessing as I wasn’t then running with the front runners and pushing my horses out of competitiveness. My strategy never changed throughout the whole race: Race my race & ride the horse I’m on.”
Highlights of the race included, overtaking the leaders right at the end of the race, “The high was the last day at HS 27 where we made a great nav choice and had an opening to overtake the front runners we’d been chasing for so many days.” and experiencing the local culture
“We had many experiences staying with families. They all stick out in my memory for different reasons. What really struck me was their generosity to take in complete strangers and give us food off their tables and space in their gers.”
Whilst motivations for taking part on the Derby included inspiring her children, “This race has always piqued my interest as an epic challenge both mentally and physically. Travelling horseback I think is the best way to see a new country, and getting to interact with the locals in such a horse-oriented culture was really special. One of my main reasons for competing in this race is to show my girls (5 & 6 yrs old) that they should dream big, and they can achieve anything they set their minds to with hard work & determination.”
and raising funds for the St. John’s Health hospital in Jackson
“I raised money for the hospital in Jackson, WY to begin a mental wellness program for new parents. This helps screen new parents for postpartum depression and connect them to subsidised mental health care. This was very important to me after I struggled with PPD after having both my daughters. We raised over $100,000 and the program launched in March 2022!” – Please visit https://gofund.me/dfc1731b to find out more about the Parental Mental Wellness Program or to donate.
For more details on the race, which is run by British company The Adventurists, visit:www.equestrianists.com.
Willemien Jooste, left in white hat, and Deirdre Griffith cross the
finish line together – CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON
Top picture – riders in full race mode – CREDIT SHARI THOMPSON