Billed as the “longest and toughest horse race in the world”, the 2022 Mongol Derby is underway. Actually, the second of the 2022 races is underway. After canceling the 2020 and 2021 rides, the organizers chose to hold two races this year. The first one kicked off on July 23rd and the second race started on August 10th. The riders are experiencing some rainy weather, but they are still sounding cheerful. There is some terrific video on the Mongol Derby Facebook page.
Forty-six riders are participating this event, covering 1000 km (621 miles) on a self-guided course through the Mongolian Steppe. The route recreates the horse messenger system developed by Genghis Khan in 1224.
Khan is credited with creating the world’s first international postal service. To keep control of his huge empire, he needed good communication within its far reaches. To achieve this, couriers on horseback carried messages over long distances; the system was called “Yam.”
Relay stations were set up along the route so that galloping riders could pick up fresh horses. National Geographic explains that, “At the postal route’s zenith, a letter could cross from Kharkhorin in the east to the Caspian Sea on the far western edge of the empire, a distance of some 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers), in two weeks (an average of about 300 miles, or 480 kilometers, a day).”
In the modern version, riders change horses every 40 km (24.9 mi) at the support stations. Along the way are vet checks to monitor the condition of the horses, and the vets may impose time penalties if the riders push their horses too hard along the trail. The Mongol Derby uses the endurance heart rate standard of the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the governing body of equestrian sports, which mandates that a horse’s heart rate must return to no more than 64 beats per minute within 30 minutes of stopping. If the horse’s heart rate does not return to 64 bpm by this time, the rider receives a two-hour penalty.
To gain entry as a competitor, each rider must demonstrate that their riding skills are strong enough to endure the harsh terrain of the race. Want to learn the necessary skills? Sign up for the Mongol Derby Academy. The course covers handling and riding the Mongolian horses (which are best described as semi-feral), camping out and hobbling your horse on the steppe (so that when you wake up the horse is still within sight. Maybe.), navigation skills, and tips on Mongolian cultural etiquette and customs.
Riders spend up to 14 hours per day in the saddle over the ten-day race. Unsurprisingly, only half the riders typically finish the race.
At 12 to 14 hands, the Mongol horses are the size of ponies but are tougher, with amazing endurance. Despite their diminutive size, today’s Mongol horses are the same breed ridden by Genghis Khan’s conquering warriors—able to run long distances, even from Mongolia to Poland and back, and to withstand a wide range of temperatures, from -40 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 to 30 degrees Celsius).
Because the horses are small, riders can bring just 11-lbs of gear and cannot weigh more than 188 lbs. dressed to ride.
Few competitors complete the course without taking a tumble. In fact, in the current race, one competitor hit the ground a mere 30 seconds after mounting. Injuries among riders are common and it’s not unusual for riders to take several months to recover from the ride, as described by Jocelyn Pierce, in Life After the Mongol Derby. For another point of view, I recommend Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior Palmer (Lucinda Green’s niece), who describes her preparation for the race as well as the challenges faced along the way.
Not something I aspire to complete, but I’ve enjoyed watching the video!