Mongol Derby: Racing into trouble?

June 29, 2009

CuChullaine O'Reilly's full report was first published in the magazine Horse Connection in the United States. The full feature can be read online on the Long Riders' Guild website and on Voices for Horses.

The Long Riders' Guild has voiced its fears for the wellbeing and safety of some 800 horses and 25 riders who will take part in a 1000km race across the remote Mongolian steppes.

Guild founder CuChullaine O'Reilly has raised concerns around the experience of some of the riders, the ability of the small local horses to carry larger-framed foreign riders between race stations placed at 40km intervals, and the dangerous and difficult nature of the terrain.

The remains of a horse on the Mongolian Steppe. It is dangerous to horses just trying to survive on the unforgiving landscape. © Pichugin Dmitry

The guild, an international association of equestrian explorers, has revealed an official of the company organising the ride had sought advice.

O'Reilly said long riders with Mongolian experience were asked by the guild to study the proposed event, called the Mongol Derby and billed as the longest horse race in the world.

"Their decision was unanimous," O'Reilly wrote in an article published in the United States, Britain and Europe today.

"To consider putting foreigners with limited equestrian experience into an endurance race of this distance is asking one to deny the basic fact involved in this situation - namely that a race across this terrain, on those kind of horses, over that distance, would have taxed the original messengers of Genghis Khan, none of whom actually rode a thousand miles on one journey."

To ask modern riders to do so is naive, he suggested.

O'Reilly described the planned race as an ill-advised equestrian misadventure, and he feared the potential equestrian hardships and dangers being presented to the horses and riders have been underestimated by at least some involved.

He said the guild had requested information on the supply of the hundreds of horses needed and details on logistical support, but had yet to receive a reply.

New Zealand Long Rider Ian Robinson and his Wakhi horse Dol Dol in Afghanistan. Robinson says that while the Mongolian race sounded like "a great idea on paper," he feared that it was "a disaster waiting to happen".
The website promoting the race warns: "The Mongol Derby will see you tackle the challenge of semi-wild horses and surviving alone in the wild steppes of Mongolia. There's no carefully marked course, no catering tent and no support; this is horse racing on a whole new scale.

"You will change steeds every 40km so the horses will be fresh. Bleeding kidneys, broken limbs, open sores, moon stroke and a list of dangers longer than your arm stand between you and victory."

The 25 riders from countries including the United States, Britain and New Zealand have paid nearly $US5000 to take part in the event, which is being promoted by a British-based firm called The Adventurists. It hopes to make the race an annual affair.

O'Reilly said long riders belonging to the guild have ridden on every continent except Antarctica, and have collectively completed more than a million miles in the saddle.

"Many have survived perilous rides across the Mongolian steppes. For example, Australian Long Rider Tim Cope recently rode 6000 miles alone from Mongolia to Hungary.

"What he found was that the world of Genghis Khan still exists out on the silent steppe, a place where there are no services - no trees - and no people, but where an unwary mounted traveller must be ready to survive wolf attacks, bubonic plague, rabies, flash floods, foul water, poisoned food, horse theft and personal assault."

Cope, he explained, had barely started his journey when he was trapped inside his tent for days by hail, faced constant threats from wolf packs, had his horses stolen twice and was repeatedly accosted by drunken Mongolian herders.

Continued - Fears voiced over 1000km Mongolian horse race