The Mongol Derby: ride across the ancient trails of Genghis Khan

    17 January 2019

    Forget Aintree or Ascot, the Mongol Derby is the horse race to beat all others. It takes place on Mongol Steppe in Mongolia and it covers a thousand kilometres. The horses are not your trained, riding-school variety but native, semi-feral Mongolian ponies. I’m short, but even I looked pretty silly on board these tiny creatures.

    The Mongol Derby is based on Genghis (or Chinggis, as he is known in Mongolia) Khan’s ‘Örtöö’ messenger service, which enabled information – and messengers – to travel from one end of his empire to the other in a matter of days. Given that at one point the Mongol Empire stretched from central Europe to Japan, organising the system was no mean feat. It entailed, essentially, a series of ‘horse stations’, each around 20 to 40 km from one another, at which a messenger could sleep, eat, and pick up a new horse.

    It’s called a race, but as far as I was concerned, it was more a matter of getting from start to finish in one piece. I couldn’t quite picture a thousand kilometres (I still can’t, to be honest), but what I did know was that it meant riding for around 12 hours a day. And that sounded painful. We had ten days in which to reach the finish, a series of horse stations to check in at (and at which we could eat, sleep, or simply change horses), and a navigation system.

    The terrain was, to put it mildly, challenging. There were bogs, forests, mountains, rivers, deserts and marmot holes in the way of the finish line. And the horses were tough, rugged creatures who live out on the steppe until they’re lassoed and dragged in to be ridden, closely related to the ‘original’ wild horses which humans domesticated thousands of years ago and used by Mongolian herdsmen for transportation. If you let go of them, however, they most likely bolt for home. The bucking and rearing which some of them displayed when presented with a saddle would have looked right at home in a rodeo demonstration.

    The race went swimmingly until day six when, late in the day, we decided to leave one horse station and set off for another in a bid to get ahead. To get there by nightfall, we needed the fastest horses in the camp. We put our best Mongolian language skills to the test: ‘sain muur?’ (‘good horse?’) we asked. ‘Tiim, tiim’, they confirmed. Excellent. Armed with what we had been assured were the two fastest horses in the whole of Mongolia, we set off on our way, cheerfully waving goodbye to the others who had wisely thought better of it. An hour later, we had probably travelled about 4km. These horses, it was safe to say, were not fast.

    Traditional Mongolian eagle catchers with their horses

    As we started to run out of light, we were less than halfway to the next station, and had to admit defeat. We were in for the night – but what to do about the horses? We each had a set of hobbles; a rope contraption used to tether horses’ legs together so they can’t wander too far. But the one thing we had been advised to do was not let go of our horses, as they’d simply run for home. Both of us had managed to get this far without falling off and letting our horses gallop into the sunset, but something more than a simple leg tie was going to work here. We put attached the hobbles to their front legs, and then tied a back leg to the fronts. Then we tied the horses to one another (at least if they did get away, we’d be looking for two horses together rather than two who’d run 40km in opposite directions), and then to a boulder.

    The interior of a traditional Mongolian yurt

    Us humans hunkered down at the base of a small cliff with our sleeping bags and a ‘chupa chups’ lollipop each for supper and drifted off to sleep, It wasn’t the most peaceful night as we had set our alarm to go off every 45 minutes so that we could shine the torch and make sure the horses were still there.

    In the morning, we were relieved to find the horses hadn’t left us in the lurch in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness as we had feared they might do. We rode for another painfully slow two hours before Unenburen, the Mongol Derby’s ‘head horseman’, and some fellow Mongolians found us. ‘What’s the problem?’ he asked. ‘They won’t go!!’ we cried, gesturing to the horses. (I can’t remember if tears had occurred, but I wouldn’t be surprised). He laughed, and sent a young Mongolian boy to sit on Susi’s horse. By now, we had resorted to me riding in front, literally dragging her horse behind me. The boy got on, gave it a smack, and tried desperately to make it go. The horse trotted listlessly for a bit, and stopped.

    We waited for the official verdict as they checked the horse over. ‘This’, said Unenburen. ‘This is a very lazy horse.’

    To find out how to take part in the Mongal Derby, visit