The greatest equine adventure in the world

August 31, 2010 on 1:31 pm | In Cowboy Fun Stuff | No Comments

Last summer the Mongol Derby thundered into the pages of equine history. Now the world’s longest and toughest horse race is back, longer and tougher than ever. This summer, on the 7th of August, a new band of courageous riders mounted their steeds deep in the Mongolian steppe to face a grueling 1000km race across the empty wilderness.

The Mongol Derby is based on Ghengis Khaan’s legendary postal system which could relay messages thousands of miles in a matter of days. Like the mighty Khaan’s system, the Mongol Derby relies on a network of horse stations (Morin Urtuu in Mongolian) stretching mile after mile across the Mongolian steppe. With ten days to cover the 1000km course, this is no ordinary horse race; it’s not a test of the horse’s speed but the rider’s skill and endurance.

The Horses
Mongolian horses are steeped in tradition and myth and a central part of Mongolian culture, outnumbering people there seven to one. These hardy animals are tougher than a pair of steel boots and live out on the steppe year-round. Although smaller than other breeds, Mongolian horses are more than capable of carrying the riders. The Derby organizers work with some of Mongolia’s top horse breeders and a network of horse racing associations to gather together a fine batch of healthy horses from across the country.

With over 1000 horses, animal welfare is of paramount importance. All the Mongol Derby horses are carefully selected and checked by vets before taking part. During the event the horses will be treated to an extensive vet support system to respond quickly to any problems and keep them healthy. To ensure horse welfare is at the top of their brave riders’ agendas, and to keep the competition fair, they all have to follow Derby rules. These detail how riders have to present their horses to Derby vets as well as the circumstances under which time penalties and disqualifications are issued.

Saving a bit of the world
The Mongol Derby is organized by The Adventurists in partnership with Tengri Group in Mongolia. Like all of their adventures, the Mongol Derby aims to save a little bit of the world. They believe all of their adventures should give back to the communities that make the adventure what it is. Each rider raises a minimum of £1000 for their two excellent official charities, Mercy Corps and AVSF, to make a genuinely positive impact over and above the benefits of the race itself.

The 2010 Mongol Derby
The Mongol Derby 1000km horse race across Mongolia thundered out onto the Steppe on Saturday, August 7th, and the dramatic horseback adventure saw rider injuries, withdrawals, extreme fatigue and intense competition for first place. Medical response services were provided by the Derby’s Official Medical Partner, Prometheus, who is well known for delivering emergency medical support in remote environments such as the Mongolian steppe. Unfortunately, a South African Rider, Alexandra van Heeren, sustained a broken collarbone during pre-race training and was forced to retire from the race.

Training was held on the steppe by Maggie Pattinson, Chef d’Equipe of the British Home International Endurance Team since 2007 and endurance expert extraordinaire. “If spirits high, bodies showing some wear and tear, even Madonna is tired.The Dark Horse is Richard, who looks no different morning, noon or night,” Maggie was quoted as saying at the halfway point in the race. Maggie’s dark horse is Richard Dyer, a British rider who was in the leading pack during the first half of the race. Justin Nelzen, a former US marine, is the only other man competing in the race and has been a favorite of many. He stated his intentions were to win, but he’d have to overcome Richard and the 12 female riders to win the 2010 Derby.

“Team Juskia” re-enact their ‘Man from Snowy River” fantasies and swoop down a valley for a glorious finish.
Eight days into the majestic Mongol Derby, US rider Justin Nelzen crossed the finish line to claim victory from Saskia van Heeren of South Africa. After 1000kms riding together the margin was narrow, just a few lengths, and both were jubilant after a final sprint for the line on a fine pair of horses.
Justin was hardly out of breath. Having initially made an assault on the finish line the previous night and been forced to turn back in a downpour of biblical proportions, they had a great run in for the final leg the final morning. Said Justin, “We were out in front last night, decided to take it easy this morning, no need to push the horses, we could afford to just look after them. About 300m out, Saskia gave me the nod and we “turned the horses loose” to see what they had and raced to the end. The horses were great, they look great, Saskia and I feel great, the Mongolian people have been great!”
He was full of praise for his team-mate, a Derby veteran from the inaugural race in 2009. “It was a team effort, two horses travel faster than one. Saskia deserves this victory as much as I do, she’s been with me the whole time. We’ve been riding eight days and we’ve had a lot of fun. When times were tough we motivated each other and told each other to “suck it up” a few times! You have to be tough waking up with aches and pains and facing another 12 or 14 hours in the saddle. But it couldn’t have been a better experience.”
Justin found much to admire on his journey. “The scenery is absolutely beautiful. And the people - they take such good care of you. To get to know them, such gracious people, such wonderful horses, was the highlight, said the victorious Justin” When asked what his immediate plans were, he didn’t hesitate; “I’ll be taking a hot shower if I can find one!”
Saskia was still buzzing from her final Derby dash, and in fact still mounted, when she spoke to the organizers. A glutton for punishment, this is her second Mongol Derby, and she insists it will be her last, “Another Derby and my knees will give out permanently!“ “We had a wonderful gallop down the hill to the finish, one arm in the air for balance, it felt like Man from Snowy River. I was half scared we would trip up on the final stretch, or spook at the finish line entourage. Please do not throw me off in front of all of these flags and cameras! It was a great finish! I have a beer in my hand, I’m sat on a horse, and it’s 8 am! Justin and I both agreed it was a big bonus to ride with someone else; it was give and take, you need someone else to help balance the highs and lows. In retrospect the things that were lows at the time become highs when you have endured them and completed the race. We rode in violent hail storms, nearly got struck by lightning, and rode in forty degree heat. I have two swollen knees and my back is in spasm. I am physically broken, but mentally absolutely high. You feel like you have achieved something very grand. The landscape is humbling, but also makes you feel proud. Proud in spite of looking very uncivilized, with our split lips.”
When asked about her experience of surviving on the steppe, she said “Mongolian people are the nicest on the planet, so friendly and so giving. They made a huge effort for us, and it’s an honor to be with them and stay with them, and a privilege that they lend their magnificent horses for us. Danger aside, you feel very safe out here with the Mongolians. It is a wonderful life out here on the steppe, you have to deal with being alone, with no barriers. Unrestricted by social/political constraints, you learn who you are. This is an experience everyone should go through! There is no room for bulls—, silly social worries. It’s pure survival.”

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