Will and I walked up and down the tether line looking for our next two racehorses. We wanted to get two horses that looked about the same and would hopefully go the same speed. Will picked out his horse and before letting the herders put the saddle on he swung up on his horse to take it for a little spin. Once mounted you can tell pretty quickly if your horse has some get up and go. After a couple of bucks Will’s horse quickly broke out into a canter and he knew he picked a good one. I had picked out a speckled chestnut but I wasn’t brave enough to hop on without a saddle. Will immediately gave me his horse to hold and he took Freckles for a spin before the herders could put my saddle on. With a smile and in typical Will fashion said, “I reckon he’s a good one.”
After Will stuffed a couple of handfuls of lollies into his pockets for the ride, we mounted our nervous horses and set off after the other riders who were a bit faster at the urtuu, horse station 1. Wow, did I ever get a great horse this time. Freckles took off at a full gallop and did not care that we were running over rather large stones or through creeks. He had his ears pricked forward and set upon Hanna and her horse far out in the distance. We quickly caught up to Hanna and I was able to rein in Freckles and look over my shoulder to see Will not far behind.
While I was trying to hold Freckles back from another bolting session, Will checked his GPS and confirmed we were still heading in the correct direction. We chatted with Hanna and she was quite happy with her speed demon as well. Will handed out the lollies but I found that I couldn’t hold Freckles from bolting with one hand, so off we went again at neck breaking speeds towards a herder’s ger (nomadic tent/house). This was our first encounter with friendly families waving hello while their guard dogs chased us out of sight.
It was at about this time that we caught up to Tim. I called out to Tim that I had a fast horse that I couldn’t slow down but Tim just waved me on with a smile and gave chase. Normally, at an endurance race I would slow down to a respectable walk and ask if it was safe to pass (or at the very least give as wide a berth as possible). There are very few rules in Mongolian horse racing, and I am not even sure if I know of those rules. After a couple of kilometers up and down the steppe I was able to slow Freckles down to a trot and double check the direction with Will, once again. I had tried to take my GPS out of my pocket which caused Freckles to bolt again. I was so glad I took Jason Tse’s (Mongol Derby Alumni from a few years previous) advice to tie my GPS to my backpack strap. That GPS flapped against my leg and slapped Freckles on the back to bolt faster as we tore up the ground once again.
About five km from the next urtuu Freckles decided that walking was finally a good idea and decided to take a few bites of grass while Hanna’s and Will’s horses took a drink from the creek. Freckles was not interested in drinking but at least the grass was lush enough that I knew he would get some moisture into his gut. At some point during our travels, Tim had taken a different route over a very steep hill with some of the other riders. We could just see a group of three or four on the crest of the hill to our far left. So we decided to just follow the flat path to the urtuu at a nice steady trot to ensure our horses passed the vet check with flying colours.
About one km from the urtuu Hanna, Will and I dismounted and checked our horses heart rates. Freckles was at 60 bpm while the other horses were at the 68-70 bpm mark and dropping nicely. We decided to mount up and continue on at a walk, confident all of our horses would be down at the time we arrived. However, we were not expecting to travel through a bog. The horses struggled with the deep mud as we tried to guide them to higher and drier ground without success. They all started sweating again and we panicked as we knew their heart rates were rising. We could also see the other group of riders coming in on a much smoother path off to the far left.
When we arrived at the vet check we did a trot by mounted (which all three horses passed) and then quickly unsaddled our horses. To help them cool down both Will and I dumped our water packs over their backs and walked them around slowly to bring their heart rates down, again. Both horses were down within 15 minutes even after working so incredibly hard through the bog. We get the opportunity to comment on the vet card about our horses and I wrote down on mine “He is a true racehorse with a heart of gold.”
To save time, Will and I split duties. Once we picked our horses and he took them for a spin (without the saddle), he ensured they were saddled properly by the herders while I took our backpacks and filled them with water and purification tablets. Once the purification tablets are dropped in, I checked my watch to mark the time it would be safe to drink again. I could hear Will calling for me so I popped my head out of the urtuu to see what was going on. He was out of lollies, so it was desperately important that I fill my pockets this time.