We were randomly assigned our racehorses on Day 1, Leg 1 of the 2016 Mongol Derby. Well, some of us received racehorses and the rest of us received well behaved trail ponies. I knew the moment I boarded “Snowball” that he was a well behaved trail pony. There was no bucking, no pulling at the bit, nothing that gave me the impression this first leg would be won by Snowball.
We walked around while we waited for the rest of the 40 riders to be assigned their respective horses. I mentioned to my riding partner, Will, an Australian rodeo rider/cattle rancher, that I had a slow one. Will, on his racehorse, ran a few circles around Snowball hoping to get him fired up but Snowball was more interested in eating. We hoped those last minute electrolytes would help him get through the next 35 km.
Katy, the Adventurists Chief, asked us all to gather at the start line while she read a few quotes of inspiration and gave us a few last minute instructions. Then with a wave of the flag and a quick scurry to the sidelines, we were off. I admit I was nervous as I had seen numerous other start line pictures of horses kicking, bucking or shying from whatever, just in an attempt to rid themselves of their most unusual cargo.
Snowball easily broke into a lovely lope. He had no urgency, no reaction to the billowing flags, completely ignored the photographers hiding in the grass or the support vehicles roaring by. Although we were at the start of the pack off the starting line, very quickly everyone passed us. We watched as people whooped and hollered as they tried to get the best start they could. I urged Snowball on with my newly learned Mongolian horse cue which is “choo, choo”. Yes, just how it is written, we pretended we were trains in order to get the horse to run. I felt ridiculous, not just by how funny it sounded but also because it had absolutely no effect on Snowball.
I noticed some commotion out of the corner of my eye and it appeared as though a group of riders were taking a break from riding. As it was a rather large group, I left them alone. I later found out that someone had taken a nasty fall and the group was offering some much needed medical assistance.
I noticed Will rather far up ahead stopped with his back to the wind. Thankfully, Will was lighting a cigarette, which allowed me to catch up but he motioned for me to keep going as he would easily catch me when he was done attending to other business.
I watched as the last of the stragglers passed me and disappeared over the ridge. Will and I were trotting along, enjoying the scenery, still so amazed that we were actually here, in Mongolia, riding horses in the longest and toughest horse race in the world. When we finally crested the ridge we noticed about three pairs of riders watering their horses in the river. We were glad to have finally caught up to a few riders as we were riding alone for quite some time. Even though we weren’t moving fast, Snowball appeared to be melting and was quite happy to stand in the cool water and eat grass for the rest of the day.
After a five minute break we decided it was time to carry on. We had noticed most of the riders had gone off to the right but our respective GPSs pointed us in a different direction. We decided that since both of our GPSs were in agreement that we would continue on that route.
Finally, out in the distance we could see the first urtuu (horse station 1). About 200 metres from the urtuu we dismounted and checked our horses pulse rates. Snowball’s heartrate was surprisingly high at about 90 bpm. While Will’s racehorse was at 70 bpm. We took them over to the stream to drink some more and cool them off while they ate lush grass. Eventually Snowball had reached 65 bpm, so we decided to make our way to the vets and present.
We both received good marks on the condition of the horses and eventually both horses heart rates came down to the required 56 bpm. The vets said we made good time, which was surprising as we moved slowly due to Snowball’s lack of conditioning. We asked how far behind the last people we were and we were advised that we were the first ones to come into the urtuu!
Will and I both burst out laughing. We thought for sure the vets were making fun of us but they showed us the ranking sheet which had Will and I in first and second place. Will looked at me and said “I reckon we should just win this thing.” It seemed like the thing to do, so I agreed and we walked over to the tethering line to pick out our next two racehorses.