The Hunger Games on horseback: Five ways to survive the Mongol Derby

Attempting the longest, toughest horse race on earth is not an effort to be taken lightly. The Mongol Derby is a 1,000-kilometre race starting east of Ulaanbaatar and ending near Lake Hovsgol in Siberia – at least that was the route this year - aboard semi-wild horses. Each year around 40 international riders gather in Mongolia to try their skills and luck at the event. Up to 40 per cent won’t finish due to injury and exhaustion. I was one of the lucky ones, crossing the finish line after riding 28 different horses for nine straight days.

My journey began 12 months previous, when I came to the conclusion I needed an adventure to break the tedium in my life (working as a copy editor, I’m more desk jockey, then, well, real jockey). For the next year I dedicated my life to training for the race and raising the funds to pay the $17,000 entry fee. I grew up on a farm and have been riding since I was five years old, so I figured I had enough horse knowledge to see me through the challenge. I knew the race would be tough, but nothing could prepare me for what the Derby threw at me. By Day 3, after heat stroke, wild dog attacks and nasty falls from our wild mounts, we’d nicknamed the race The Hunger Games on Horseback.

The water smells like woodstove and tastes like goat, but you need to drink it in mass quantities if you don’t want to end up like the rider who was evacuated for kidney failure

To make it extra fun, the race officials only allow you to bring 11 pounds of gear, which means things like clean socks and underwear often get left behind for more important items, like anti-chafe cream. Luckily, there are plenty of things that don’t weigh an ounce that you can bring along that will help you significantly more than a fresh change of clothes.

Liz Brown during the Mongol Derby
Liz Brown during the Mongol Derby

1. Grit

You need to dig deep and find your inner John Wayne. You need to be a cowboy (girl) and tame the wild west (or east, as it were). You will have ridden for eight straight hours in the baking sun across the dusty steppe. You will need to change horses. You will watch as three Mongolian herders rope a wild horse from their motorcycles and then wrestle a saddle on its back. Don’t worry, it’s not always this complicated, more often the horses will be tied up waiting for you to pick, just don’t get too close, they like to kick and bite. But if you want the herders respect, you won’t ask for a ‘kind’ horse. Instead, you’ll take a deep breath, swing your leg over the horse you’re given and hold on tight as it bucks, rears and bolts halfway to Russia before it settles down.

 2. An iron stomach

The water smells like woodstove and tastes like goat, but you need to drink it in mass quantities if you don’t want to end up like the rider who was evacuated for kidney failure due to dehydration, or the other rider who started peeing blood because of heat exhaustion. You will eat goat in ways you’ve never thought possible – fried, boiled, steamed, souped. As a hospitable gesture, many Mongolians will offer you sips of ayrag – boozy, fermented horse milk that tastes like liquid parmesan cheese with a bit of fizz. Oh, you’re a vegetarian? That’s cute! You think Genghis Khan conquered half the world on a diet of kale!? It’s all strong smelling and flavoured meat and dairy out there on the steppe, and you better quickly learn to like it. Don’t worry, it’s not all goat gruel. A kindly race official may offer you a sip of Coca-Cola on the fourth day, or you may find a dusty gummy worm tossed aside by the veterinarians 40 kilometres from the finish line.

Liz Brown with friends at the Mongol Derby
Liz Brown with friends at the Mongol Derby

3. Good navigation skills

Most of the riders showing up at the start line of the Mongol Derby are accomplished horsemen (women), but they couldn’t navigate out of their own neighbourhoods. Being a good navigator is as valuable as being a good rider out there in those wide open, unfamiliar spaces. I figured I’d learn to use my GPS while I was on the back of a galloping horse and ended up stuck on the edge of a cliff in the middle of a thunderstorm, having to backtrack a full two kilometres to find the trail again. If you want to avoid an emotional breakdown, don’t make the same mistake.

4. A sense of humour

The skin is going to start peeling off your arse. You will get bucked off and dragged for half a kilometre as Mongolian kids point and laugh at you. If you slow down to try to experience the magic of the wide open spaces, you will get chased by a pack of wild dogs. You will gallop for so many kilometres that you will barf up the goat stew you ate at the previous horse station – while still galloping. One hour you will be aboard a horse you can’t control as it bolts across the countryside, while the next hour you will be desperately trying to encourage movement out of the laziest horse you’ve ever met. All of these situations can cause rage and tears, but the better thing to do is laugh – laugh at the ludicrousness of the situation – a situation you paid half your salary to put yourself in because you were bored and thought you needed an ‘adventure.’

Competitors test their physical and mental limits on the backs of wild horses in Mongolia.
Competitors test their physical and mental limits on the backs of wild horses in Mongolia.

 5. The ability to hold your liquor

If you’re lucky enough to finish this 1,000 kilometre adventure, you will now be subjected to three days of partying with a group of people who have stared down death for the last week and a half. They know the definition of “partying like there’s no tomorrow” and will engage in drinking activities such as the ‘boot shoot’ (chugging booze out of someone’s old cowboy boot). When they’ve imbibed a sufficient amount, they will begin herding yaks into the finish camp, which requires you to maintain motor skills while intoxicated so you can avoid being run down by a wayward ruminant.