It’s known far and wide as the longest and toughest horse race in the world. A 1000km course that follows Chinggis Khaan’s legendary postal system across the Mongolian wilderness. Extreme weather conditions, semi-wild horses and unfamiliar food and terrain mean that it’s a challenge taken on by very few.
Each year around 40 riders compete for the derby crown. But it isn’t just horsemanship, survival skills and determination that are tested during the event. Daniel Reeds took on this year’s derby with his fiancé Sarah. Here he tells us how their relationship faired whilst taking part in the longest horse race in the world.
A whole range of emotions flowed through me as I waved on the other two riders, not wanting them to risk their own race for the sake of ours, which now meant I was on my own in the middle of Mongolia with no idea of where my fiancé was or whether she was safe…
But once we’d slowed down, and joined two other riders, I made a major mistake, I forgot for a moment that the horses we were riding were still semi-wild. As we stopped briefly to graze the animals, I causally shifted my foot so Sarah could check whether my girth (used to keep the saddle on) was tight enough. The moment my boot touched the horse’s side it did a huge bronc, catching me totally off guard and sending me flying over its head. As I hit the floor I had a split second to decide whether to hold on to horse’s lead rein and risk serious injury or let go and potentially lose the horse. I decided the latter, but instantly regretted it as I watched in disbelieve as, complete with all my gear, the horse span on a six pence and galloped back the way we’d come. Without a second’s thought Sarah asked ‘should I go after it’ and still slightly in shock I said ‘yes’ and watched her disappear in a cloud of dust.
We spotted the horse on a small hill and I watched in awe as Sarah used her horsemanship skills to reign in the rogue horse; that’s when the day’s adventures really began.
When the adrenaline had subsided however, and I had a chance to reflect on the day, my overwhelming feeling was that of pride; not with myself for surviving, but with Sarah for the way she unquestionably put her own life at risk to recover my horse.
It wasn’t the first or last time, during the nine and a half days racing, that I would look over at my fiancé and simply think ‘wow’. A day after dealing with the bucking bronco, the riding took us through mosquito infested river valleys. That evening when Sarah took off her riding tights I was gobsmacked by the state of her legs. Hundreds of insect bites had swollen up and joined to form one big inflamed mass. By far the worst bites I had ever seen, later in the week they would leave the entirety of Sarah’s hamstrings black from bruising, but not one word of complaint ever left her lips. Nor had it during the first days of racing when temperatures had reached 38 degrees and numerous riders had to be put on drips for dehydration and the race favourite pull out after she collapsed with heat exhaustion for a second time. Nor later in the race when, in the mountains, we spent a full day in the rain and near freezing temperatures with riders fainting around us from hypothermia.
It wasn’t just Sarah’s endurance that impressed me. Her commitment to ensuring each and every one of the 56 horses we used stayed safe and healthy reflected her true passion for the animals we rode. Even when one of her horse’s sunk up to his belly in a swamp, and I looked on uselessly in stunned disbelieve, she refused to dismount and gently encouraged the horse to keep moving and get itself out of trouble.
The ride wasn’t just about difficult times testing our relationship’s strength however and there were beautiful moments we shared which will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Of the breath-taking sunsets we saw, inspirational nomads we met and stunning horses we rode it was an encounter early on the ride that I will remember most fondly. On the first night of the race we didn’t make it to an official camp and instead spent the evening with a local family, whose hospitality I will never forget; as they cooked us dinner in their small ger, looked after our horses and made room for us to sleep. As we rode out of the valley, where the ger was located, the following morning I looked over at Sarah galloping across a picture perfect meadow, with the sun rising behind rolling hills, and felt totally at peace with the world; if I can replicate that feeling just a few times in our marriage I know it will be a very happy one.
Doing the race together has not only given Sarah and I an experience we will share forever, and acted as an incredible test of our relationship, which I think we passed with flying colours, it’s also the first time in my life, so far filled with personal tests and challenges, that I’ve been able to truly answer the question ‘am I strong human being?’ My own personal hang ups and inhibitions will never let me self-congratulate or acknowledge my own achievements too much, but having lived the world’s hardest horse race alongside my fiancé, seen the hardships she went through, and the incredible determination she showed in doing so, I know I must have ‘done alright’ to complete it alongside her! So only one question now remains for us…what next?
Daniel and Sarah were raising money for charity and have so far raised over three thousand pounds – you can still donate to their cause here.
Daniel and Sarah raised money for the charities Azafady and Cool Earth, two organisations that help preserve at risk environments and empower individuals who live there, and would like to thank everyone who sponsored them. They would also like to thank their kit sponsors Derriere Equestrian, Primal Pantry, Vango and Hy Equestrian.
Picture credits: Saskia Marloh www.saskiamarloh.com
For more information about the Mongol Derby, head over to the website here.