Erik Cooper: Reindeer Adventurer and King of the Bloodwagon

Mongol Derby rescue crew member Erik Cooper shares his take on the longest and toughest horse race on the planet.

It was raining, it was cold and it was after the cut-off time for riding when Erik Cooper got the SOS call from a rider in the Mongol Derby. She was less than ¼ of a mile from the horse station, had gotten lost and was stuck on a high ridge. “We didn’t reach her until about 11 p.m. [2 hours later] because it was dark and we had to move at such a slow pace going up,” recalls Erik. “When we got to her, she was pretty hypothermic and a little shaken.” The team got the rider into the jeep, but they couldn’t just leave her horse there. So Erik jumped on the horse and slowly made his way down to the camp. “We got everyone back safe and sound around 2 a.m. or so,” Erik said.

Erik Cooper leading horse Mongolia

“If it’s a medical emergency, the riders will press 911 and the medics will be dispatched, but if they press SOS, it just means they need some sort of assistance,” Erik explained. This is where he comes in. He heads the aptly-named “Bloodwagon,” and performs search and rescue missions for riders in need of help during the Mongol Derby. When the distress calls come in, Erik never knows what sort of disaster he’s about to walk into. “This is what we live for, these rescue missions,” he said.

A 2012 Mongol Derby veteran, Erik is spending his sixth summer in Mongolia this year. In addition to being part of the Mongol Derby race management, he also leads his own expeditions in Mongolia with the Tsaatans, the last tribe on the planet that ride reindeer. “There’s only 44 families left. Pretty rare,” Erik said.

Erik Cooper Reindeer
Erik (center) leading one of his reindeer expeditions

I have Erik to thank for my spot in the Mongol Derby, as he interviewed and selected me to ride in the race. In preparation for my upcoming Mongol Derby adventure, I caught up with him and asked him about his experience and for some advice.

JP: Why did you decide to compete in the Mongol Derby?
EC: I was looking for something to motivate me to get in shape. I thought I’d do something like a Tough Mudder [a 10–12 mile obstacle-course race], but then I stumbled upon the Mongol Derby. I grew up on a horse farm in Missouri and I thought I could handle myself, and what better way to test that than by competing the longest and toughest horse race on the planet?

JP: What was your main goal going into the Derby?
: I think everyone wants to win it, but you don’t know what the hell you’re getting yourself into until you’re over there. All of us have maybe one thing we do instinctually really well, but maybe we’re too afraid of failing at that one thing we’re so passionate about. So we keep living in this safe zone with it because we never want to push past that and be told we aren’t good at what we love to do. My whole goal was I just wanted to prove to myself that I was as good as I thought I was. I wanted to just to throw it all on the line and see what happened.

Erik Cooper swimming reindeer
Erik riding reindeer with the Tsataan tribe, which is the only remaining tribe that still rides reindeer.

JP: What was the biggest surprise about the Derby?
EC: There was one day when I was cold, wet and miserable, and I thought it’ll be fine, because there would be a fire [at the horse station]. That’s what I think of when I think of camping. But there are no trees and so [the Mongolians] burn horse poop as fuel and it doesn’t last too long. I realized I was going to sleep cold and wet and that’s just how it is. I also didn’t realize there are so many wild dogs that are trying to bite you over there. Literally every day you’re pretty much chased by wild dogs.

 JP: So you would recommend I get the rabies vaccine?
Yeahhh. Ya know, either that—or just be fast.

JP: What was one of the craziest moments of your race?
My year was the year that the rider broke his neck, and I was there when it happened. It’s kind of crazy because you sign up for this race and kind of sign your life away. It takes forever for the SOS team to find [riders]. You are in the middle of Mongolia, you are in the wild. So seeing this dude laying there with the broken neck—it became real. When you see it first-hand it’s a game changer and you realize that could be you. It’s not that the person can’t ride. It’s just that the rider was unlucky. Unlucky shit happens.

JP: What was one of the most inspiring moments or something that has stuck with you?
EC: The people of Mongolia. We are complete strangers. We look weird as hell riding up to their homes. They’re just so generous of what they have, even if they don’t have much and they are so hospitable. In what other place in the world do you see strangers taking in strangers, regardless of race or where they come from?  In Mongolia they just take care of you. Now I live there every summer and I get to experience the generosity and hospitality and it’s just incredible. Riding the horses was amazing and so was being in the beautiful scenery—but the people really made it.

Erik Cooper Horses Mongol Derby
Erik with a herder during the Mongol Derby.

JP: Do you consider the Derby more of a mental or physical challenge?
: It’s a combination of both. It will take its toll on you physically, but I think the biggest thing about it is that the human body is able to adapt to certain things, more than what you think. If you’re physically fit and you’ve been riding your ass off, yeah you’re still going to be sore, you’re still going to be tired. But mentally, it can wear on you especially if you’re getting lost all the time and you start letting that get to you. If you start letting yourself get dark-sided, you’ve got to find the light. Mental fortitude and the power of positivity is important. You have to make light out of situations. Try to find humor in everything that happens.

JP: How did you train for the race?
I was living in California riding endurance horses out in the desert, and then I moved back to the East Coast and trained on polo ponies. Then I moved to Missouri and finished training on my own horses back at my parents’ place. The biggest thing is to train on as many different personalities as possible. I think you get more out of riding a variety of horses because that’s what’s really going to give you that power to adapt. You’re riding 28 horses in Mongolia. Each one has his own personality, his own tick. Once you get to Mongolia and you’re on those horses, you can find each one’s match with a horse you trained on at home.

JP: Do you think it’s possible to build a relationship with the horse in such a short amount of time?
(Laughs). You need to connect and understand that individual, I’ll say that (laughs). I don’t know how close of a bond you can build. The biggest takeaway from racing a horse in Mongolia is don’t control him too much. This is his home, he knows what he’s doing. I think we micromanage way too many things [in the U.S.] and we don’t let the horses have their own head and lead the way. Sometimes you just have to let go. Sometimes the horses are going to want to bolt. You think you can control that horse? You can’t. Let it go and just hope that you’re bolting in the right direction.

Erik Cooper with Golden Eagle
Erik on an adventure in the Altai Mountains with a Kazakh Eagle hunting family learning about the ancient Golden Eagle hunting training process.

JP: Do you have any tips on selecting horses?
Look at the terrain that you’ll be crossing next and pick a horse based on that kind of terrain. If you’re going to be in a lot of hills or mountains, pick a horse that looks a little more steadfast and looks like he has some fuel in the tank. If you have flat ground, pick that horse that looks like a speed racer. But then again, it could just be that that horse’s body looks amazing but he decides, ‘I’m not running today.’ And he won’t. So sometimes it’s a crapshoot.

Erik Cooper on Mongol Derby van
Erik and his translator, Yanja, looking out on the horizon for riders during the Mongol Derby.

JP: Was there anything in your kit that you brought and wish you hadn’t?
Fruit snacks. I was like ‘Oh this will be great, I’ll ration these.’ I ate them all by Day 2. Don’t bring those comforts of home. A small roll of duct tape is amazing, obviously some painkillers, anti-chafe cream, a solid rain jacket.  If you’re white as hell, sunblock.

Less is more. You don’t need it. Also, the horses are hyper-sensitive. Think about your gear in respect to the noise it makes, the color and brightness. Does your jacket have a lot of Velcro on it? Don’t bring it!

JP: Any parting words of wisdom?
The biggest thing is having a positive attitude. You should have one moment in your Derby that you want to give up and you want to drop out. And in the moment, that’s going to be where you grow. When you persevere through that and you rally yourself and you get through—that’s going to be the game changer.

Keep up with Erik’s adventures and beyond by following him on Instagram at @ErikCooperAdventurist


Organizing the Mongol Derby

Inaugural competitor Katy Willings shares how she oversees the world’s toughest horse race.

Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce will be competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, in August. As she prepares, she’s reporting on her progress with weekly blogs here at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and www.JPMongolDerby.com and in Tips & Talk in Practical Horseman.

Imagine trying to secure hundreds of Mongolian horses to race 600 miles across rugged and remote terrain. Or selecting 40 riders willing to ride those semi-wild horses, carry only 11 pounds of gear and forego showers and a decent mattress for the seven–10 days the race may last. Or ensuring that enough support people—veterinarians, medics and a crew of native herders, to name a few—are in the right place at the right time throughout the race.

Katy Willings Mongol Derby Mobile Headquarters

Welcome to the life of Katy Willings, chief of the Mongol Derby, who left her management consulting job in London to lead a life of adventure. She sets the race’s course, selects the riders, herders and horses, writes the rules, manages the budget and leads the race crew. In trying to find out more about what to expect during the race, I spoke with Katy who filled me in on the logistical challenges of coordinating the “jewel in the crown of equine adventure” and the types of riders who are most successful.

Logistical Challenges
Challenge #1: The course. Every year Katy, who lives in the U.K., scouts territory for a new Derby route. “We set the course by trying to find the best horses that we can in the most forgiving geography. There must be water and we try to avoid ridiculous passes,” she says. She also avoids bodies of water that the horses can’t cross and areas liable to flood or famine which ends up eliminating vast areas of Mongolia.

Katy Willings Mongol Derby Finish Line

Challenge #2: The horses. Trying to find horses in the off-season who will be at regular intervals throughout the 600 miles during the race is a challenge because “the herders are genuinely nomadic,” Katy explained. There have been times when “we just hit these great big deserts where we don’t see families and it turns out the water got spoiled … and there’s not going to be any families there next summer either, so we kind of have to divert the course.”

A few years ago, when Katy had a 60-mile stretch in the middle of the route without any horses, she started a delivery run, or horse trek, to herd them into position from another area of Mongolia. This year, 10 riders overseeing Katy’s delivery run, called Morindoo which means “mount your horses,” will move almost 50 horses to the last horse station on the course.

Challenge #3: Manning the horse stations. By the time the winner crosses the finish line, about half of the riders will just have reached the midway point. So it becomes a juggling act to make sure enough crew members are at each station for each rider. Katy moves crew members between stations so every rider has a similar experience. “It’s sort of like mobile speed chess going on to make sure the riders coming through every single station have crew there,” she said.

A Profound Affect
Before the logistical challenges of the Mongol Derby were giving Katy headaches, she experienced it firsthand in 2009. Initially the Derby’s organizers, the Adventurists, put Katy on a reserve list, but that didn’t deter the dressage rider who didn’t know anything about endurance. “I rang their office every week or two weeks. But they kept telling me that the list was full.”

Katy Willings Endurance Riding

Three months before the race began, they told Katy she had been accepted and she started working with Maggie Pattinson, “one of the old school endurance gurus of the country.”

“The rhythm of preparing for something that life-changing and that scary, the discipline it imposed on me at the time, it was just so good for me,” Katy recalled. “I got a lot out of the Derby … before we even got to the start line.”

The race had a profound effect on Katy, where she says she learned a lot about survival and horses and most importantly, herself. “Once I wasn’t on social media … the reality of the experience and the proper human-to-human, human-to-horse interaction became much more important,” Katy explained. “I didn’t really care how I looked and that is incredibly liberating. You can just let go of your image for 10 days and just live moment to moment, horse to horse, kilometer to kilometer.

“There aren’t very many experiences that give you that,” Katy added. “This is what it’s about. It was like a full factory reset basically and I think that’s what I like giving to other people as well.”

Katy Willings Mongol Derby
The Derby seems formidable now in its 10th year, but when Katy rode in it, the Adventurists didn’t even know if the race was possible to complete.

Hooked on Mongolia and the Derby experience, Katy wanted to stay involved. “I came to Mongolia and just wanted more,” she recalled. In a similar fashion to the way Katy called the Adventurists constantly to get a spot in the Derby, she kept asking if she could work for them and was eventually brought on board. After overseeing the race for almost a decade, Katy has an idea of what makes competitors successful.

Not All About Winning
“The successful ones deal with the ambiguity,” Katy said. “They can deal with little irritations and knocks and surprises. It’s the kind of resilience where they don’t overplan. They would never say, ‘I’m going to ride this horse at [35 miles] per hour. They’ll just get on the horse … They don’t waste time, but they’re not obsessed with time.”

Katy Willings Mongol Derby 2009

Katy also said that one of the hallmarks of successful riders is that they fully immerse themselves in the experience and aren’t so focused on the competitive aspect of the race that they forget about experiencing the country. “They speak to the families that supplied the horses,” Katy said. “They join in. They’ll help people and be helped by other people.”

“People come to compete, to test themselves, but I think they get a slightly different test of themselves that they maybe envisioned at the point of sign up. I think they picture a classic contest and what they get is a much more holistic reevaluation of themselves.”

To learn more about Katy and her Morindoo tour (still accepting riders for 2018!), visit herwebsite.

In case you missed the first, second and third installments: Destination:MongoliaMongol Derby FAQ and Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable.


Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

U.S. Air Force Captain and Iraq War veteran Tim Finley completed the Mongol Derby in 2016 to raise awareness for a greater cause.

Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce will be competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, in August. As she prepares, she’s reporting on her progress with weekly blogs here at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and www.JPMongolDerby.com and in Tips & Talk in Practical Horseman.

Right before the 2016 Mongol Derby was about to begin, U.S. Air Force Captain and Iraq War veteran Tim Finley stood at the start line with 42 other competitors while Derby Chief Katy Willings gave a “Churchill-style speech,” wishing the riders Godspeed.

As Tim stood in the midst of a “wild writhing throng of ponies” with nervous riders, he realized something that would stay with him throughout his 600-mile ride. “It was kind of hazy and I looked out on the horizon and I realized that no one here had any idea what was on the other side of the horizon any more than I did. And there was no one more comfortable with not knowing what lay ahead,” he said, indicating that his service in the Air Force had prepared him for the unknown. “My ability to be comfortable in conditions where I was uncomfortable gave me an advantage … and as soon as that feeling hit—ice in my veins.”

Tim affirms he never thought about quitting. Not when he was thrown the first day and cracked his pelvis, not when he was in the midst of “biblical” swarms of insects and not when he had a debilitating bout of dysentery. He believes his ability to smile, enjoy the experience and embrace being uncomfortable was what helped him get across the finish line—in 13 place nonetheless.

Tim also had other incentives to compete and complete the Derby: He was competing to face his own demons and to raise awareness for the 22 military veterans that commit suicide every day. He honored them by naming each horse he rode after a veteran that had taken his own life. After he completed a leg, he would write the name on his shirt, eventually carrying the 28 names across the finish line with him. “These are people who never had an example, never had a solution, never had a finish line to cross,” Tim said.

Tim Finley Veterans Suicide Awareness

In preparation for my upcoming Mongol Derby adventure, I had the opportunity to ask him about his experience and for advice when he was spoke at the World Horse Expo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in March.

Q: What was your riding experience before the Derby?
TF: When I applied, I had been riding only for a total of a year and a half. I had never done an endurance race longer than 30 miles. So this was way over my head.

I had been riding a 17-hand Thoroughbred who’s rambunctious and tough to control and he really was good training because I had to stay on my toes. But let’s face it, you can’t be a horseman in a year in a half. (Although Tim claims “you can’t be a horseman in a year in a half,” he was the veterinarian’s choice for good horsemanship for the 2016 Mongol Derby).

Q: What was your Derby preparation like?
TF: I was in really good physical condition when I showed up—I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about horsemanship.

You bring four buckets with you to the Mongol Derby. Horsemanship, athleticism, grit and luck. Grit is a choice, you can choose how much you put in there. Luck—you have no idea what’s in that bucket. But horsemanship and athleticism are the things you can prepare for.

I knew I was going to be riding horses I didn’t know and I knew that was going to be the crux of my success.

To prepare, I did two 50-mile rides a month. I’d travel to different states and people would give me a horse and I’d just ride blindly, hop on a horse and go. And maybe the next day someone would have another horse and I’d ride that one. And then two weeks later I’d go to a different race in a different state and ride a couple a horses there.

Every horse in the race was different so the best thing you can do is to train on a lot of different horses. Not a single one of those horses thinks or operates like a western culture horse. If you use your feet, you’ll spook the horse. If you squeeze your legs, you’ll spook the horse. You have to completely change your language with the horse. Each horse is different.

I knew the more minds I could ride would prepare me the fastest.

As for athleticism, I’m a natural athlete so keeping my balance on the horse and staying in the saddle is something I’m good at naturally. Athleticism I had, grit I had.

Q: Do you have any tips for selecting horses at each checkpoint?
TF: Though all the horses eat the exact same as all the other horses, you’ll see plump, round ones and you’ll see ones who look emaciated. The plump ones are most likely lazy, and the thin ones are runners. So look for thin horses who are in good muscular shape—they should have good tone.

Tim Finley Hits the Dirt Raul

Another thing to look for are galls on the corners of the horses’ mouths. These are from their Mongolian riders pulling back on the reins, an indication a horse is a runner. And horses who are scarred up on the face are good picks because they’re competitive and they’ll run alone or bite to be in the front.

The horses are mostly geldings. Occasionally you’ll get a stallion. You can tell the sex of the horse by the way their hair is trimmed. All of the horses have a long forelock to keep the flies off and have long manes at the withers so you can get up on them bareback. But the geldings by in large have the rest of their manes buzzed and the stallions have their whole mane.

There are occasionally herders who really love the naadam sport [a traditional festival in Mongolia that includes horse racing] and they breed and train racehorses and will loan these horses for the race. The herders are all about presentation. If you present yourself as a fighter, puff up your chest in a warrior ethos kind of way and speak confidently they’ll cue in on that. Bribery also goes a long way. I used snus [snuff tobacco] because it comes in a cool little can that’s waterproof and durable.

Q: How hard was it to make the weight limit?
TF: The weight limit—don’t worry about it. Because if you’re approaching 11 pounds, you’re carrying more than you need. There’s a lot of things you don’t need. It all boils down to what you are comfortable with. And if you are comfortable being uncomfortable, it’s amazing what you don’t need.

Q: You had a different approach to how you carried your supplies and wore a vest instead of using saddle bags. Do you think that was the way to go?
TF: Wearing that kit is comfortable for me, it’s what I’m familiar with. And it made no sense to even have a saddle bag. It would have just been something else to bang around and worry about.

Tim Finley Mongol Derby

People were like, “Where’s your bed roll?” And I would say, “I’m just going to sleep on the ground. What’s the difference?” I crossed the finish line with my stuff and they saw that we as competitors really didn’t need all this. A few competitors since have asked to use my vest. It’s not cheap, but man it works.

Q: How hard was it to navigate?
TF: I just brought a little compass on my wrist. I dead reckoned almost the entire race. Dead reckoning is the process of calculating your current position by using a previously determined position and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over time. I would turn my GPS on at night and go through all the next day’s legs and I would look at the magnetic bearing from each point on the GPS like river crossings, or mountain passes and I would look at that line between them, get the bearing, write it on a little notecard and I would plop it down in this little plastic window on my front pouch and I would just look down, get to that point, point in that direction until I got that magnetic bearing, look and pick out a landmark and then ride to that landmark.

The Mongol Derby doesn’t require navigation training per se, but just an understanding of how a compass works and it’s really as simple as pointing, saying OK that matches, finding a point and then riding to the point.

I realize a lot of people don’t know how to dead reckon and that’s kind of unnerving if you don’t know what you’re doing because you risk going off in the middle of nowhere.

Q: Did you camp by yourself between horse stations?
TF: The one time I did camp out with another rider, it was by chance. We stayed in this old log cabin and slept on logs that were off the ground. There also happened to be a corral next to it so I hobbled my horse and put him in the corral. Always try to camp at a ger with a herding family so that they can help you with your horse if you can, but don’t let them give you water.

Q: A lot of the riders have experienced illness. How did you fare?
TF: I was really sick with dysentery with just six legs left. I was barely coherent. I would ask for the fastest horse, though I was in no condition to ride him. I’d get off the horse and collapse to the ground. And I’d just lay there while the herders tacked up my next horse. I wouldn’t get water or food because there was no sense in it since it would just go through me. So I would get on the horse and while I was on the horse I was actually in more control. It was when I got off that my body shut down. I pushed through three legs and at the end of the day I crashed and was in and out of consciousness. I woke up the next morning and remember hearing people talking like I wasn’t going to finish … I heard the doctor say, “he looks bad.” I remember lugging my saddle out to the horse and hearing the doctor say, “Well I’ll be damned, there he goes.”

Tim Finley Kneeling at Finish
Despite being incredibly ill, Tim crossed the finish line on a “horse that wouldn’t quit” who Tim later learned was a 10-time undefeated naadam champion.

Q: What did your military buddies think about you competing in the race?
TF: Most of the guys I worked with [in the military] knew my backstory and that I going through a tough time when I got back from Iraq, so they were supportive. This group of guys is pretty rough around the edges. There were some jokes about riding ponies, but there was definitely a level of you could die doing this. So they said things like, “You’re crazy man. Good luck. Have fun.” I think the reason why I was doing it made it easier for them to understand.

If you ever get the opportunity to listen to Tim speak, do it. He’s an incredible person with a moving story to share. Watch for his upcoming book, To Live With Honor, a prequel to his Mongol Derby experience and visit his website to sign upfor more details on the release. 



Step One: Learn About Endurance Riding

Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce will be competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, in August. As she prepares, she’s reporting on her progress with weekly blogs here at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and www.JPMongolDerby.com and in Tips & Talk in Practical Horseman.

About 20 miles into a 23-mile ride—my first endurance outing—it occurred to me that maybe I should have learned a little more about long-distance riding before submitting my application for the Mongol Derby. According to the sport’s standards, an endurance ride is at least 50 miles. During the Derby I will need to ride about 75 to 100 miles a day for seven to 10 days. But flying by the seat of my pants is kind of my style, and I still have a few months to learn more.

Prac’s Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce (right) aboard 10-year-old OTTB Siracha with Angela Kemerer on 7-year-old Spotted Saddle Horse Randy.

Since being accepted to participate in the Mongol Derby, I’ve reached out to numerous past competitors to pick their brains on everything from fitness to gear suggestions and general overall advice. I’ve chatted with on-site Derby organizers, including Maggie Pattinson, who’s also chef d’équipe of the England home endurance squad. Maggie is an invaluable resource who’s shared lots of tips about endurance riding, such as learning what 25 miles—the length of one leg of the Derby—feels like so you have an idea of how far you’ve gone, how much farther you have to go, if perhaps you’ve taken a wrong turn or, God forbid, are horseless and need to decide if heading forward to the next station makes more sense or backtracking is the way to go. The guidance Maggie emphasized most was to get as much saddle time now as possible. I have my own horse, but riding one horse for an hour a day simply isn’t enough.

I’ve sought out horsepeople in the greater Washington, D.C. area for more rides. First, I met up with a local racehorse trainer, thinking that galloping on the track would apply to galloping across the Mongolian steppe. While it was a new experience and a total blast, I decided it would be more beneficial for me to rack up miles at a slower pace with endurance riders rather than do four 25-minute trot and hand-gallop sets. So far, I’ve been able to ride with decorated endurance riders and husband–wife team Skip and Angela Kemerer, of Myersville, Maryland, who took me on that aforementioned 23-mile ride, as well as with fellow 2018 Mongol Derby competitors Carol Federighi, an experienced endurance rider, and Matthew Graham, both from Washington, D.C. Skip and Angela showed me how endurance vet checks work, explained the importance of changing your diagonals and leads frequently to help your horse stay sound and patiently answered my rapid-fire questions about their preferred stirrups, breeches and so much else. I’ve also enlisted my patient and accomplished eventing trainer Rose Agard, of Monrovia, Maryland, to work with me on weekly longe lessons on my own horse to improve my seat, balance and coordination and to tighten up my position overall.

I’ve also changed up my out-of-the-saddle fitness plan. I consider myself active and before signing up for the Mongol Derby, a typical day of exercise for me usually consisted of some kind of cardio or high-intensity interval training workout (I see so much of world renowned fitness expert Shaun T on my computer screen that sometimes I forget he isn’t actually my personal trainer), a 4- to 5-mile hike and a ride on my mare. But now I’ve kicked things up a bit, adding more core conditioning and isometric exercises with barre classes three to four times a week and spin classes two to three times a week to target my legs and glutes. On the weekends when I don’t have an endurance ride I go for a long hike, at least 15 miles, to challenge both my physical fitness and my mental toughness.

Focusing on my physical fitness has been my main priority so far, but I’ve got plenty of other things to consider. Researching and testing gear has become an obsession. I’ve spent hours upon hours reading reviews of the best and latest helmets, riding breeches, stirrups, down jackets, sleeping bags—the list goes on—to figure out what will make up my precious 11-pound allotment.

Throughout this process, it’s occurred to me how truly generous horsepeople can be. I’ve cold-called several people who’ve willingly agreed to let me ride their prized horses without ever seeing me ride–to help me reach my goal. They’ve patiently answered my rookie questions, given me useful tips and shared encouraging words about my big adventure. I know that I can’t prepare for the starting line all on my own and that to log miles in the saddle I must rely on others—sometimes even total strangers—to help,but so far it hasn’t been a problem and for that I am incredibly thankful.

In case you missed the first and second installments—Destination:Mongolia and Mongol Derby FAQ.  


The Mongol Derby: 600 Miles in 10 Days (or Less)

Photos Courtesy Richard Dunwoody/Mongol Derby

The Mongol Derby is a bit unique and usually emboldens lots of questions about the who, what, why, where and how. Here are the 11 most frequently asked questions I’ve encountered since signing up for the Mongol Derby.

Over the past few months as I’ve slowly told family, friends and acquaintances about my upcoming adventure in Mongolia, I’ve found that an onslaught of questions about the race, how it works and why in the world I’d want to do it usually follows in rapid succession; understandably so, because there is a lot to the Mongol Derby. Here are the 11 most frequently asked questions I’ve encountered over the past nine months:

Mongol Derby 14

1. What is the Mongol Derby?
The Mongol Derby is a 600-mile (more or less) horse race that loosely follows the route created by Genghis Khan in 1224 to carry riders whose mission was to deliver information and facilitate communication throughout the empire. This year will be the Mongol Derby’s 10th year and the route that the 40 competitors follow changes year to year, but is likely to include the following variety of terrain; high passes, green open valleys, wooded hills, river crossings, wetland and floodplains, sandy semi-arid dunes, rolling hills, dry riverbeds and open steppe (characterized by grassland plains without trees and extreme temperatures). Riders must balance survival skills and horsemanship as they use their own navigation to figure out how to get to 25–28 checkpoints.

2. Where is Mongolia?
Mongolia is a landlocked nation in East Asia, located to the north of China and south of Russia. About one-third of the country is nomadic or semi-nomadic, meaning they live in portable dwellings and practice seasonal migration, moving from one place to another in search of grasslands for their animals and are still very much dependent on the horse.

3. How long is this going to take?
I’ll be arriving in the capital city Ulaanbaatar on August 1. Pre-race training will be held from August 5–7, during which riders will receive medical briefings, veterinary briefings, technical training and riding practice, both on the steppe and in the classroom. Then, the race begins on August 8 and will run until August 17. This means riders have 10 days to complete the race, but if you want to win, you will likely need to finish by day 7. Riders can ride only between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.; essentially daylight hours.

4. Have you done this before?
I have never competed in the Mongol Derby, or even a 50-mile endurance competition. I’ve ridden almost my whole life but before applying for the Derby had zero endurance-riding experience.

5. Are you bringing your horse?
This question tends to be from my non-horsepeople friends, and while I wish I could pick a team of horses to bring with me, I’ll be riding 25–28 different semi-wild native horses, on loan from local herders. While there will be many challenges in the Mongol Derby, perhaps the biggest challenge and unknown factor will be the horses.

Mongol Derby

The Mongolian horse is unique in that he hasn’t been affected by outside influence—the horses out on the steepe today have changed little since Genghis Khan’s time. Small in stature—between 12 and 15 hands—Mongolian horses have short necks and short legs but are incredibly sturdy and tough. And they have to be tough because they live out on the steepe year round, in huge feral herds, enduring extreme temperatures, eating grass and little else and drinking water when they can find it.

Horse welfare is the Derby’s primary concern and the rules of the race are in place to protect the horses. For instance, horses must all pass a vet check in which the horse must be sound and meet a heart rate of 56 bpm. If, after 30 minutes, the heart rate is still above 56 bpm, the rider will serve a penalty. Because the horses are small, riders can bring just 11-lbs of gear and cannot weigh more than 188 lbs. dressed to ride.

Vet Emma Alsop checks MG's horse at HS15 under the watchful eye of herders

While riders will be trying to travel 75-100 miles a day, each horse will travel about 25 miles or so, and each horse is used only for one leg during the Derby. It’s first come first serve at the horse stations, so riders that get in first get their pick of the horses.

Mongol Derby 14

6. What’s the prize money?
As far as I can tell, there might be a trophy for the winner. This is the point where I usually lose non-horsepeople, who can’t seem to understand why anyone would want to ride in this sort of race with no chance of bringing home a bucketful of money.
Which takes me to the next FAQ that usually follows …

7. How much does this cost?
The entry fee is a steep $12,995 and that doesn’t include other expenses like travel costs, extra medical insurance, gear, training, etc., etc. But there’s a reason for the hefty price tag and it all makes sense to me. To put on an international horse race with 40 competitors and 1,400 horses, you’ll need a support crew. This includes the veterinarians needed to care for the horses, the team of medics to care for the riders and the 150 herders who generously loan out their horses. The entry fee also goes toward the three days of pre-race training and use of a saddle that’s custom built for the Mongolian horse. Practical Horseman’s parent company, Active Interest Media, has generously picked up my entry fee. Thanks, AIM!

8. Where do you stay?
Riders can stay at horse stations, called urtuus, in yurts, called gers with families that have been vetted by the Mongol Derby race organizers. Alternatively, riders may want to maximize their riding time and get ahead by riding out of a urtuu close to the time they must be off the horse and then camp out between urtuus or find a family to take them in for the night. While this is a great race strategy to get ahead it does have its drawbacks and adds another risk component. First, riders are responsible for the horses, so it will be up to the rider to secure the horse for the evening, graze him, find him water and then saddle him and get on him without any assistance in the morning. Staying with a non-Derby family can be a good alternative to camping out alone as they can provide more security to riders and horses, but they haven’t been assessed by the Derby crew, so riders must be cautious.

Mongol Derby Ger

9. Do you speak Mongolian?
I’ve yet to learn a word of Mongolian, but I do have a phrase book and dictionary I was gifted by one of my best friends at Christmas. Words like lost or help willprobably be useful. Several Derby veterans have said it’s a good idea to carry a note in Mongolian that explains the situation you’re in, especially when looking for a place to stay in the evening. Something to the effect of: I’m riding in a race and I need a place to stay. Can you help me? Previous Derby riders have also hinted that nonverbal cues can go a long way and that offering herders at the urtuus tobacco or western novelties might help you get the fastest horse. Additionally, herders are more likely to pick out the best and fastest horses from the line-up for competitors whose horses come in good condition from the legs and whose riding style they like.

10. Is this safe?
This a question that comes up quite a bit, especially from my parents (multiple times), friends’ parents and pretty much anyone who seems to remotely tolerate me. Of course there are risks in any equestrian sport and even more so in the Derby—that’s part of the fun—but there are safety measures in place for when things totally go awry. Riders are all given a GPS tracker, so that not only can those in their armchairs at home follow along, but so that officials know where you are and if you are riding when you shouldn’t be. Riders also have an SOS button they can push if they get into real trouble. While it might take the support crew a few hours to find you, they will eventually come to assist.

SN AH AN and DR ride into the finish of the MD 2016

11. So, why do you want to do this?
This is probably the question I get asked the most and maybe even the question I ask myself the most.

Mongol Derby 14

I’ve been intrigued and have followed the race every year since learning about it in 2013 from American cowboy Will Grant’s firsthand experience in Outside magazine. Almost always stricken with a severe case of wanderlust and thirst for adventure, I have always had the Mongol Derby in the back of my mind as a true adventure I could undertake someday. It seems to fall in line pretty succinctly with my three main passions: horses, travel and exploring the outdoors. I’m excited to experience one of the last surviving nomadic cultures, especially one with such a profound connection to horses while challenging myself physically and mentally and having a great big adventure and (hopefully) a little fun along the way.


Travel, Uncategorized

Destination: Mongolia

This summer I’ll be competing in the Mongol Derby, which is touted as the longest and toughest horse race in the world.

Come Aug. 1, I’ll fly some 6,500 miles from Washington, D.C., to the nation that lies between Russia and China and is known for vast rugged expanses and a nomadic culture. I’ll have three days of pre-race training. Then on Aug. 8 the 600-mile adventure will begin.

Jocelyn Pierce Mongol Derby

I was introduced to the Mongol Derby in 2013 through a firsthand account by American cowboy Will Grant in Outside magazine. Captivated, I scoured the Internet for more about the race, which loosely follows the route created by Genghis Khan in 1224 to carry riders whose mission was to deliver information and facilitate communication throughout what would become the largest contiguous empire in history. Every year, I followed the race. But it wasn’t until last summer, when someone I’d met—Tennessean Leslie Wylie from the website Eventing Nation—was a competitor, that it occurred to me maybe I could be one, too.

I was surprised when less than a week after submitting my application I had an interview with Erik Cooper, a former Mongol Derby competitor and current support-crew member. He was convinced I was a shoo-in. Truth be told, I wasn’t as sure. As an eventer, I have zero endurance-riding experience and the most time I’ve ever spent in the saddle in one day was for six hours on a horse trek in Ireland. But I’ve been a lifelong horsewoman and have ridden my fair share of headstrong horses. I grew up riding at a small training and breeding farm in Massachusetts, where I helped to saddle-break babies and retrain problem horses—among them my own Arabian mare, who was wildly inappropriate as a child’s horse. She put me in a wheelchair with a broken leg and arm three days before the start of seventh grade. More importantly, she taught me how to sit a buck and what it means to have determination and patience.

I hope those traits will serve me well during the Mongol Derby as I ride 25 different semi-wild horses—on loan from local herders—for roughly 25 miles apiece as I cover each day’s route of between 75 and 100 miles. Along with 39 other international competitors, I’ll be racing for seven to 10 days. I know I will be tested in many ways. Even so, I can’t think of a better way to pursue my three passions: horses, travel and exploring the outdoors. At age 30, I’ve already hiked the Alps while studying in Europe and made a solo seven-week journey across the United States to experience all that the country’s National Parks have to offer. Now I’m eager to immerse myself in one of the last surviving nomadic cultures on the planet—one with a profound connection to and dependence on the horse.

As they did in the 13th century, modern-day Mongolians rely on horses for their livelihood, using them for travel, herding, hunting and racing. Small in stature but sturdy and resilient, Mongol horses are said to have remained largely unchanged since Genghis Khan’s time. They live off the land in huge feral herds in harsh conditions year-round. Ridden infrequently, they become nearly wild and must be caught and broken each time they are to wear a saddle.

Whatever challenges the horses present to their riders in the Mongol Derby, their welfare is paramount. Each one must pass a vet check before a rider can move on, and time penalties will be imposed when a horse has an elevated heart rate, shows signs of lameness, is overridden or on course beyond the prescribed time for each phase of the race. A rider who incurs sufficient penalties will be pulled from the derby. In addition, all riders must comply with a weight limit and may carry only 11 pounds of gear so the horses aren’t overtaxed.

I’m incredibly grateful that Practical Horseman’s parent company and my employer, Active Interest Media, has generously paid the $12,995 entry fee, which helps support both the Mongolian families who help make the race possible and the official race charity, Cool Earth, which works in partnership with indigenous communities to end rain-forest destruction.

Traditionally, only half of those who start the Mongol Derby finish. So there are lots of things for me to consider as I get ready—my physical fitness, the clothing I’ll wear and the equipment I’ll pack to name just a few. In the coming months, I’ll be sharing my experiences as I prepare for and participate in this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Follow my progress in Practical Horseman and here at http://www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and http://www.JPMongolDerby.com.


Jocelyn Takes on 2018 Mongol Derby

Jocelyn will be tackling her biggest adventure yet in August 2018.

The challenge: completing a 620-mile race on semi-wild horses across Mongolia … without getting seriously injured. Known as the toughest and longest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby is inspired by the “pony express” system created under Genghis Khan in 1224, which was instrumental in the expansion of the Mongolian Empire.

Jocelyn Treya

There is no trail or marked course, but riders must hit 25 horse stations/checkpoints over 7-10 days, using their own navigation. Riders can only carry 11 pounds of gear and rely on local herders for food and shelter or camp out alone under the stars.

Hundreds of hopefuls apply to compete in the race but only 40 international competitors are selected. Historically, half complete the race. To stand a chance of finishing, riders must balance survival skills and horsemanship, preparing to endure harsh weather conditions, headstrong horses and unforeseen challenges.

Wait … why is she doing this?

Jocelyn has followed the derby every year since first reading about it in Outside magazine in 2013 and has always kept it in the back of her mind as a true adventure to undertake one day.

She’s always stricken with a severe case of wanderlust and thrives on finding the next adventure to plan. With the added horse component, the Derby is the most epic challenge and journey she can think of. Immersing herself in one of the last surviving nomadic cultures on the planet, especially one with such a connection to and dependence on horse seems like an incredibly unique and special experience.

Most importantly, each Derby competitor’s entry fee helps gives back to Mongolian families who help make the race possible and the official race charity, Cool Earth, works in partnership with indigenous communities to end rainforest destruction.

The Derby’s effort to foster an understanding of the importance of protecting and preserving wild places like Mongolia is of high importance to Jocelyn. Contributing to the Cool Earth’s mission of stopping deforestation gives the adventure even more meaning

Plus, with her previous USPS mail carrier experience, she’s pretty much a shoe-in … this whole pony express thing should be a breeze … right?

Treya USPS Post Office Pony Express

Why Jocelyn needs your help:
The race is expensive! Though a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the race is not without costs.

The $12,995 entry fee goes toward:
The Horses-Riders compete on 25-27 different horses, plus 3 for training, and need the assistance of 150 nomadic herders
The Support-A team of vets, a team of medics, and a race crew (to ensure the race is run fairly and smoothly)
Pre-race Training-Three days of medical briefing, veterinary briefing, technical training, and riding practice, both on the steppe and in the classroom.

Jocelyn is asking for $16,000 to help cover some of the other costs she will likely incur: flight ($1,800?), additional medical insurance (and after-the-fact medical bills depending on how things go…), travel insurance, training and gear, etc. etc.

Funds raised beyond travel expenses will be donated evenly between The Cool Earth and the Brooke.

Gifts for Donors as a Thank You for Your Generous Support:

Any donation: Jocelyn’s eternal gratitude and updates on pre-race training and prep, and the Mongol Derby aftermath!

Donation of $50 or more: Jocelyn’s eternal gratitude and freshly baked cookies made by Jocelyn herself

Donation of $200 or more: Jocelyn’s eternal gratitude, freshly baked cookies and a Mongol Derby t-shirt

Click here to donate. 

For more info, visit Jocelyn’s Mongol Derby Facebook Page.