Blog, Travel

Mongol Derby Part III: Sometimes You Just Have to Close Your Eyes

Only partway on my sleeping pad, I woke up to the sound of a downpour, with a pit in my stomach over the dream: I was mounted on the silvery gray gelding and we were somersaulting, head over heels, down a big grassy hill. Rolling over on the sleeping pad in a ger at HS28, I drifted back into fitful dreams of crashing and burning with just the final leg—a mere 18 miles—of the 600-mile Mongol Derby to go.

Covering ground on Day 6
Bill Selwyn/Mongol Derby

The next morning, my gloves couldn’t grasp the slippery suede reins as my horse thundered down the steep and slick slope in the rain, throwing clumps of mud behind us, his neck outstretched, his nose nearly touching the ground. I shut my eyes tightly for a moment thinking back to my dream, just hours before. I took a deep breath, pushed my legs way out in front of me and leaned back as far as I could. I was on a naadam, or race, horse—one of my best horses of the whole race—but we were in a dead heat racing against another rider to the finish line. My mount was damned if someone was going to pass him—or worse, stop him.

“You OK, Joc?” yelled Ed Archibald, upon probably seeing that my eyes were closed on the downhill. “Is this what a panic attack feels like?” I shouted back.

My team of six, including Ed, his two brothers, Rob and Jack, their cousin Henry Bell, and Michael Turner hadn’t seen another rider for 3 or 4 days when Valeria Ariza, who had been riding solo, caught up to our group coming into HS28, the last station before the finish line, at the end of Day 7. We had an amiable evening, swapping stories, sharing a meal and ger, but now the six of us and Valeria were in a heart pumping, or for me, heart stopping dash to the finish.

The “Archibells,” Mike and I had come a long way from HS15 and the trials and tribulations of Black Beauty—13 stations to be exact, and each leg was unique as the horses.

On the morning of Day 5, our horses weren’t on the line when it was time to head out, and so we piled into some vans with our saddles to find them. At the next station, there was no vet there to check our horses once we arrived and so we waited for 45 minutes debating on whether or not we should just head out (we waited). We had duds, we had bolters, we crossed rivers, we covered ground.

By the evening of Day 6, I was pretty worn out. I wrenched my back at some point on Day 5, when I overcompensated by pulling my horse up and sharply to the right after he took a clumsy digger in a marmot hole. My back had held up pretty well, but as we prepared to ride out from our fourth station of the day, the pain was pretty intense. Mike gave me a couple sugar tabs to perk me up, and I shuffled over to the horse line.

I usually didn’t ask the herders for help selecting horses, but this time motioned that I was very tired and needed a calm, but fast horse. One of the herders must’ve sensed my desperation and seemed to say “Aha, I have just the horse for you!” as he walked immediately over to a cream-colored gelding with an endearing little fluffy forelock. As soon as we were galloping out of the horse station I knew I had an absolute gem. His gaits were smooth and rhythmic, and he followed the horses in front of him, not caring in the least that one of my hands was pushed forcefully into the side of his neck, holding jumbled reins and the other clutched a fistful of mane as I mustered my best impression of a two-point, flopping along like a rag doll and gritting my teeth.

Mongol Derby Favorite Horse
The horse that the herder chose for me on the evening of Day 6, and one of my favorites of the race. He even let me pat him and hobble him without a fuss!
Courtesy, Jocelyn Pierce

We were aiming for a well that was marked on the map, thinking we could water our horses there and hopefully there would be a family nearby to take us in. There was a collection of gers on top of a hill close to the well, and Mike headed up with his note to see if our large group could stay. The young woman began jumping up and down with excitement about the prospect of guests and sent her husband into town to get supplies for dinner. We grazed and watered our horses and then put them in the small, convenient corral behind the ger.

“Spaghetti?” our charming hostess asked. And with an enthusiastic and simultaneous response from our group, she smiled, nodded and went to work. She prepared a spread like no other. We had a smattering of appetizers to hold us over—fresh jam, something similar to clotted cream, bread and what looked to be yesterday’s dinner of rice and meat accompanied with nori sheets that she motioned to roll up like sushi—while she worked on dinner, chopping vegetables on her cutting board on the floor. She was slicing and dicing everything with such precision and expertise that we might as well have been watching an episode of Top Chef. “She’s really going to town, isn’t she?” asked Rob. We sat around in the ger for close to two hours, as her friends and family stopped by to meet us and have a cup of milk tea. It wasn’t until well after 10:30 pm when she finally presented us with her masterpiece—Spaghetti Bolognese à la Goat, beautifully garnished with a cherry tomato cut in quarters on each plate.

When it was time to go to bed, she motioned to us that she, her husband and their 1-year-old daughter would sleep in their van and we could sleep in the ger, which we adamantly refused. We happily rolled out our sleeping bags outside, doing our best to avoid piles of goat poop. It was easily my favorite night of the whole Derby. I had a good horse, a full belly and there were more shooting stars in the night sky than I could wish upon.

Mongol Derby Night 6
Jack, Henry, Ed and Rob grazing their horses in the morning before our 6:30 am start.
Courtesy, Jocelyn Pierce

The next morning, we were up at 5 a.m. to graze and water our horses, but our hostess had already been up for who knows how long. She made us delightful cups of coffee with little chocolate sprinkles on top. Then, still in her chic nightdress, she strolled into the corral to help Rob, whose horse was so wild he needed to be hobbled to be saddled. Our seemingly dainty hostess held Rob’s horse by the ears, reprimanding him in a no-nonsense tone as Rob tightened the girth.

Mongol Derby Rob Saddling
Rob saddling his difficult horse with the help of our hostess. 
Courtesy, Jocelyn Pierce

One of the things that struck me the most about this country was how, time and time again, the Mongolian people came to our rescue with a true willingness to help total strangers. In what other place in the world could you walk up to someone’s house, not speak the language, look totally different and know that, without a doubt, they would gladly take you in, feed you, feed your horses and let you sleep under the same roof? It’s truly magical. And I’m not just talking about the four families who hosted us overnight during the derby; we received help all along the way—that we didn’t even ask for. Like on Day 6, when Mike had, as he called it, “a bit of a slide and a dismount” when his horse stepped in a marmot hole and stumbled, breaking the girth in the process. We all dismounted and were standing on the side of the road, while Mike tried to repair his girth with zip ties, when a father and his three sons (driving past with two horses in the bed of a pickup truck) stopped to help us. They wanted nothing in return other than a handshake and a pat on the back.

A Mongolian man and his three sons stop to help Mike fix his broken girth. 
Courtesy, Henry Bell

After our night under the stars, Day 7 was so full of promise and we fully intended to finish the race by 8 p.m. that evening. But as we’ve learned, in the Derby, anything can and will happen. The next leg that should’ve taken us three hours took us over five and just like that our chances of finishing that day slowly slipped away.

From the outset of our final leg, it was clear it would be a racing finish between our team and Valeria. This leg’s horses were so fast and fit that we covered the 18 miles in about an hour and 15 minutes. For me, it was an hour-and-15-minute white-knuckled ride up and down hills, with plenty of opportunity for somersaulting. The horses galloped in a tight group and, at one point, Valeria’s horse and mine clipped heels and almost crashed, as hers made a beeline out the other side of the pack. Right up until the end there were four of us close to overtaking Valeria, but two of the horses in our group weren’t quite as fit and fell behind. So we pulled up and waited, so we could cross together. Well—actually—I couldn’t pull up, but Jack turned his horse sharply to the left in front of me, causing my horse to slam into his like we were in a demolition derby. This, for all intents and purposes, got the job done. Rob, Ed, Jack, Henry, Mike and I finished in equal ninth place—at 8 a.m. on the morning of Day 8, 170 hours and 28 urtuus after beginning this adventure—and later received the Best Team Award.

From left: Jack, Rob, Jocelyn, Ed, Henry and Mike cross the finish line in equal 9th place.
Bill Selwyn/Mongol Derby

For a race with a lot of unknowns and what ifs, I couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out. I left Mongolia with the satisfaction of finishing the derby in the top 10 with no vet penalties, but more importantly, with five new friends, a greater understanding of Mongolian horse culture and nomad life—and a lot of wild stories to share.

Friends, family and acquaintances have already asked me if I would do it again. I’m not so sure about that, but there’s a rumor that a similar race in Patagonia is in the works, and I certainly have my eye on it.

Read Part I, ‘Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth,’ here and here.

Read Part II, ‘Slow and Steady Does Not Win the Race,’ here and here.

For more articles, photos and videos on the Mongol Derby, visit Practical Horseman. 

Blog, Travel

Mongol Derby Part II: Slow and Steady Does Not Win the Race

The wind blurred my vision as I unknowingly careened toward a bog. I glanced over my shoulder at the row of sharp teeth snapping closer and closer to my right foot, as my riding companion Michael Turner shouted to me just in time. “Turn right!” Yanking on the rein toward the frothy-mouthed beast towing 4 feet of heavy-duty chain behind him, we skirted the bog in a flat-out gallop, gaining enough speed to outrun the dog that made Cujo look like your granny’s Bichon Frise.

Mongol Derby 2018
Michael Turner and Jocelyn Pierce riding toward sand dunes on Day 2
Courtesy, Mongol Derby

In Mongolia, dogs usually are left to roam around gers (portable dwellings, much like yurts) and livestock, acting as protectors. Most of the time they trot alongside you, barking a very mild warning before returning to the perimeter of their territory with the satisfaction of fending off intruders. But this dog was something else altogether, and it didn’t take much imagination to determine why he had been tied up. Luckily, Mike and I were both on fresh and fast horses, who didn’t need any input from us to get the hell out of striking distance.

Throughout the 600-mile race, we rode a total of 28 horses. Statistically speaking, this means we were bound to get a mix of first-rate mounts, some certifiably insane ones and worst of all, duds. Thankfully our mounts on the leg with the vicious dog were the former, but by the morning of Day 3 we got our first and definitely not last, introduction to the dud category.

Mike and Jocelyn heading out from HS7 with less than an hour of riding time left. 
Courtesy, Mongol Derby/Bill Selwyn

Mike and I shot each other exasperated looks as three big kicks got him about two canter strides before his horse settled back into a listless walk, while mine was content to show off his best impression of a Western Pleasure jog. This might be desirable for a leisurely hack around the stable yard, but in the Mongol Derby it is nothing short of pure agony. Twenty-five miles of coaxing, kicking and “choo choo-ing” (the Mongolia equivalent of a cluck), takes a toll on already exhausted riders pretty quickly.

Mike and Jocelyn aboard horses taking their sweet time 
Courtesy, Mongol Derby

Hearing a sound like thunder behind us, we swiveled to see a large group of riders and horses galloping over the hill, costing us the little bit of a lead we had gained by camping between stations the night before. Mike’s frustration quickly turned to jubilation when he realized the group about to lap us was the polo-playing Archibald brothers from Australia, Rob, Ed and Jack, and their cousin, Henry Bell. Mike had gotten to know the “Archibells” (nicknamed so on the Mongol Derby live Twitter feed) in start camp and they had planned to ride together. The Archibells’ herd of galloping horses gave our two plodders the incentive to get moving that Mike and I could’ve never generated, and we began to close the gap to HS8.

The six us of ended up sticking together, making good time with relatively few hiccups through the rest of Day 3. At the end of the day, we cruised in and out of HS11 with about 45 minutes of riding time left on the clock, passing several riders who were there serving vet penalties. (Horses must all pass a vet check in which the horse must be sound and meet a heart rate of 56 bpm within a half hour of arriving at the station). We ate up the mileage on six well-matched “flyers,” sprinting toward a water source notated on the map in hopes of finding a family nearby to stay with. Our good luck continued as we spotted three gers by the river with less than five minutes of riding time left. Mike presented his note written in Mongolian to see if we could stay, and a shy 14-year-old girl responded in English that yes of course we could, and actually that three of the six horses belonged to her. We spent a serendipitous evening eating, laughing, miming and sipping Mongolian vodka with the family who so generously took us in and helped us care for our, er … their, horses.

Mongol Derby Family we stayed with Day 3
From left: Jocelyn with three hostesses; Rob, Jack and Ed Archibald, and Mike on the evening of Day 3
Courtesy, Rob Archibald

The Derby has a way of taking riders from their highest high to their lowest low, and we had been running pretty high. The next morning we galloped toward HS12 on well-rested horses and continued moving smoothly through Day 4. And then we arrived at HS14.

It was slim pickings on the horse line at HS14. I settled on a small, scrappy looking black horse after I had pointed to three others that the herder inexplicably shook his head no to. Departing from the horse station, our group of six, usually somewhat harmonious, was in total disarray. My rough and ready horse was bolting to the front and didn’t have much in the way of steering while behind me Henry’s horse—latter dubbed Black Beauty—was bucking and zig-zagging like a spasmodic drunkard, looking like he had never had a rider on his back. Henry rode alongside one of the other horses, and then between two horses to keep him straight and moving forward. The horses settled in and things seemed like they were going to be OK.

But within an hour, our leg went downhill quickly. Black Beauty’s antics were replaced by the much worse dogged persistence to not move a muscle. He made the horses that Mike and I rode on the morning of Day 3, who arrived at the horse station with comically low heart rates of 44 (mine) and 46, look like Man O’ War and Secretariat.

You know the saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”? Well that definitely applies in the Mongol Derby, but more like, “you can select a horse off the line, but you can’t make him run.” We had already tried putting Henry’s horse in the middle of the group, ponying him off of one of the other horses, encouraging him from behind—all of which worked—but only for a few hundred meters. My five riding companions, all non-smokers, divvied up the cigarettes meant as gifts for the herders and began anxiety-ridden chain smoking as we discussed what to do next. Should Henry push his “need assistance” button on his tracker, thus prompting help from the Mongol Derby crew and an hour penalty? Should we keep at it and hope we could drag Beauty into the station in time? Should we take off his tack, smack him on the rump, look the other way and pretend like we lost him?

We noticed a ger at the bottom of the hill, and thought if we could make it there, maybe we could recruit a herder to do a little horse whispering, so we made our way down. Soon Henry was sitting on the back of a motorcycle, hanging onto his saddle with one arm and clutching the strong Mongolian man sitting in front of him with the other as they rode up the hill. We followed, ponying along Henry’s loafing black gelding.

Once at the top of the hill, we bid the Good Samaritan farewell and Black Beauty, well-rested from making his way to the top of the hill without the added weight of saddle and rider, was re-saddled and re-mounted. But he refused to move forward down the hill. Instead, Jack unsaddled him and began backing him down the hill, which much to our delight, seemed to work. Ed, still mounted on his horse, strapped Henry’s saddle to himself, while Henry rode Jack’s horse and juggled his saddle bag.

Jack’s strategy quickly floundered, but before long we devised new one. Another herder with a motorbike appeared so Jack hopped on behind, ponying Black Beauty off the back. Whooping and hollering, we followed along, taking our time with Ed and Henry’s added baggage. We crested a hill and saw Jack and the herder off the bike with—no surprise—the horse standing still. The herder dragged an aloof Black Beauty up to Ed’s horse, tied the reins around Ed’s horse’s neck and without a word set off on the bike with Jack toward the horse station.

Mongol Derby Hero
The Mongolian horse whispering hero
Courtesy, Jack Archibald

It was the Mongolian herder horse whispering that we had all been waiting for. Just like that, we were off with Black Beauty happily trotting alongside Ed’s horse. We exchanged puzzled glances, not entirely sure how this was different than ponying him but, honestly, we could care less.

With a sigh of relief, we rode into HS15, passed our vet checks (even Ed’s horse who had the hardest job of all—towing the dud) and realized we didn’t have enough time to ride out. I think we were all a little secretly relieved to be done for the day. We hobbled down the horse line to select our mounts for the next morning. I was eyeing a flashy looking paint, when the herder and translator walked over to me. The herder pointed at another horse that I had already passed by. Even from where I stood, I wasn’t particularly impressed by him. I pointed at the paint and made a “is he fast?” motion with my hand. Conferring with the herder, the translator told me that the paint was a little faster than the horse the herder pointed to, but very wild. Again, I eyed the dull-looking horse that the herder seemed to be pushing on me. For an instant I thought about our miserable leg with Black Beauty, looked the translator square in the eye and said, “I’ll take the paint.”

For more of Jocelyn’s Mongol Derby blogs, visit:

Read Part I, ‘Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth,’ here and here.