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Rollo and Dom complete the Mongol Derby

ACE SMA / Rollo and Dom complete the Mongol Derby
Rollo and Dom

Rollo and Dom complete the Mongol Derby


The Mongol Derby 2023
Crossing Mongolia in the World’s Longest and Hardest Horse Race

A huge thank you to Rollo and Dom for racing across Mongolia for ACE SMA. What an exciting adventure, Rollo has summed it up below. It is not for the faint hearted. What an achievement.


I let out a long, silent exhale. It’s partly from the sheer heat, and partly from nerves. The twelve-hand horse who just bucked me off eyes me suspiciously. We are completely alone in the valley. All I have to do is remount and I’m back in the race I thought. I place my left foot in the nearest stirrup and step up. In a flash he springs to the right, dropping his head and kicking out with both legs that connect perfect with my shoulder and knee. Welcome to day 2 of the Mongol Derby, I thought.

A very brief what’s app exchange with my brother Dominic had been enough for me to sign up to the Derby. It’s funny how little it takes sometimes. It’s something I had been considering for a while but the idea of doing such the race in 2023, particularly with him, struck a chord and before I knew it I was ‘interviewing’ for the race with Holly Conveys (who later entered it, and whom I tented with). We decided to raise funds for Mike and Sophie Howes’ charity ACE SMA which raises important awareness for spinal muscular atrophy following the diagnosis of their daughter Anouk.

The 2023 event however was to be different from events past in quite a significant way. One still has to cross 1000km of Mongolia on semi wild horses, however for the first time riders didn’t get to select their steeds, it was to be down to a lottery. Historically, winners had been able to finish the race in as little as seven and on one occasion six days. This year, it would take as many as nine days for the winners to turn up at the finish.

At its core then, the Mongol Derby is an endurance event with a lottery. Physically it is very challenging because of the wild animals, the weather, the unsupported nature of it, but mentally it can be particularly tough. By day two, it was occurring to me that the event was a drumbeat of minor, if you’re lucky, disasters punctuated with the odd high. At any minute, at any point of the 10 days of racing, your race could end. We were briefed at the start camp that most of us wouldn’t finish it, but that we would come home with stories. At stage in proceedings, it didn’t feel like a great trade.

Preparation for the race had consisted of exercising horses for the local polo yard in the mornings at around 7am, followed by riding my own five-year-old (in the heat, much to his disdain) just after. I did strength and conditioning in the evenings. I did some 10km running races, a half ironman in June and cycled across a section of the Dolomites two weeks before the race. The 85kg weight limit (dressed in your kit) was always going to be a little uncomfortable and so closer the race itself I had to focus on bringing my weight down. Not enough it turned out, when I arrived in Ulan Baatar’s Holiday Inn to discover that during the wind down to the race my weight had managed to soar to 82kg. After some initial panic looking at the scales, Dominic suggested I ‘take a bath for a few hours’. Over the next 24 hours managed to get it down to 76kg, thanks to a treadmill and a sauna. I weighed in successfully the next morning under the close scrutiny of the organisers – we were going to be lining up on the start line.

It was what happened before the race which arguably influenced our race strategy the most however. Whilst the briefing from the medics and vets were useful and we both managed to

survive the starting line party, but it was when we got on the horses that things changed. An innocent enough practise ride turned into a three- and half-hour odyssey featuring a Mongolian storm complete with sleet and gale force winds. Dominic, not prepared for this and wearing only a polo shirt, turned blue quickly much to the alarm of the medics. These early hypothermic signs, combined some less-than-enthusiastic horses, made us think that caution was key for the next ten days, and coming home alive should really be prioritised. Finishing it was the goal, and together was the plan.

The start line of the derby is a recipe for disaster. Forty riders circling, all ready to gallop off for the cameras. In previous years, up to 3 people have had their Derbies end within two miles of it. We stuck to the back, cantered over the line as the gun went and let those who wanted to gallop off do so. It was a long race, we told ourselves.

Checkpoint 1 put an end to the plan of riding the race together. I drew an unassuming chestnut and mounted waiting for Dom to join. Before I knew it the animal took flight, galloping a clean 18km without stopping, and most of it uphill. Suddenly my entire perspective of the race changed. I rode with Hannah Bicket, another ger mate from the start line and completer of the Gaucho Derby. In little under two and half hours this machine of a twelve-hand horse had covered 35km including swimming across two rivers. We arrived at the next checkpoint with over an hour and half to spare and decided to draw new horses and ride on. Our plan was thwarted unfortunately when we asked to stay at a local herders ger tent an hour later and to our surprise he said ‘no’. Lacking in options we considered an open cattle shed but discounted it as there was no water supply (one stipulation of ‘camping out’ is that your horses must have access to water). We rode on, past the time cut off of 7pm, and found another herder who accepted us, and even helped us house our horses in his cattle corral. We were saved, albeit with a time penalty of an hour for the next morning. An incredible orange flooded the valley just as the organisers came to check our horses were safe, before we turned in for the evening.

We headed off early the next morning before breakfast and arrived at the next checkpoint to sit out our time penalty of an hour. It was nice to have the time to have a proper breakfast and check maps. Dominic caught us up during this time, and so we rode on together picking up a few others. At the next checkpoint, my luck began to turn. As I drew horse number 6, the herder smiled and said ‘feisty’. Before I know it, number 6 appears from stage left dragging a young teenager along the ground. With the help of a few others, we box him in and put the saddle on him. His reaction is to buck, managing to buck the saddle off. By the time I got on him, I was ready for fireworks which he promptly delivered. I managed to stay on him, but realised I hadn’t signed out so had to dismount, sign the vet sign out form, remount and go through the whole process again. We made for the horizon, me travelling sideways.

A tiny readjustment of my foot in the stirrup two hours later was enough to set my horse off in a bucking spree that ended up with me on the ground and him heading for the horizon at speed. For fear of losing my saddle bag and importantly stirrups, I set off on foot to find it. It did occur to me that should I not find the horse, and the organisers not have any spare stirrups (likely given it was day two), it was most likely I wouldn’t be finishing the race. It felt very early in the race to already be out. Against all the odds though I managed to locate the

horse about an hour later. Being semi wild, he wouldn’t let me near him until, and this was my great stroke of luck, about half an hour later whilst trotting away from me he caught his hind leg in the reins of his bridle causing him to somersault to be more precise. Seizing what I thought was my only chance of being able to continue in the race I leapt forward and jumped on the ground reaching for the long rein. He reared in alarm at having been caught but I was able to extract my Leatherman knife with one hand and cut the reins free to retie them. All I had to do was remount, I thought optimistically that the worst was behind me for the day. Leaning into him and placing my foot in the stirrup, I took a big breath and gently put my weight into it. Within a flash he had sidestepped, turned, and kicked me with both legs.

Despite my great luck of finding him, and even better catching him, he just wouldn’t let me mount him and so I messaged the organisers. The two of us stood facing each other for an hour, eying each other, until they arrived. The herder, having heard the story, declined mounting the horse and HQ declared I could get a carry forward to the next stage. Bucked off, stamped on, kicked and it was only day two. I arrived (by car) at checkpoint 4 at around eleven in the evening a little sore and tired but most importantly still in the race.

The third day was possibly the most beautiful as we crossed sandy valleys. And climbed up into the mountains. Learning from my lessons of the previous day, and possibly a little sore still, I sent back two horses at the first station, and another at the next station. The second horse was sweet and a trooper. We headed out of checkpoint seven in good time, Hannah getting a Naadam horse and caught the others. Day 3 was really the day we settled into a little riding group of Hannah, Dom, Arthur Dobell (a young bloodstock agent from Newmarket) and myself. A long, flat final stage for the day through a valley full of mirages and carcasses, and we finished just in time before the cut off. A big group were at the station, all with stories. Apparently, the race almost had to be neutralised today as 5 different medical evacuations have had to happen. It was only day 3 but people were sore, tired and there already had been a number of dropouts. The end felt very far off, so far off it was best not thinking about it.

We had one hell of a storm that night. I was so tired that I wondered, almost optimistically, if the yurt would be blown away but instead it delayed our start in the morning as the herders had a real challenge finding the horses. Nonetheless, we got off to a quick start, heading back into the hills. A long, single track took up most of the 30km stage. We started to find a rhythm of long trotting stages rather than cantering. The heat and the terrain meant it just wasn’t feasible to canter.

On the second stage of the day, we had a small navigation error meaning we lost ground going straight over a mountain. A path promised on the map didn’t materialise and it hampered our progress. As de facto navigator, I could feel the frustration at me. We managed to luckily make up some time by catching the three riders who had overtaken us.

The third section of the day was an area we had identified that we could make up some time on. Hannah and I drew rapid mounts, mine averaged 20kmph at a trot! Dom and Arthur however weren’t so lucky. The stage was a long flat stage over a marsh and hugging a river down to the next station. As a day with fast sections, many were hoping to cover four or five

stages that day. Hannah and I rode on, with what must have been a pair of thoroughbreds, as they cantered hard on bridle the whole way. We flew through 27km in an hour and a half, and decided to wait at the next station so walked the final 3km. Arthur and Dom had less luck, in particular Dom whose horse refused to proceed, and he had to hitch lifts behind other groups. In the end he got off it to walk it, it spooked sending him into a somersault. He made it to the next urtuu at ten to seven, visibly shaken.

At the station, we encountered Matt Perella who was winning the race until that day (who eventually managed to come second, passing the Judith Jaeckle on the finish line, and bumping her to third). His horse bucked him and then he got vet penalties which compounded the bad luck streak. There’s also a young lady there who has spent twenty-four hours in hospital having scans, having been kicked. Emily Asprey, our ger mate from the start camp, is rumoured to have a shattered pelvis. This race is mad, I think to myself. But it’s still close. There are only six riders ahead of us. But we are riding the minimum amount of stations per day to finish the race in time, which stirs mixed emotions of excitement of competing but pressure still to complete it.

Waking up on day five and for the first time in the race I was beginning to feel stronger than the last. Finishing early must have helped. But that’s not how the race works sadly. Disaster struck in a series of mad horses. My first horse took three people to saddle and then wouldn’t let anyone on him, so I drew again. The second horse needed restraining to tack up, so they had to put him in hobbles. He still bucked, and sadly managed to cut himself pretty badly. So I drew for a third time but this had taken the best part of an hour. I drew 12 and saw the herder go and pick a horse and spray the number on him! I didn’t object – by this point I just wanted to get going. One final rider – Liz, who had decided to return from hospital in UB after having her head scanned following being kicked – was ready to ride out two on a similarly slow horse. The horses wouldn’t leave a slow trot, but the company was welcome, and the 30km passed eventually. Tough stage though.

I was greeted at checkpoint 12 by some welcome faces; Dom, Arthur and Hannah had waited for me. I vetted out, drew quickly and we rode some absolutely chargers through to checkpoint 13 where we were the herders had cooked banana pancakes.

The next leg was long and Dom’s horse desperately unfit. We trotted and walked through to the checkpoint arriving at 6:50pm all together. It was another long day. The Kenyans were at the camp, as was Holly who had been leading but then had a big setback and caught us again. The important thing was – we were halfway and it was starting to feel doable.

Something about being halfway caused everyone to line up the next morning as if it was the start line all over again. There was even a countdown! Arthur, Dom and I rode together as Holly and Hannah rode separately. It was misty and made for tricky navigation. We ended up going up some very steep mountains, too steep to dismount, and actually quite dangerous. We summitted in the whiteout but trotted the rest of the stage catching others up. Dom had a lovely horse for the first time in the race. We found Hannah sitting a vet penalty out by herself at the station.

Our luck was to change however on the second stage of the day. The horses on the line all looked unusually fat so it was no great surprise that we all three of us ended up picking donkeys. We rode maybe five kilometres before it transpired that they were unable and also importantly unwilling to ride the 43km required of them. It was incredible hard getting them to move, all being stallions didn’t help, and we had to coax them every step of the stage. It was fair to say at this point that tempers were flaring – a lottery system for the race is all good and well but they have to be fit horses. On a long plain, we managed to catch the Kenyans and get a tow for the last 7km from Keren whose horse was manageable. We arrived exhausted, dehydrated (Arthur’s backpack bladder had broken so we were sharing water) and to add insult to injury, the horse I had walked for the last 45km failed to pass the vet requirement of 45 beats per minute. Dom and Arthur rode on whilst I sat out a two hour vet penalty during which I saw a horse break its leg cantering in a herd and contracted a pretty severe stomach bug. At the time I thought the stomach bug was the worse but I still can’t unsee the floppy leg on the horse as it walked off knowing it wasn’t going to live. Things became immeasurably better when Hannah rode into the station and so we rode out two hours later together, Hannah periodically stopping to vomit over the side of the horse (she had the same stomach bug) in an effort to catch the others. We almost made it but time ran out and teaming up with Phoebe, we found a local herdsman who took us in for the night. We were welcomed what everyone wants when they have a gastro issue: a warm cup of mare’s milk. Phoebe had run outside immediately after he first sip.

Our charming ger host woke us up first thing and even helped tack up my horse and I dove for the nearest rocky outcrop. The stomach bug continued. We cantered up. To checkpoint 17, where we were met by the Australian vet Paul who helped vet us quickly. We were out of there in a heartbeat playing catch up on Dom and Arthur’s two hour lead over us. The herder was famous for his fast horses and judging by the two thoroughbreds Hannah and picked, they must have been some of the best because we covered the 35km in two hours and fifteen minutes.

At station 18, we caught Dom as he was about to leave, much to his surprise. I told him we would catch him up. But alas, bad luck struck again. The first horse I picked bucked so much he ripped by saddle bag in two requiring me to procure another and repack. In the meantime he bucked off another herder causing him to come back clutching his, suspected, broken shoulder. I drew another horse in the meantime, who was fat and fearing a vet penalty for an unfit horse like the day before, drew again. The final horse appeared, we tacked him, he did his bucking and I got on him. Hannah and I rode out of the station finally.

Three kilometres later Hannah notices my horse is bleeding from two legs, so we decide to return him. We walk back, and I draw by fourth horse, Hannah redraws as she has the time. We canter off again frustrated as we’ve lost a large part of the time we made up that day on our fast horses. Luck still wasn’t to be on our side as the stage was particularly rocky, and Hannah’s horse went lame 15km in. Some small respite however in that we found the Kenyans who had called a medic as Keren had heatstroke and Aisha’s horse had become unrideable. So mid-stage, I left Hannah and Aisha to get veterinary assistance, and I scooped up Keren and we rode the remaining 12km at a gentle pace as it was extremely hot. Fortunately by time Keren and I had made it to the station, Aisha and Hannah had already had their lift forward in the car. We had just over two hours remaining of riding time and we

decided to draw horses and go for it. Luckily we drew three very fast horses who, despite almost all of us falling off when they spooked 100m into the leg, carried us at a hard canter and gallop for the remaining 34km. We walked them the final 1.5km in, allowing them to drink, delighted we had against all the odds caught up Dom and Arthur. However, as it always does with the Derby, my fate changed when my horse failed the heartrate part of the vet test despite both Aisha and Hannah’s passing. A three hour penalty to serve the next morning certainly dampened our hard efforts. The station was by a river and so for the first time in seven days we were able to wash with fresh water.

I discovered in the morning that the organisers would let me serve my vet penalty at the finish line which was a blessing, but I honestly don’t think they had a choice given how close it was to us finishing in the allotted ten days. We rode out that morning, Hannah, Arthur and I on 3 steaming horses and managed to cover 35km in two hours twenty. The dream.

Dom unfortunately had a nightmare of a horse and dropped behind, unable to get him to do much than an unwilling trot. We rode on from the station without him, riding over hills and into a town for the first time where we had to cross a road bridge much to the horses’ anxiety. We arrived into checkpoint 22 as a three, the Kenyans just behind us, and Dom caught us up there too. I drew a nice grey horse, and we rode out as a four again, reunited with Dom, but two of the riders including Dom again had slow horses. To add to it, Dom’s put his foot down a marmot hole halfway through the stage causing a slow motion fall for Dom. Both horse and rider were fine. Luckily it was another flat stage so we managed to cover the distance quickly. We arrived into the next station at 5:30pm and decided to ride on and tick off some of the next leg. We rode hard for almost an hour but couldn’t find anywhere to stay. Tensions ran high as it was Dom and Arthur’s first night staying outside of the camp and they were reluctant citing the risk-reward ratio of it. We doubled back, which is never a good feeling, but came across two men who accepted our plea and took us in. Luckily their families arrived which meant the prospects of good food increased. By the time we had fed and watered the horses, they had vacated a ger for us, cooked a big noodle dish and invited their friends and family over. We had dinner as a group of fifteen outside under the stars, miming questions and stories to our hosts, and tasting their milk vodka. It was the only time I’ve seen Dominic suggest it was time for bed.

Day 9 and the end was starting to feel in sight. We mounted that morning and flew to station 24 where we were greeted by some excellent food; fresh fruit and salad. Another bonus was the herder bred racehorses. I drew a chestnut with a heart the size of an elephants. He pulled me for 35km; towards another town, up over a road and river before checkpoint 25. One of our fastest legs. The group of riders was starting to narrow as everyone pushed hard for the line. Then I drew a chestnut who preferred to trot but was straightforward and we made our way out as a group again, meandering between big wire fenced areas – the only sight of commercial farming that we had seen. At checkpoint 26 there were more dumplings which I think I ate about ten of before drawing at about 4:30pm and heading for another three and a half leg day. Dom drew another slow horse so we stuck together, I was riding a long haired stallion who was ‘fiery’ to use the herder parlance. It was an exhausting leg, up a long valley surrounded by mountains which we crossed over at 1550m and then down to the checkpoint. We rode as part of a bigger group, some people out of the race such as Alice who was nursing a stitched nose and black eye following a fall. Arriving into checkpoint 27

and for the first time it felt like the finish line was achievable. Spirits weren’t high in the tents as lots of people were suffering. A lot can happen in the two remaining legs, I thought.

We set off on the final day, with no breakfast. It was ominously misty. It was impossible to see the other riders. I had a slow pony who I managed to nurse along with Arthur. Dom had a faster horse, one of herders’ kids horses. Hannah and him went ahead. Halfway through the first stage I looked around to see Arthur who we had nicknamed ‘electric bum’ as every horse he sat on bucked him. This time however, the horse really did a job on him, causing him to shatter his elbow 40km from the end of the race.

A big pack of riders, some racers and some in the adventure category, were steaming along and I was keen to get ahead of them. I got to the penultimate checkpoint ahead of them just in time to see Dom and Hannah riding out. I motioned to them to continue and that I’d catch them up. I vetted and drew another horse, declining the opportunity to do an interview to camera. The horse spun on its hind legs, and we sped off at full tilt, careering unfortunately straight into a boggy marsh some 500m later. The horse, exhausted from trying to get through it sat down in the water on its rump, contemplating rolling. It’s never over, I thought to myself. I could see Dom and Hannah in the distance cantering on. I kicked, and screamed him, cursing them for proceeding without me, until finally he waded his way through the bog and river to the final side. We picked up the pace, galloping across the grass. 20km to go. Reid, the American serviceman amputee, galloped past screaming over the wind that he had just broken two fingers. I know for a fact that he had also fallen about 200m before the last checkpoint. Finally, I caught Dom and Hannah and shared the frustrating news about Arthur.

We trotted on, none of us daring to tempt fate. We were starting to get very close to finishing. it. Tears began to form as we got closer. 5km… 3km…. 1.5km. We walked the horses. It was so close. The flags of the finish line appeared. Gers were visible, the camp emerged, a finish line finally came into sight. The wind in the flags spooked the horses, Dom only just held on to his as he ducked sideways. We crossed as a three. I was in disbelief as we got off, holding back tears, that we had just crossed the line. My horse vetted out eventually, and I accepted a beer from someone, who I can’t remember. We had bloody done it, and we had finished it together.

On the finish line, keen to understand how hard the race had been for others, I asked the winner Linda Sherman from Sweden how her race had been. She recounted being kicked in the stomach on day 2. Later I heard from a videographer that she lay on the ground moaning for a couple of minutes before rising quickly, apologising for the noises she had been making whilst on the ground and asking for her horse back. She also recounted getting bogged on her horse right up to the shoulder and digging the horse out by hand. Everyone would be leaving Mongolia with stories it appears.

Date: 1st August 2023
Duration: 1 Day