Meet the Western Australians who took on the Mongol Derby, the world’s toughest horse race


Posted

September 05, 2019 06:57:32

It is known as the longest and toughest horse race on Earth, but for two Western Australians who just returned from competing in the Mongol Derby, it was one of the best experiences of their lives.

Key points:

  • The 1,000km race follows the path of the horse messenger system created by Genghis Khan
  • Riders change their mount every 40km and must navigate on their own
  • Vets check on the welfare of the horses at each changing station

Jesse Byrne and Sarah Brown finished third in a field of 40 riders after racing across 1,000 kilometres of vast Mongolian landscapes mounted on semi-wild racing ponies.

The annual adventure race follows the world’s first long-distance postal transmission route, laid down by Genghis Khan in 1224.

Sturdy Mongolian horses, used to life on the steppes where temperatures range from minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter to 30 degrees Celsius in summer, carry the entrants on the course.

The object of the event is to ride a series of horses along the route, swapping your mount every 40 kilometres at stations crewed by teams of veterinarians.

It is not a challenge for the faint-hearted but the Aussie duo has returned home in one piece with just a couple of sore knees between them.

Applying for world’s toughest horse race

Ms Brown has worked closely with horses for most of her life and is currently the farm manager at one of WA’s major horse racing facilities.

The 34-year-old had been thinking about competing in the famed Mongol Derby for a few years but was not sure what was involved, or if she could commit to such a challenge.

“One day I decided I had to at least apply,” she said.

She approached friend and local horse trainer Jesse Byrne and together they made it through the rigorous application process ensuring they had the skills to handle semi-wild Mongolian ponies.

After a few months of intense gym sessions, GPS navigation training, and riding as many horses as they could get their hands on, it was off to Mongolia to gather at the start and meet the other 38 riders who would be vying for a spot on the podium.

Plenty of support

It is not cheap to enter the Mongol Derby and each of the riders had to come up with around $20,000 before they even started.

“It’s a massive operation,” Ms Brown said.

“There’s a crew of 500 people on the ground who have spent six months prior to the event setting up the route.

“There are interpreters, a medic team that follows everybody, and 1,500 horses supplied by local herders for use in the race.”

Both Ms Brown and Mr Byrne adjusted well to riding the Mongolian ponies, which are built to race across all kinds of terrain.

“My first horse on the start line, the herder used an interpreter to say ‘hold on tight because he has never done anything like this before and he’s probably afraid’,” Ms Brown said.

“If anyone says they weren’t a bundle of nerves on the start line then they would be lying.

“Luckily enough he was a good horse to start with and he got me confident from the beginning.”

‘Everything is hurting’

Organisers do say the first two days of the race are the hardest, but it does not actually get much easier.

Almost half the field withdrew from this year’s race due to injury or illness along the way.

“It was tough the whole time,” Mr Byrne said.

“I tried not to overthink it; I tried to carry that through the race and just zone out a little bit.

“Everything is hurting but you can’t think of everything that is not going right. I tried to switch off as much as I could and that helped me a little bit.”

Ms Brown said during the first two days they rode through “Biblical rains” which in turn gave way to intense heat.

“The landscape changed a lot. There was a lot of open grassy plains but 40 per cent of the [riding] legs were through mountains,” she said.

“Navigating through those was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I got completely disorientated and thought I was going in circles.

“After a while you kind of forget the tiredness and the hunger and just keep riding and riding.”

Mishaps along the way

Ms Brown and Mr Byrne, who set out to ride together for the entire race, met up with other competitors along the way.

One morning they woke to find Mr Byrne’s horse had escaped and after an unsuccessful search, he was carried to the next horse station by vehicle and that incurred a two-hour time penalty.

“He told us to ride on and he would make up the time and we eventually met up with him again, which was good,” Ms Brown said.

“There were four of us who bounced around in the top five for most of the race and once we hit the last leg of the day, there was nobody really within reaching distance of us for third.

“We decided to take the last leg easy and enjoy it and ride across the line together.”

The race was won by 70-year-old Robert Long from the US who spent 12 months training for the derby.

“He went there to win and was a force to be reckoned with — he was incredible,” Ms Brown said.

Very happy with a podium finish

Although fairly out of character for him, Mr Byrne admitted he did shed a few tears after crossing the line.

“It was a combination of being so broken physically, and also eight days of being mentally up and down,” he said.

“I was stoked with the people I was with and really happy we had finished on the podium [and] also, because of all the people who had got behind us and followed the race at home.”

When asked if they would do it again, both riders agreed that it was a one-off thing.

“Not because it was so bad but because it was so amazing,” Ms Brown said.

“Some of the friendships I made, the people I rode with, and the experiences I had — I wouldn’t want to rewrite that.

“It was probably the most special thing I’ve done and I wouldn’t want to go out there and try to make it better.”

Mr Byrne said he would recommend the Mongol Derby to anyone who thought they could handle it.

“I don’t have to go again because the experience I’ve just had, I wouldn’t be about to top it,” he said.

Topics:

sport,

travel-and-tourism,

human-interest,

animals,

lifestyle-and-leisure,

history,

mongolia,

wa



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