Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

The world’s toughest horse race

1000 km horse race in Mongolia recreates Genghis Khan's trips across an empire
A herder having fun at Horse Station 19. Photograph Richard Dunwoody / The Adventurists

In a dramatic finish, Irish jockey Dony Fahy has just won the world’s longest horse race. While many of us were stuck at home twiddling our thumbs in a post-Olympic glow, 34 riders were attempting the gruelling Mongol Derby, a 1000-km horse race across Mongolia.

And last weekend two riders crossed the finish line neck and neck, but one was penalised by the final veterinary inspection, slipping from joint 1st back to 6th place.

Professional Irish jump jockeys Dony Fahy and Richard Killoran dominated the leaderboard of this gruelling marathon horse race until the very last.

Photograph Richard Dunwoody / The Adventurists

It’s a far cry from Zara Phillips’s dressage or the wealth of polished ponies that have been strutting across our screens over the past few weeks. In just 10 days, these riders covered 1,000km of untamed Mongolian steppe, armed with nothing but a semi-wild horse and a couple of saddle-bags. With injury likely and death a very real possibility, it sounds a grim way to spend a week in the summer, but for many it was the journey, and race, of a lifetime.

Although there is no one defined route across the plains, competitors must carefully navigate their way around a complex network of 25 horse stations set 40km apart. First created by Genghis Khan in the 13th century as a one of the first postal transmission systems, this structure made the almost impenetrable wilderness navigable, and allowed messengers to gallop from Khakhorin to the Caspian in a number of days. Each stopping point consists of a small collection of Gers (yurts), a supply of fresh horses, a team of vets, and nomadic Mongolian families themselves. Horses are picked on a first come first served basis, and if you arrive late, you miss out. There is no marked course or stabling – in the words of the The Adventurists (who created the event), “It’s just you, your horse, and 1,000km of Mongolian wilderness.”

The League of Adventurists – to give the UK-based company its formal title, try to recreate a forgotten sense of adventure reminiscent of a bygone era. With a stated mission of “injecting a little ‘unknown’ back into the world”, the League endeavours to defy boredom whilst simultaneously raising shed loads of cash for charity. Alongside the Mongol Derby other ventures include the Mongol Rally – same premise, but in a car; the Rickshaw Run – in both India and Indonesia; the Ice Run – 2,500km on a motorbike in Siberia; and a Peruvian Mototaxi Junket.

Each rider in the Derby is required to raise £500 for its official charity, Mercy Corps, and then a further £500 for a charity of their choice. Most manage to gallop far beyond the basic stipulations.

There have been a fair few bumps and scrapes on the way. The first day saw two riders forced to drop out, including 63-year old Briton Paul de Rivaz, who fell victim to a marmot hole and was thrown off after just 10km. de Rivaz suffered a broken collarbone, the horse bolted and he was left with a 30km walk to the next station. The last few days of the race weren’t without incident, with competitors getting lost, carrying their own saddlebags to prevent horse chafing (not pleasant for man or beast) and even stranded.


Dony Fahy, Richie Killoran and Barry Armitage enjoy a beer after the finish of the 2012 1000km Mongol Derby. Photograph Richard Dunwoody / The Adventurists

Day 6 saw the riders serve their acquired time penalties – forfeits of anything from 30 minutes to a few hours served for crimes such as riding past deadlines or veterinary penalties.

The race takes place again in summer 2013 and if unpredictable horses, mutton and fermented milk, and chafing are your thing, perhaps you should think about giving it a try. Just bear in mind, this isn’t just Ascot with views, and if you’ve only ever had a country hack on a Shetland, perhaps you should put those riding boots away for now.


Dony Fahy, Richie Killoran and Barry Armitage enjoy a beer after the finish of the 2012 1000km Mongol Derby. Photograph Richard Dunwoody / The Adventurists

Mongol Derby Race Rules

Each rider must endeavour to raise at least £1000 for the official Mongol Derby charity Mercy Corps, to help fund their economic development projects in rural Mongolia

Riders must weigh 85kg or less to take part in the Mongol Derby and are allowed a maximum of 5kg of kit with them when they’re riding.

All riders must be experienced equestrians, and undergo an interview, provide riding and character references and then demonstrate their ability during two days of pre-racing training before the launch.

A strict penalty system is in place to protect the welfare of the horses. Penalties range from 30 minute time holds through to race disqualification and the loss of the financial horse deposit each rider has to lodge with organisers before the race begins.

Riders must change horses at each horse station, ensuring each horse rides no more than 40km – it is the rider who gets knackered and stretched not the horses.

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