All the Jittery Horses
February 23, 2015 10:09 PM   Subscribe

Racing the Mongol Derby
The ponies that carried Genghis Khan’s warriors are small, tough, and skittish as hell, making the prospect of riding them for 1,000 kilometers seem downright insane. American cowboy Will Grant couldn’t resist, so he entered the Mongol Derby—the longest, hardest horse race in the world—determined not just to finish but to win.
posted by the man of twists and turns (11 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
"The exploitation of innocent Mongolian ponies is a heinous crime, and one I hope is prevented from occurring," the Long Rider said.

Is it just me or does the Long Rider site come off as a bit of a parody?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:59 PM on February 23, 2015

If I read the article correctly, riders changed horses every 25 miles. I noticed from the photos that these horses were not shod, and the article indicated that the were green-broke, not finished, the way an American saddle horse would be trained. The riders presumably were experienced riders in various events, typically endurance races. I bet they spent the first two or three miles from each station getting a handle on whether their mount was going to do something painfully spectacular, but I suspect that things smoothed out after that.

I don't see animal abuse issues on the face of it, so it's unclear to me what the Long Riders' beef is. I inferred that foreign sponsorship and participation is a major part of the issue. Also, the Mongolian suppliers, according to LR, not being paid enough, and the Adventurers org is reaping great profits. I guess I didn't click on all the links, because I actually never seemed to find the point of their outrage. I can see some toes being stepped on, but animal abuse issues don't seem to me to be part of this event. Our 100 milers are fairly hard on horses; the riders use the same horse for the entire event. In contrast, the endurance part of the Mongolian race is left to the riders, not the horses.

The phrase "equestrian colonialism" came up a few times. This must be a dog whistle to draw attention to some abiding political shenanigans that never got explained in the article. The coverage of the event itself, of course, would be in the usual Nat'l Geo style, gorgeous photos, engaging compositions of Mongolians and horses, and wouldn't bother to dip into the seamy side of the event unless there were squads of bandits waving rifles and eating the horses or their riders.

I bet the Mongolian herders got a kick out of serving fermented mare's milk to the white guys.

I've had several good horses that stood me well in mountain travel. One of them was a mustang from the Ridgecrest herd in the Mojave Desert. The Mongolian horses reminded me of her--stocky, short (13.5 hands), well formed feet, and tough as a bag of nails. She was a real trouper, bottomless try. But my Arabian mares could do twenty-five miles in open terrain in just under three hours without getting more than a bit sweaty, although it might have taken them a bit longer when navigating rocky trails and mountain passes. I can't realistically assess these Mongol horses, but I'm willing to bet that they could carry a 190 lb rider at a pace that equaled my horses. I would rate my horses as average for their type and size.

Anyhow, this trip is one I would pay to participate in, but not at that pace. If I were able to still sit a saddle I'd like to ride from one horse camp to the next, say about 25 miles, and lay out under that huge Mongolian sky. I could do that until either the weather, or somebody with an agenda other than the love of travel by horseback, drove me away.
posted by mule98J at 12:51 AM on February 24, 2015 [18 favorites]

unethical horses are the fastest kind
posted by thelonius at 2:03 AM on February 24, 2015

I don't see animal abuse issues on the face of it, so it's unclear to me what the Long Riders' beef is. I inferred that foreign sponsorship and participation is a major part of the issue. Also, the Mongolian suppliers, according to LR, not being paid enough, and the Adventurers org is reaping great profits. I guess I didn't click on all the links, because I actually never seemed to find the point of their outrage.

From the "Grave Warnings" link on Long Riders, it appears that their animal abuse concerns come down mostly to "Big fat foreigners riding delicate little ponies" which seems ludicrous to me given the breed was historically a work and war horse, and also that it's not like Mongolians are little tiny people. They also mention that for the number of riders and horse swaps necessary they'll need about 625 horses, and that most will probably be old, weak or ill horses from owners hoping to make a buck. That part seems more reasonable, but it seems like the organization probably wouldn't accept a horse that is too weak to run a section anyway.

I think the outrage mostly comes from them being an extremely self-selected and privileged group of people who have the time, money and ability to go on much slower, much longer and more time-consuming trips (From reading it sounds like 6 month-2 year trips are common.) not liking the idea of a bunch of 'novices' getting a small taste of a long horse trip without literally dedicating their life to it.
From their main page: “The Secrets of the Steppes will never be yielded up to such as these, who will speed their way across the miles of silent prairie, hearing nothing, feeling nothing, knowing nothing of that great unknown.”.
The same sort of thing as the people who scoff at someone paying to rent a horse for a trail ride instead of owning their own horse.

It's like a fear that all your effort to do something you enjoy will have been wasted if someone else can get a part of that enjoyment easier.
posted by neonrev at 2:05 AM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't see animal abuse issues on the face of it, so it's unclear to me what the Long Riders' beef is.

There are mega, mega problems with abuse in the competitive endurance world right now. People riding horses to death and getting off and walking away. At competitions. Racing horses is a very old sport with a long, proud traditional of excellent horsemanship and an equally long shameful history of people breaking horses down to win races. Until recently modern endurance racing was firmly in the good horsemanship, love of the sport category but it became popular and wealthy countries started fielding national teams and some truly shameful things have occured in the past 10 years. I saw this article when it first came out and thought they couldnt have picked a worse time and tone if you'd paid them.

Even if this race is run as well as humanly possible (and it sounds like did have vet checks etc) people are not going to be happy with a) a race that is all about speed with no background on the horses conditioning b) the way it's marketed and c) a totally unacceptable injury rate. Also the article neatly avoids it, but there's no way all those horses walked away from falls and exhaustion unscathed. They could have tied up after swimming the river and the riders wouldn't even know. That's not being responsible.
posted by fshgrl at 2:35 AM on February 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

I was in Mongolia for quite a while (during at least two of these races). While the pool may be kept artificially small depending on the people involved in the event, there isn't any shortage of endurance racing horses ordinarily. There are numerous races yearly, and some traditional Mongolian races (not this one) involve horses running as far as 50 km. There are far more horses than there are Mongolians, so there should be no shortage of fit racing horses.

There are also no systems in place to evaluate the previous "conditioning" of the horses, except to know that there are huge numbers of horses that are trained constantly to prepare for long distance races such as this one and those in Naadam.

In this long race, racers are also docked huge blocks of time if their horses are even overheated by the end of a leg. Did not read through all of the link admittedly, but last year (for instance) the English woman who came in first was docked multiple hours because of an overheating horse.

While I hesitate to engage in any "whataboutery," issues such as children racing seem to be a much greater danger and issue than the horses, which are generally revered and taken care of quite well (even given that Mongolian horses are much more hardy than foreign horses, living quite well in temperatures dipping to -40).
posted by mangasm at 8:14 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was curious about Dan Carlin's claim that the Mongol hordes used to consume their living horse's blood for nutrition and I noticed that the wikipedia article on Mongol military tactics has:

They could survive a whole month only by drinking mare's milk combined with mare's blood.[citation needed]
posted by bukvich at 10:05 AM on February 24, 2015

I wrote a 50-page report on the Mongol conquest in high school, citing 30 different books on the topic (literally every single one I could find in every library in the Albany region). If the bit about combining mare's milk with mare's blood for sustenance is apocryphal, it is at least consistently apocryphal across every account I've read.

Citation needed? Perhaps, but... pick a book. Any book.
posted by Ryvar at 10:35 AM on February 24, 2015

Thank you Ryvar!

Would you like to recommend one or two in particular? Reading some of the low star reviews on Genghis Khan books on Amazon is really a hoot unless you are looking for a good book in which case it is kind of depressing.
posted by bukvich at 11:10 AM on February 24, 2015

Bukvich: this was just shy of 20 years ago, so I remember very few titles and the scholarship on the subject has, as they say, moved on. I only recall that detail so vividly because it totally squicked me out as a teenager and I wanted to believe it wasn't true but there wasn't even a pretense of debate to be found.

Most of what I found were hardcover books buried in the history section with that weird sort of burlap/cloth single-toned covering and no embellishments of any kind. You probably know the kind I'm talking about.

I know I read this one, which recounts the blood drinking as a desperation measure on page 30:
The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan : his triumph and his legacy

I'm also *reasonably* sure I read the then-recent English translation of this book: Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy.
posted by Ryvar at 11:47 AM on February 24, 2015

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