Thursday, April 11, 2013

All the Jittery Horses: Racing the Mongol Derby - Full Article


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.

By: Will Grant

THE TOILET PAPER startled the horse. I was relieving myself, and a gust of wind had unfurled the tissue in my left hand. The red and white spotted pony lifted his head when he saw the flutter, and the rope to his bridle slipped through my fingers. He looked at me with eyes full of white and his front feet spread wide, ready to bolt. We both froze. He knew he was loose. I lunged forward in a full Pete Rose slide, bloodying both my knees and scraping my exposed parts on the rocks and the short prickly grass. Just as I grabbed the rope, he jerked it out of my hand and wheeled away, kicking a hind leg at me as he sprang off.

I collected myself and concluded my business while he quietly grazed about 20 yards from me. I spent the next half-hour trying to walk him down, cursing his name, or rather, because he didn’t have a name, his number, which was painted on his shoulder. Finally, he quit me and, with almost all my gear aboard, trotted off over the pale green horizon.

It was 6:30 p.m., and I was now on foot on the broad and treeless steppe of Outer Mongolia’s Tamir River Valley. Below me, about a mile away, I could see the white yurts of a herder camp. Within a quarter-mile of that, I could see a man watching me. Guard dogs milled around the camp, a stark reminder that, in spite of my meticulous preparation, I had failed to renew my rabies vaccination. I decided to stop and wave. It was easy to see that I was a horseman without a horse, and the man watching me hopped on his and galloped off in the direction mine had gone.

Twenty minutes later, he rode up with my pony beside him. I thanked him as best I could, with smiles and hand gestures, and he in turn made it clear that I now owed him something. I offered him my hat—a baseball cap from my hometown of Alma, Colorado—and cash, some Mongolian tugriks worth about $20. He shook his head no and pointed at my wrist.

Getting my horse back—my third mount of the day—cost me an hour and my alarm clock, a fancy Timex Ironman watch. Considering the day I’d had, it was a bargain. That morning I had crashed with the first horse I’d been issued; he had stepped into a marmot burrow at full gallop, and we did a synchronized somersault that would have been impressive to observe but hurt like hell. A few hours later, I sank my second horse to his chest in quicksand and then swam him across a furious river...

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