Written By S. E. Morris. Photos by Rose Sandler
Rose Sandler, of Culpeper, Va., was one of 48 riders who competed in the 2014 Mongol Derby, “the longest, toughest horse race in the world,” held Aug. 6–15. The course recreates Genghis Khan’s postal route, which was organized in 1224, and stretches across 1,000 km (621 miles) of wilderness. Sandler rode 30 Mongolian horses along the way, resting at urtuus (horse stations where horses are swapped out and riders rest and refuel), and “balanced survival skills and horsemanship” for a chance to win the Derby.
Traveling through the remote Mongolian wilderness without a marked trail or set path, only a rough map with a GPS system, Sandler averaged 10 hours every day in the saddle. On one day, she made good time and rode four different horses; another day, only two horses.
“I usually rode three horses every day, but each day depended on several different factors,” including topography and weather, said Sandler.
“The terrain was unreal!” she stated. “Days four through ten were insanely hot and dry and water dried up along the way. This race asked a lot from the horses; I rode some of the most amazing horses in my life.”
Race officials take horse welfare seriously; riders are penalized with time additions if their horse’s standing heart rate is too high, meaning the horse was worked too hard.
“The people who organize the race are concerned about horse welfare,” said Sandler. Horses assembled by local herders were checked by veterinarians at every urtuu, and translators were on hand so riders could question herders about the condition and endurance ability of their horses.
“The horses were like everywhere else—some were amazing, the way they covered terrain, and there were a few that weren’t so amazing… but the number of incredible horses was huge, just based on logistics of the race,” Sandler stated.
There were 28 stations for change horses this year, instead of the usual 25, and the race sections “were slightly shorter,” described Sandler.
Between stations, riders can stay with local Mongolian nomads in their urtuus.
“Riders could camp out or go to random urtuus and ask to stay the night with them, which is part of the culture,” stated Sandler. “I did this my first night on the Derby because my horse was exhausted and I couldn’t make it to the next station, which was about 4 kilometers out. The second urutuu I approached had a woman outside; the man living there helped me hobble my horse for the night. They gave me dinner and we looked at pictures; it was a great way to experience the culture. The next morning, they fed me breakfast and the man rode out with me to the station to make sure I arrived safely.”
Personal safety is a concern for Derby riders. Sandler was attacked during one part of the ride, describing how a group of female riders was harassed by locals on motorbikes and horses. They tried to grab riders’ reins and stole tack from one of the riders.
“It was a really terrifying experience,” said Sandler. “We compared stories about the incident at the next horse station and the individuals were arrested later,” she continued. “But, there are ‘bad people’ everywhere; and it didn’t deter from the journey.”
Sandler was on hand to help another rider who had fallen.
“A group of four of us were riding through terrain that had holes everywhere, and her horse tripped and fell and then took off, galloping away. She had fallen on her arm and wasn’t moving; she was in shock and hurt badly,” related Sandler.
“I rode down the valley after her horse; a man herding camels helped me catch it. When I rode back to her, she told us to leave her because she knew she wasn’t going to finish the race and she wanted us to ride on.”
Sandler and the other women refused to leave the injured rider, covering her with sleeping bags and trying to stabilize her while waiting for the medics to arrive.
“It took about one and a half hours for the medics and then she was airlifted to the base camp for further treatment,” Sandler related. “I had already teamed up with another rider—a wonderful woman named Sylvia, from Sweden—and we decided we didn’t want to be alone in that kind of a situation, so we rode together for the rest of the trip.”
Sandler did fall from one horse while riding through a bog; the horse landed on her leg but fortunately, she wasn’t hurt. “I thought for a minute my leg was broken! But after the horse got up, I realized I was okay. Although I walked instead of riding for miles because I didn’t trust him,” she added with a laugh.
Sandler spoke of the incredible beauty of the land and took many photographs of people, horses, and the environment along her journey. “There was one stretch when I was galloping on a black stallion across a valley filled with flowers. I just looked at Sylvia and said, ‘Is this real? Or is this a dream?!’ There were so many moments that were almost surreal,” said Sandler.
Sandler usually enjoyed the food offered at the stations, which tended to consist of “noodles and meat of varying tastiness,” she said.
“Some food was amazing,” she enthused. “It was fresh, with vegetables; some stations offered fried meat pockets and dumplings, which was delicious.
“It was so gracious of the hosts to share with us. In the mornings, we had milk tea and rice, a very basic meal. But sometimes we had candy or a piece of chocolate. Also, in some places having drinking water was a challenge, as it had to be boiled. I treated my water the first day but after that I didn’t care and I didn’t have issues; I was lucky!” Sandler stated.
The drop-out rate during the Derby tends to fluctuate between 60 and 70 percent, but the 2014 race only had 12 riders leave early.
“The Derby varies from year to year,” explained Sandler. “It’s never the same race because there are too many variables” including the number of people competing, the weather, and the landscape.
“You don’t know what to expect, there’s so many factors—not just navigation, but other people, directions, making your own decisions about the course,” said Sandler. “For example, choosing horses with interpreters was difficult, as the information wasn’t reliable sometimes. I took me a few days to find my groove and choose my horses based on my instinct.”
“The biggest thing I took away from the race is to trust myself—if it feels wrong, it is wrong, and I shouldn’t question myself,” she said.
“The culture is so different and I had to learn to trust my instincts about what didn’t feel right,” she further explained. “However, none of these things was a deterrent to me; everyone who participates should do their homework about the possibilities about what could happen.”
“Skill, determination, and luck” are required to win the Derby, according to Sandler. She believes the 2014 Derby winner, Samantha (Sam) Jones (Australia), best typifies these characteristics.
“The winner this year was determined to do things for herself, the way she wanted to do it, and she had this attitude early on in the race. I had more success with my journey when I had the same self-confidence in my decisions,” she said.
Sandler returned to the United States one week after completing the Derby.
“I had one week to do sightseeing [in Mongolia], and I planned a week in the Gobi with four other people. We drove around and had so much fun!” she said.
Her future plans include to continue endurance training and riding with Mary McConnell at Summer Duck Wood Farm, in Rapidan, Va. Sandler trained for the Derby on Banjo, one of McConnell’s Cherokee horses (see article this issue). She also would like to visit schools and pony clubs to display pictures and to talk about her adventure.
“I’d like to keep Culpepper as my home base,” she said. “I have many close friends who are family and it would be great to stay here.”
Sandler, an aerospace engineer, also is searching for a job in her field after taking a career break to compete in the Derby.
“Right now, I have a lot of chips in the air, I don’t know where they’ll land, but it will be okay,” she added.
When asked if competing in the Derby was worth it, Sandler enthusiastically cried, “I would absolutely do it again!”
“The race gives you a whole different perspective on life,” she said.
“I was at a restaurant with family and I went to the drink dispenser for water,” she related. “And I thought, ‘Wow, this water fountain gives out cold water! For free! And it won’t give me a parasite—it’s safe to drink!’”
“The simple things make a difference, and now I tend to relate everything in my life to the experiences I endured on my journey of riding the Mongol Derby!” she concluded.
For more information about Rose Sandler and her Mongol Derby ride, visit www.themongolderby2014.com (Facebook https://www.facebook.com/rose4mongolderby) or email email@example.com.