Archaeologist Mike Field rides toughest horse race in the world
Archaeologist Mike Field spent his summer holiday riding in the toughest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby: 1,000km in ten days across the Mongolian steppe, following in the footsteps of the Genghis Khan’s messengers. Field was thrown from his horse twice but managed to make it to the finish.
When we speak to Mike Field, a bioarchaeologist, he’s not completely back to earth yet. Well not at the Faculty of Archaeology anyway. Field calls the Mongol Derby, which although it does make use of modern aids is ridden under spartan conditions, the most unique experience in his life. His body, with bruises, scars and other signs of wear and tear, is beginning to recover, and he will regain the seven kilos that he lost. But the smells, the feeling, the light and the memories are things he won’t forget in a hurry.
Watchful eye of the crew
For Field, the first few days were particularly hard. His horse threw him twice. One time he bruised his shoulder and the other he fell on a stone and cut open his knee. He was given stitches, but the wound became infected. Then it rained for three days without stop. The entrants changed horses every 40km in a kind of camp. This meant that the crew – including ten vets and five medics – was never far away. Trackers kept them updated on the riders’ position, so if needed, they could come to their aid.
Emotional roller coaster
‘The ten days were a roller coaster ride,’ says Field, ‘alternating between feelings of euphoria, desperation, hope and disappointment.’ He believes that being able to ride a horse is just one aspect of the race. It’s also about navigation, the environment of plains and mountains, the weather – all conditions that keep changing. You also have to build up a relationship with your horse in a short space of time. And you have to enjoy your own company, show mettle, be able to deal with disappointment and have an iron will.
State of being
In short, the race is more of a state of being than an activity. The course is so tough that half of the entrants don’t finish it at all, and half of these end up in hospital, sometimes with serious injuries. Ride, eat, sleep, ride, eat, sleep is the austere regime for ten days. The riders’ luggage isn’t transported by the crew: the riders have to carry their own equipment, and the total weight of rider and luggage mustn’t exceed 85 kg. That is the reason why relatively many women take part (60%).
Field’s wife Katja was a bit worried that the Derby – the 11th edition – might alienate Field from her. Because this individual race can change a person. It was through Katja that Field became interested in the race because she has followed it for years and knew how profound the experience can be. One vet couldn’t settle back in at home after the Derby and gave in his notice to travel around the world, working as a vet. And another person ended up committing suicide having had to drop out of the race – perhaps the last straw rather than the direct cause, but who knows...
Field thinks that the Derby has changed him – although he has only been back a few weeks. ‘Last year was a very difficult one at the Faculty with a lot of change. But I don’t think that I can get worked up about such things anymore. And I think that is a lasting change.’
His submersion in the horse-loving Mongolian culture has also played a role in this. The horses are changed every 40km during the race. The nomadic people who live on the steppes provide the horses, tents and food. In return, they expect their guests to respect and observe their customs. The meals mainly consist of meat and soup – mutton and goat – and a kind of pudding. No fruit or veg, therefore. The drinks on offer are sheep’s milk, tea and water. The water doesn’t come from a tap, but from streams and springs and it is boiled, but that’s no guarantee. Most participants experience stomach problems, if only because they aren’t used to the type of food. There’s no chance to wash in the ten days either.
Customs and rituals
There are lots of customs that have to be respected. Food has to be accepted in a certain way: with your right arm held out, palm facing upwards. It’s taboo to place your hand on a child’s head, as is ignoring old people. And there are many more rules and rituals that everyone has to observe. What is also very different is that the Mongolians live close to nature and are not materialistic.
Field was trailing behind after his unfortunate first few days, but in four days he had managed to catch up – through sheer willpower. ‘I had three goals,’ he says. ‘I wanted to get a clean veterinary card and finish at all. Later in the race, I wanted to end in the first ten.’ Field achieved the first two goals. A clean veterinary card means that you return every horse you’ve ridden unharmed and in good condition. Field was one of only six entrants who managed to get a clean card.
The riders set out at 5:30 in the morning, and Field generally reached his destination at around 8:00 in the evening. More or less the only breaks are to change horses. Groups of riders often ride together for a while, and they help each other out, but essentially it is every rider for him or herself. There can be great differences in times, sometimes up to four hours. In his pack, Field had brought along a few prewritten letters to his wife and parents-in-law. This was in the spirit of the postal service in the days of Genghis Khan, the infamous ruler of the area in around 1100.
Field, a Brit, was more or less born in the saddle: his parents kept racehorses. He is proficient in all forms of horse riding, from dressage to racing to hunting. But his training for the Derby was especially intensive. He is going to do it all again in two years’ time. This time to achieve his third goal.
Banner photo at the top of the page: the riders leave early in the morning.
The annual Mongol Derby, which first took place in 2008, is a British initiative and is not for the faint-hearted: it is an individual 1,000km horse race in ten stages. It is absolutely essential to be well-prepared, as concerns equipment too. Entrants have to pay a steep entry fee. The Mongolian steppe forms the backdrop of the race. This consists not only of plains but also of mountains. The riders change their horses every 40km. The horse-loving Mongolians like to race too. But this usually means local races of 27km at the max. They are very interested in the Mongol Derby but also think you’d have to be crazy to want to do it. Until now, around 200 people have completed the race.