Bob Long was enjoying some wine and whiskey with friends when the documentary “All the Wild Horses” came up in conversation, and, soon enough, was playing on somebody’s computer. The film is a look at the Mongol Derby, an exhausting 1,000-kilometer horse race through the Mongolian grasslands. Long, a seasoned rider who practically grew up on horseback on the plains of Wyoming, finished watching the film, thought for about 20 minutes, then decided, yeah, he could ride that race. This was last October. Long was 69 years old.
Earlier this month, Long not only rode the Mongol Derby; he won it. At 70, he is the oldest person in the event’s 11-year history to win.
Not just anybody can enter. This year there were 42 riders from 12 different countries. An application process weeds out riders who aren’t qualified. People approved to ride in the Mongol Derby have to demonstrate serious horsemanship. “I sent my application in, and it received a couple of pings back requesting more information,” Long said. “I assume they were thinking, ‘are you serious, with how old and fat you are?'”
Long of course was serious, so he sent in video of him riding in Extreme Mountain Trail events, which are something like horseback obstacle courses. The planners of the Mongol Derby were satisfied by what they saw and allowed Long to enter.
The race itself is a test not only of how well and fast one can ride a horse, but also of navigation skills, organization, strategy, and judgment. Modeled after Genghis Khan’s famed system of horseback messengers passing along information between stations set dozens of kilometers apart, the Mongol Derby consists of riders galloping between 28 stations. At each one they dismount and choose a horse for the next leg. Then hop back on and keep riding.
To navigate they have a GPS unit. That’s it. And whatever local knowledge the barely-broken horses have, of course. Each rider is also given a sheet of Mongolian phrases should they encounter locals and need to ask for assistance or lodging, something Long availed himself of, and which became the highlight of the race for him.
Each station has sleeping quarters for the riders, but uncomfortable in such cramped circumstances, Long sought out local families who’d let him bunk up with them for the evening. He brought along gifts, including pocketknives and cigarettes for adults, small toys for children. Not only was he successful at negotiating places to sleep for the evening, his good graces meant he had local help in caring for his horses.
Long also festooned his mounts with gifts. He brought small blue ribbons from competitions won in the US, and attached them to the horse he rode each leg. Upon relinquishing the horse to select another, he was careful to thank the owning herdsman profusely for letting him ride their horse. A favorite among locals, Long became known as “Cowboy Bob.”
“I would turn to the herdsmen and say that this was a great horse and it was a privilege to ride him,” Long said. “I would do that as much as I could, through the interpreters. So, it became really fun to interact with the herdsmen.”
At each station a volunteer vet would inspect the horses for wear and tear and to be sure the riders weren’t overtaxing them, though that would be a difficult feat for such athletically gifted horses. “Some 500 nomadic horse herders and 1,500 horses partner with the Mongol Derby, creating a system of veterinary stations manned by our team of Mongolian and International vets,” said Erik Cooper, Event Manager of the Derby. “Riders are kept to strict rules regarding horse welfare and are not allowed a new mount unless their previous partner has cleared our vet check.”
Bob’s mounts always passed their checks with flying colors.
Not every rider could say the same. If a horse checked out as injured or overworked, racers were charged with a penalty. The racers themselves, however, were just as likely to be injured or overworked. This year, injuries to riders included punctured lungs, broken collarbones, and broken ribs. Riding 100 kilometers per day is grueling, especially at speed, on an unfamiliar horse, through often unforgiving weather. Like riding the “Tour de France on unknown bicycles,” said Lara Prior-Palmer, who won the race in 2013 (at 19 years old, she’s the youngest person to win). Over a third of all riders, 39 percent, didn’t finish this year’s event.
“You just ride 650 miles on a death march,” Long said.
Long finished in seven and a half days, having ridden 28 different horses. He seemed to have a magic eye for choosing his next ride at each station. Once he assumed the lead at the beginning of the race, he never faltered, making all the right choices, staying on course, and feeling refreshed after lodging with locals.
“Preparation trumps youth, Long said. “I’d done all my research. I had all my nutrition organized. I had all my gear tested and ready. I don’t know how to do it any better. I had prepared as good as I knew how to prepare for a mission such as this. It was a great experience for me.”
All photos via Mongol Derby’s Facebook page.