The Mongol Derby is the world’s hardest horse race. The aim is to ride 600 miles across the Mongolian plains, which were once the home of the army of Genghis Khan. The ride takes 10 days and riders are restricted in the time they can ride each day and how hard they can push their horses too. The riders swap horses at regular intervals, transferring saddles onto a new horse that they have seen before at each urtuu they stop at.

The race began in 2009, and there are around 30 to 40 entries each year to travel across this beautiful landscape and they will travel across lush valleys, woodlands, rivers, mountains and the steppe that this part of the world is famous for. Riding for that distance takes its toll on the competitors and the race will be lucky to see half of the starters actually complete it. On a whim Lara Prior-Palmer decided to enter the race and sent off her application, secretly hoping that she wouldn’t get in. They accepted and even knocked down the entry fee when they realised that her aunt was the Lucinda Green of Badminton Trails fame.

Prior-Palmer was totally unprepared and being a late entry meant that she had missed all the preparation that the organisers recommend for the race. On top of that, she would be one of the youngest competitors at the age of 19. The disclaimer on the website is fairly blunt:

We want to point out how dangerous the Mongol Derby is. By taking part in this race you are greatly increasing your risk of severe physical injury or even death.

She’d missed that originally and it was too late to cancel or take any of her vaccinations. However, it was time to catch a plane and head around the world to the city of Ulaanbaatar to meet the other competitors and have the pre-race briefing. It was slowly dawning on her just what she’d taken on. Next, they were heading out onto the steppe to acclimatise and final prep for the race. Then, before she knew it, it was time to start, there was a blessing from the Lama and they were off.

So she begins 10 days of racing against the other competitors, the landscape and herself. Even though it is the first person past the finishing line who will win, there are time penalties for pushing your horse too hard and disqualification is certain cases. They have to navigate using the maps and GPS to each of the urtuu’s where they swap to their next pony after the vets have examined their previous one. The pony you choose next can make or break that leg. The landscape is endlessly challenging, with marmot holes to trip horse and rider. At the end of the first day she is second to last.

Riding for that amount of time would be tough enough on a seasoned rider who knew the horse, but for each leg they choose an animal that they have never seen before, let alone ridden. By the start of the third day, her legs felt like lead. Only seven more days to go… The leader of the Derby was a girl from Texas, called Devan, and she didn’t seem to want to relinquish the lead any time soon. Some dropped out of the race and slowly she started to catch the leader, even setting a record for the highest number of legs completed in one day. She never thought she’d finish, but she might be in with a chance at this.

I like horses but have only been brave enough to go on one once. At first glance, this wouldn’t normally my sort of thing, but this is a good example of taking a chance on a book because sometime you can be surprised. This account of the frantic dash across the Mongolian steppe is nicely balanced between a personal account of the race and a memoir of her life with a light dusting of travel writing. She is quite naive, forgetting all manner of things, does almost zero preparation and makes other errors that would cost someone else the race. What she does have though is grit and determination as well as a desire, not necessarily to win, but to upset the applecart and defy all expectations. Even though I knew what the result was from the blurb, I still turned the final pages in a frantic rush as both competitors head into the final stages of the race. It is what good non-fiction should be, a strong narrative about a subject that you may not know about with a personal angle. Well worth reading.

Paul Cheney 4/3

Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Wildest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer
Ebury Press 9781785038853 hbk Jun 2019