Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Shifting Priorities (Mongol Derby)

Wednesday July 1 2009

I see with a lot of pressure from horse people worldwide, the Adventurists putting on this Mongol Derby (who are not an equine tour company, and have apparently never put on a horse event in a first world country, much less a third world country), have suddenly proclaimed horse welfare "firmly" at the top of their agenda.

Now, instead of "Essentially once the starter gun goes off you are on your own", and instead of 2 jeeps "following the race from a distance" there is now a "fleet of back up jeeps," or a "fleet of jeeps," or the event is supported by five off-road vehicles running alongside the riders (um, which five riders?) and 2 standby 4x4 vehicles.

Now instead of having no established route to follow, and the riders being on their own: "Luck? Judgement? Ask a passing herder? Ride in concentric circles for a week? Divination... You will be given a map before the start with the locations of each Urtuu and the rest is down to you," there is an "established route" to follow, or a "route marked out by the horse stations."

Now, instead of the riders "tackling the challenge of semi-wild horses and surviving alone in the wild steppes of Mongolia", and "It's dangerous, it's unsupported and you could die," now the "safety and welfare of the horses and riders on the Mongol Derby is of paramount importance to us as organisers. With a network of first class professionals, both veterinary and medical, the Mongol Derby's support network is exemplary; before, during and after the race." Now, the "welfare of the horse is guarded and monitored at all times" (I'm a little vague on the math here... 26 riders and horses - or 600 horses, if you want to count all of them - spread out over days or weeks and how many kilometers, with the 5 off-road vehicles following the 5 riders.)

Most enlightening and comforting, now there is also an "extensive horse welfare program and emergency back up system" in place. There's a "fantastic team of equine experts and veterinarians", or "respected British and Mongolian equine experts," or "a network of Mongolian vets". (Mongolia must have a lot of vets, no?) An unnamed British equine vet "with 32 years of experience" will follow the Derby in one of our "fleet of back up jeeps" and the Mongolian vets will have with them "high quality veterinary medicines."

Now instead of: "They're going to give us GPS locations to the wells, where we'll be able to get water, and they don't guarantee that the wells will have water" (apparently said by a contestant - but surely this can not be a real quote!), a recent revision was made "to increase the number of water sources" (um... new wells dug?) that have been clearly plotted for horses and riders, or, an "extensive list of confirmed water sources." Now the provision of water is a prime deciding factor in the route for the horses. Now, "The route will under no circumstances be taken through any area without adequate water provision and has been designed with this primarily in mind."

There still is that weight thing, though. Horses can safely carry up to 20% of their body weight. Mules can carry 25% safely. 95 kg, or 209 pounds, (the weight limit of the riders plus equipment and personal things), is 20% of a 454 kg, or 1000 pound animal. I haven't seen a 14-hand pony yet that weighs anywhere close to 1000 pounds.

Karen C in her blog entry today raised some valid points, besides wondering what really happens to the horses after they are raced. Namely, who is supplying batteries for the GPS units? My GPS only goes 11 hours without a charge (or plug in, which you won't have at the Urtuus in Mongolia). What about the emergency beacons? They will need fresh batteries too. Keeping the GPS's and emergency beacons functional every day would seem rather important since they are paramount to horse and rider safety, and riders will be limited on the weight they can carry. Will the Mongol Derby organisation provide enough batteries for all 26 riders every day at each Urtuu?

All of this new info is from the June 30th press release and the newly released Mongol Derby Horse Welfare and Race Logistics Information from the Adventurists.

It all looks great. After all, IT'S ALL WRITTEN ON PAPER, SO IT'S TRUE.

Right? (Although, which written word is true: those before the press release, or those in the press release?). Now we can all stop worrying and start kvetching about something else.

(An aside, TOTALLY unrelated to this event. I do not believe everything my government and governmental officials have put in writing, or told me, the last decade. Some of it has indeed proved to be false. And now, back to the Mongol Derby.)

Now, aside from the weight factor, I commend the Adventurists organization for seriously addressing valid concerns from serious horse people around the world, and from CLEARLY disassociating themselves from endurance riding or racing. ("The Mongol Derby is not an endurance race for the horses...")

However, I remain skeptical of all of their written declarations.

Since only the riders and Adventurists organization will be there in Mongolia during the Mongol Derby, the world won't really know if all or any of these written declarations will come to pass, will they?

So, how about this: if the Adventurists are dead set (no pun intended) on their wild and crazy Mongolian Adventure, and they are dead serious (no pun intended) on horse safety being at the forefront of this entire adventure, why don't they also bring along a few independent expert horsemen to independently audit the event?

How about a horse expert (who really does ride horses, a lot) from the Adventurists organization (surely there is one), a rider from the Long Riders' Guild, and a third horse riding expert that both agree upon? They can ride in the fleet of jeeps following the riders. That way there can be no question that the WRITTEN WORD is actually what goes down. Riders will still have their uninhibited wild and crazy adventure, horses will indeed be taken care of, the horse world will be put at ease, and Tom Morgan will be absolutely vindicated

How about it, Tom??


  1. A few thoughts from someone who has extensive experience in Mongolia:

    The horses will be fine. Assuming that the weight limit established for the Derby riders is respected, what is being asked of these ponies is well within their typical daily use by herders (who DON'T have a weight limit). Inexperienced riders won't last but a few days of continuous riding, the choppy trot of the Mongol pony will see to that. And remember that they are riding a different horse each day. 40k for a local Mongol herder and horse is really nothing. But they cover that ground at a trot which you can't post and if you don't figure out very quickly how to ride like a local, you butt and calves will shortly be skinned.
    So let's get off all the sturm and drang about horse welfare. Mongols EAT their horses and I don't hear anyone up in arms about that. "Equestrians" in the crowd should remember that the horse you ride are abberations; artificially bred for traits that have little to do with being effective as a horse from a horse's point of view, cut off from herd behavior and socialization, kept in beautiful, clean, well watered prisons, fed unnaturally. Mongol ponies spend the vast part of the lives living in herds, unfenced and unhassled by people. After carrying a bored British pony club member for a day, that horse gets to go back to real horse life.

    The problem I have with the race is the ludicrous hyperbole, the arrogance of making Mongolia the lurid, wild, dangerous backdrop for a cure for boredom. Raising money for charity doesn't change the fact that this is a historically bogus event and a culturally insensitive one. Mongols love horse racing but this bears no resemblance to Mongolian horse racing. As far as a historical re-creation of the Urtu system, that's fine, by making it a "race' is pure Yeehaw and flat wrong. And where are the Mongol participants? Oh.. dogs and Mongols need not apply? It's their country after all.
    In addition to raising money for Mercy Corps, why isn't it also a requirement that each rider spend a week actually working at a Mercy Corp project; digging wells or toilets or teaching English. This is a classic case of "credit card charity" where all you have to do is send to be suffused by the warm glow of your own benevolence.

    The horse can handle it. That's not the point. The riders can all fall off and break their necks. That's fine with me. But Mercy Corps needs (and seems to be getting the message) to look to the awkward and frankly, colonialist tone that the race organizers have created and find ways to make this something other than a fraternity party.

  2. Merri -- loved your post here... and even with anonymous' comments.. so added to all that you have written and what is written here.. the participants can die, the horses may or may not be able to handle this and no horse expertise on the so called route??? I'm agree with both of you... Stop the Mongol Derby!!

    Did you hear??? One contestant was pulled by their doctor. Another wanna be contestant was convinced by a whole bunch of bloggers that she shouldn't do it. Ironically, I have personally written a few of the riders and only one returned with a kind response. I have an expedition of my own that I am doing...going at 3 miles per hour for 2502KM... which will take 120 days.. It's taken two years and 20+ years riding experience to plan for this.

    None the less.. the Derby has caused quite a stir and the Derby officials (charity or not) are changing their tune..which is exactly what we long riders want..

    Great posts by the both of you! Keep getting the word out there... the more, the better!

    Long Rider 2010