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Galloping to Glory

Moni Mathews
Filed on October 14, 2012

Dubai-based Austrian veterinary surgeon, endurance rider, charity worker and adventure specialist Michaela Gradinger finished third in her very first attempt at the Mongol Derby, the world’s toughest endurance race on horse-back.

In many ways, the event, which was into its fourth chapter this year, is a multi-faceted adventure and not just an endurance race.

The lady (Michaela) who is restless when there is no challenge in life, took it upon herself to go through the tough screening process as laid down by the organisers of the 1,000km ride across the Mongolian steppes on semi wild and partially trained horses from the region outside Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.

Over 800 such horses are taken in by the organisers every year.

About Michaela’s performance and participation, organisers Adventurists, had words of praise about her outlook and personality that makes participating in the Mongol Derby a memorable experience for anyone passing the initial screening and acclimatisation process days before the 10-event begins.

“Michaela was a joy to have on the event and should be very, very proud of herself,” Katy of the organisers said when permission was sought to publish information from their website.

“It’s a life time experience and one for those who want an extra kick out of life. It’s all out there for one to see, feel and learn in total wilderness in a land so alien yet friendly with the people so embracing when it comes to hospitality,” Michaela, who once undertook a ride through all the emirates on a horse to raise awareness for breast cancer, told Khaleej Times.

“The additional feature of the Mongol Derby is not just the detailed screening process, but also the fact that having participated in it, one is part of a process in raising funds for the charity work aimed at improving the living conditions of the people in the Mongolian regions where the Derby takes place. It also makes it eligible for riders to go on a charity project of their choice,” Michaela had said in an interview with another publication during her pre-event months in Dubai.

Prior to the event, familiarisation with the GPS is part of the conditioning period and once the hand picked candidates set foot to the ‘kick-off’ camp in Mongolia, the organisers keep reminding the riders continuously about the life saving electronic device.

Survival equipment of any kind are welcome, such as a sleeping bag, torch and spare clothes, not to forget “the tooth brush and paste,” as Michaela said light heartedly.

She started her preparations and conditioning in December last.

The mobile cell unit is also allowed but getting proper range within the organisers link services in the UK is not guaranteed. The total weight of additional luggage that riders can carry with them on the horses is just 5kg. The total weight on ‘board’ of the rider, survival kit and rations have to be below 85kg.

The adventure is a self-guided 1,000km trip, at speed, across the incomparable Mongolian steppe, one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses and cradle of the largest land empire ever created under Genghis Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire.

The Morin Urtuu system is a network of horse stations, just like those used by the messengers of Genghis Khan, hosted by nomadic families at regular (approx. 40km) intervals where riders will change horses, rest and eat. There will be a vet at every urtuus who will check the horses coming in and going out.

The native horses are small, tough, and gloriously wild. They fend for themselves year-round on the steppe, live, fight, mate and die in their herds, and are the pride and joy of their herders.

The unbearable heat, cold, hunger, thirst, flies, floods, deserts, and really anything else that Mongolian mother nature can throw — these really are some of the toughest and most fit-for-purpose partners imaginable for the Mongol Derby.

These include wild dogs, venomous crawling creatures that can jerk you to reality while trying to catch some sleep and added to this is the endless preying wild animals and birds. There are extensive backups for the safety of horses and riders in the Mongol Derby, but emphatically not for the comfort of the riders, the organisers emphasise continuously.

Unless things go drastically wrong, riders will be alone with their horse and solely responsible for the route between the urtuus stops. Unless there is a medical or veterinary emergency, the only contact with the back-up crew occurs at the urtuus, where the horses will undergo a veterinary check to ensure they are in excellent health before and after a Derby leg.

Being a good rider is not enough, and for most Derby contestants, the riding element is the most straight forward aspect of the event. Although there is a winner, and there are rules in place to encourage a fair competition, the race is secondary to the adventure itself, the chance to experience the Mongolian landscape, traditions and hospitality.

“We want the cash raised from the generous donors to directly benefit the communities ‘you’ (rider) will have the privilege of seeing. We also want to tell you and your sponsors exactly where the money raised is going. The official Mongol Derby charity is reviewed every year, ensuring transparency, effectiveness and fairness. Once we have announced the official charity for 2012 we will release this information on the website.

“Riders can also raise money for a charity of their choice; as long as they raise the suggested donation of £1000, £500 of this can be for their nominated charity,” Adventurists say on their site.

The Adventurists’ ethos is to allow people to take on challenges and risks. The Mongol Derby is no different, and they will not be spoon feeding riders with a training programme, kit list, extra calcium etc.

“You will need to ensure that you are physically and mentally ready to ride the Derby and this is no mean feat.The Mongolian Steppe is a wild place and riding across it on horseback can be physically and mentally as exhausting as it is exhilarating,” the info column on the organisers listing section says.

Once out in Mongolia and riding the Derby, riders will need to make decisions on a regular basis as to how to ride the race, whether to push on to the next urtuus or stay and rest, stay with the nomads or camp wild, water the horse at a river or that well .... one needs to be able to use initiative and common sense 24/7.

“One will be riding for 12 hours a day. The physical demands of the event is just theory about being carried by a horse.The less fit you are, the quicker you will tire and the greater the risk you will pose to your (rider) horse and to yourself. So, for their sakes as well as your (rider) own, one must take one’s physical condition seriously.Fall off or lame your horse and you could be 20km from the nearest horse station, and that’s quite a jog,” Michaela said of the pre-event reading she went through prior to leaving for Ulan Bator.

“One needs a tolerance for the unknown to enjoy this adventure.There will be contingencies that even we (organisers) cannot cover off.Experienced travellers and adventurers are much more likely to embrace these elements, and this is why the organisers ask riders about their appetite for adventure and prior experience of travel to remote areas on the application form,” Michaela explained from the inputs of her planning diary.

“They have three roaming sets of staff on the Derby, none of whom the riders will see out on the course, unless they encounter a problem and need to summon emergency help,” Michaela explained about the pre-event literature.

“These are medical, veterinary, and the race directors.To be clear, the back-up team is there to ensure the smooth running of the event logistics, and to deal with any emergencies.There are no non-emergency communication, or outside assistance, or hand-holding, or sympathising, from the organisers to the riders,” Michaela added.

This year a mobile steward was introduced, whose job was to check on the welfare of horses and riders and award and relay any penalties for negligent or abusive riding.

Three teams co-ordinate using satellite communications, managed by another team in Ulan Bator, in contact with the Adventurists HQ in Bristol, UK.

Michaela feels extremely proud at the moment on two counts — the event is extremely difficult to get into and that she could represent the UAE and finish third overall.

moni@khaleejtimes.comwith inputs and photos from The Adventurists


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