A horse race 1,000 kilometres long!
Self-confessed party girl LIANNE MASON signs up for the world’s most challenging horse race across the wilds of Mongolia. She tells us why she made the decision, and how the preps are going!
Singapore is a black hole for time. I blinked and the next thing I knew, I’d been here for three years, living in this beautiful bubble of expat life. Boat parties, Bali beaches, brunches, boozy catch-ups in trendy rooftop bars – this lifestyle makes you feel as warm and comfortable as the sun on that lazy Sunday afternoon spent by the pool.
Yet, this has never really been me. Back in the UK, my roots are in the countryside; muddy walks, freezing rain. Beaches there are rarely paradise escapes – they’re wild and open, to be raced across on horses, against winds that’ll blow the thoughts right out of your overcrowded mind.
My branches have spread far from these roots, with travel and adventure becoming an addiction. Until now, I’ve tempered this, feeding it by relocating halfway across the world, jetting off to nearby destinations at every chance. But there’s this inexplicable thing inside of me that keeps surfacing. I try to shut it out – focus on my career, keep chasing that “successful” adulthood dream: save to buy a house, look for a husband, and in few years start to seriously consider kids. You know the drill.
But, maybe it’s because I’m a “snowflake millennial”, always searching for that greater purpose, always looking for something more… Or maybe it’s my Romany gypsy heritage – horses and wandering is in my blood. Maybe I’m too complacent, or bored of dead-end Bumble dates and in need of a distraction. Whatever it is, before I knew it, I had inevitably succumbed; I’d signed up to take part in the world’s longest, toughest horse race.
A risky adventure
The Mongol Derby is a one-thousand-kilometre race across the Mongolian Steppes involving semi-wild horses, extreme weather and wild dogs. Only half of the international riders who take part finish alive… Just joking – it’s usually the odd broken bone or an illness of some kind that takes them out.
Still, the team from The Adventurists, who are the organisers of the Mongol Derby, along with other extreme race challenges around the world, are very clear about the dangers involved in their events: “Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals have previously been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled and even lost their life. This is not a glorified holiday; it’s an unsupported adventure and so by its very nature extremely risky. You really are on your own and you really are putting both your health and life at risk. This is what makes them adventures.”
I was sold immediately.
I should offer some context for my decision. While I like to keep fit, I’m no endurance athlete. In fact, I’ve never participated in endurance riding before in my life. And while I started riding as a young girl, that was largely charging across the rolling fields or beaches of Devon. This is quite the leap.
Around 35 other riders will join me from all over the world. Most are professional riders or they at least have the open expanses of North America, South Africa or Australia to ride around in daily – which is useful, because we’ll be spending up to 14 hours a day in the saddle covering more than three marathons a day for as many as 10 days.
The training regime
Singapore isn’t known for its open spaces, so it’s a somewhat unconventional place to train for such a race. To clock up time in the saddle, I started riding again at Gallop Riding School. But with both the conditions and the horses being the polar opposite to those I’ll be facing in Mongolia, I’ve also started endurance training in Malaysia with Pikar, a very experienced and connected horseman. For our next trip, he’ll arrange for me and fellow Derby rider Amelie to ride 240km on different horses over the course of the weekend.
Until recently, I hadn’t stopped to consider how even just training for this race would open my world. I’ve already ridden beautiful Arabian horses through the Malaysian countryside with new friends – friends who also happen to be celebrities in Malaysia and Indonesia; I’ve even ridden in the presence of a king! In March, we’ll be visiting another Derby rider in a remote area of the Philippines to test our skills on their local ponies. And other contestants have invited us to join them to ride endurance in the deserts of Abu Dhabi. I knew the Mongol Derby would leave me in awe during the race. But I hadn’t expected it to have already taken its hold this long before it’s even on.
Horsemanship is just one element of the race. Physical and mental fitness is critical. I’ve enlisted the help of UFIT who have agreed to take on the challenge of trying to transform a party girl into an endurance athlete. The lifestyle of a young(ish) British expat in Singapore doesn’t typically lend itself to such a training and nutrition programme. I feel the panic set in as I imagine missing out on a random drunken Friday ambling around Boat Quay with my friends. But my coach Rachael is a former British swim champion, and with this comes a great deal of respect. I know the dedication she has put into training and I know I can’t get away with hedonistic excuses.
Having overcome my own battles with mental health, I understand first-hand the benefits horses can have. I also understand that these benefits are only available to those who are in the privileged position to pay the hefty price tag that goes hand in hand with an equine lifestyle – especially in Singapore. In my opinion, this is a theme that seems prevalent throughout mental health and social issues.
EQUAL, the Singapore-based charity I’m supporting as part of this race, uses equine-assisted learning to help develop social-emotional life skills in youths, people with special needs, families and the elderly. Horses and humans have shared a special relationship throughout history. This approach can have a profound effect on vulnerable individuals who have been unaffected by other therapies or failed by society.
Racing in the footsteps of the ancient Mongol warriors – who, while riding on the ancestors of the horses I’ll ride on, forged the greatest empire the world has ever seen: I wonder what profound effect this may have on me. Or if it will have any at all.
I’ll be 29 when I take part in the race. As a way of bringing my twenties to a close, I can think of no more perfect homage to the turbulent years of my personal story. I’ll be able to escape this beautiful bubble that every so often feels more like a hamster wheel. For a short while, there’ll be no boat parties, Bali beaches, brunches or booze-filled catchups on trendy rooftops. It’ll be a different kind of bliss. As they say, “in riding a horse, we borrow freedom.”