Getting onto a half wild pony and participating in what is deemed the toughest horse race in the world, crisscrossing the steppes and mountains of Mongolia, is probably not what springs to mind when pondering how to spend the summer.
Unless you are passionate about horses, love endurance riding, and are bit of an adventurer. Michaela Gradinger fits the bill.
“I’ve been looking into riding holidays for the past five years now, something where I could be active and also do some good, but nothing enticed me. They weren’t adventurous enough with too few hours in the saddle,” she says.
A friend told her about the Mongol Derby, now in the fourth year running. The fact that it has a charity aspect attached to it, with money raised assisting social development in Mongolia caught Michaela’s attention.
“I just knew it was right for me and loved the idea that in addition I can raise money for another charity here in the UAE of my choice,” she adds.
With a penchant for charitable causes, she only recently rode for the Pink Caravan, raising awareness about breast cancer, crossing all of the seven emirates on horseback.
Michaela feels thoroughly at home in the UAE. She has been living and working as a vet in Dubai for over eight years now and imported her Arabian stallion from Austria, where she hails from.
She says she feels proud to participate as a rider living in the UAE in the Mongol Derby, where riders from all over the world meet to tough it out. And it isn’t easy to get accepted.
It takes several interviews until, finally, an ecstatic Michaela heard the words ‘You are exactly who we are looking for’ making their way down the phone line from the UK, where the organizers The Adventurists sit.
One needs to prove one has the knowledge about horses and the stamina to survive riding an average of 120 kilometres a day over ten days to complete the race. “The fastest it has ever been done is in four and a half days,” Michaela says.
Well, this should sort out the concern of not spending enough time in the saddle, but how on earth can one prepare to be fit enough, I wonder.
Luckily the UAE itself is known for its passion for endurance racing and Michaela has qualified right here but never ridden more than 80 kilometres in a day. And the climate in Mongolia is very different to ours here in the desert. It can and most probably will rain, the altitude, 1,800 metres usually take some getting used to so could affect performance.
But Michaela points out that actually running in the heat and humidity we get in the UAE presents a similar environment to build up our physical resistance than being at a high altitude, interesting.
“I started the endurance training here last December in preparation for the derby, but although I am a sportive person I still have to do as much additional sports and strength training, apart from spending several hours a day in the saddle, as I can,” she concedes.
This is a challenge in itself when work calls at the same time, but with four months left to pack the suitcase and go, time is running out fast. Did I say suitcase? Michaela corrects me laughing.
“You can only take five kilos with you on the horse, which includes your bare necessities, such as some food, toothbrush and your clothing. Water is calculated aside. Oh, and a GPS and first aid kit, of course,” she smiles.
This requires an explanation. The riders are pretty much on their own during most of the time of the race, being able to read a GPS is essential when galloping through the steppe in the middle of nowhere with no one else in sight.
Although there are predetermined stops every 40 kilometres where the horse are changed, one has to find them and it is very possible one ends up sleeping under the stars with only the four legged friend for company.
It isn’t like one couldn’t group up with other riders, explains Michaela, but realistically to win the race, especially further down the line, one is bound to separate, because there are two types of Mongolian ponies.
“Some are better at trotting and managing the mountain paths, others prefer to gallop on the flat steppe. So you have to establish within the first 5 kilometres which type you are riding to choose whether to take the short but steep, or the longer but flat route. And this may not coincide with whoever you would like to team up with.”
But Michaela says she isn’t bothered about going it alone. “I’ve always been attracted to the wilderness and love the idea of just being by yourself with your horse. One just needs to make sure to take good care of your equine, and oh not let it wander off whilst you’re sleeping,” she laughs just at the thought alone.
Around 1,000 of these tough little ponies, who usually live pretty much wild with the Mongolian nomads will be pre-selected a month before the race. This doesn’t leave much time other than to establish they will accept a saddle and a rider, at least temporarily.
Testimonials, photos included, from previous participants make it clear that these ponies can and most possibly will throw off riders from time to time.
Hence, the first aid kit and if it is serious there are emergency response teams in reach, if never visible. But being airlifted out of the country is not Michaela’s goal.
“I know I will be pushing my limits, and yes it is a challenge. If I were to break something or had to quit because of any other major injury it would just make me mad. What scares me more is to end up getting lost. I would love to win of course but already finishing is a huge achievement,” she concludes, pulling out her new GPS just to make sure she does really know how to use it.
Michaela will be following the foot, or should I rather say hoof steps, of the Mongol couriers. An invention, by Chinggis Khan back in 1224, he supported with the ‘urtuus’ the horse station stops complete with canvas and felt tents, and nowadays vets.
The Mongol Derby receives large international media attention on all fronts, print and broadcast. Michaela is currently looking for sponsors to support her on her quest to win the race and bring home the money to sponsor her selected charity.
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