Organizing the Mongol Derby

Inaugural competitor Katy Willings shares how she oversees the world’s toughest horse race.

Imagine trying to secure hundreds of Mongolian horses to race 600 miles across rugged and remote terrain. Or selecting 40 riders willing to ride those semi-wild horses, carry only 11 pounds of gear and forego showers and a decent mattress for the seven–10 days the race may last. Or ensuring that enough support people—veterinarians, medics and a crew of native herders, to name a few—are in the right place at the right time throughout the race.

Katy managing the Mongol Derby from mobile headquarters—which she only tried once. Courtesy, Katy Willings

Welcome to the life of Katy Willings, chief of the Mongol Derby, who left her management consulting job in London to lead a life of adventure. She sets the race’s course, selects the riders, herders and horses, writes the rules, manages the budget and leads the race crew. In trying to find out more about what to expect during the race, I spoke with Katy who filled me in on the logistical challenges of coordinating the “jewel in the crown of equine adventure” and the types of riders who are most successful.

Logistical Challenges

Challenge #1: The course. Every year Katy, who lives in the U.K., scouts territory for a new Derby route. “We set the course by trying to find the best horses that we can in the most forgiving geography. There must be water and we try to avoid ridiculous passes,” she says. She also avoids bodies of water that the horses can’t cross and areas liable to flood or famine which ends up eliminating vast areas of Mongolia.

Katy (far right) discussing protocols with two veterinarians. Courtesy, Katy Willings

Challenge #2: The horses. Trying to find horses in the off-season who will be at regular intervals throughout the 600 miles during the race is a challenge because “the herders are genuinely nomadic,” Katy explained. There have been times when “we just hit these great big deserts where we don’t see families and it turns out the water got spoiled … and there’s not going to be any families there next summer either, so we kind of have to divert the course.”

A few years ago, when Katy had a 60-mile stretch in the middle of the route without any horses, she started a delivery run, or horse trek, to herd them into position from another area of Mongolia. This year, 10 riders overseeing Katy’s delivery run, called Morindoo which means “mount your horses,” will move almost 50 horses to the last horse station on the course.

Katy’s delivery run, called Morindoo, moves about 50 horses to stretches of the course where horses and herders are scare. Courtesy, Katy Willings

Challenge #3: Manning the horse stations. By the time the winner crosses the finish line, about half of the riders will just have reached the midway point. So it becomes a juggling act to make sure enough crew members are at each station for each rider. Katy moves crew members between stations so every rider has a similar experience. “It’s sort of like mobile speed chess going on to make sure the riders coming through every single station have crew there,” she said.

A Profound Affect

Before the logistical challenges of the Mongol Derby were giving Katy headaches, she experienced it firsthand in 2009. Initially the Derby’s organizers, the Adventurists, put Katy on a reserve list, but that didn’t deter the dressage rider who didn’t know anything about endurance. “I rang their office every week or two weeks. But they kept telling me that the list was full.”

Three months before the race began, they told Katy she had been accepted and she started working with Maggie Pattinson, “one of the old school endurance gurus of the country.”

Katy, pictured here riding Maggie Pattinson’s Sadhira, ending up getting the bug for distance riding while training for the Derby and loved “letting the horse be a horse across the country.” Courtesy, Katy Willings

“The rhythm of preparing for something that life-changing and that scary, the discipline it imposed on me at the time, it was just so good for me,” Katy recalled. “I got a lot out of the Derby … before we even got to the start line.”

The race had a profound effect on Katy, where she says she learned a lot about survival and horses and most importantly, herself. “Once I wasn’t on social media … the reality of the experience and the proper human-to-human, human-to-horse interaction became much more important,” Katy explained. “I didn’t really care how I looked and that is incredibly liberating. You can just let go of your image for 10 days and just live moment to moment, horse to horse, kilometer to kilometer.

“There aren’t very many experiences that give you that,” Katy added. “This is what it’s about. It was like a full factory reset basically and I think that’s what I like giving to other people as well. “

The Derby seems formidable now in its 10th year, but when Katy rode in it, the Adventurists didn’t even know if the race was possible to complete. Courtesy, Katy Willings

Hooked on Mongolia and the Derby experience, Katy wanted to stay involved. “I came to Mongolia and just wanted more,” she recalled. In a similar fashion to the way Katy called the Adventurists constantly to get a spot in the Derby, she kept asking if she could work for them and was eventually brought on board. After overseeing the race for almost a decade, Katy has an idea of what makes competitors successful.

Not All About Winning

“The successful ones deal with the ambiguity,” Katy said. “They can deal with little irritations and knocks and surprises. It’s the kind of resilience where they don’t overplan. They would never say, ‘I’m going to ride this horse at [35 miles] per hour. They’ll just get on the horse … They don’t waste time, but they’re not obsessed with time.”

Katy waiting at the finish line to congratulate Derby riders. Courtesy, Katy Willings

Katy also said that one of the hallmarks of successful riders is that they fully immerse themselves in the experience and aren’t so focused on the competitive aspect of the race that they forget about experiencing the country. “They speak to the families that supplied the horses,” Katy said. “They join in. They’ll help people and be helped by other people.”

This is how Katy spends her vacations. Here, she is riding in the Altai Mountains, a mountain range in Central and East Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan meet. Courtesy, Katy Willings

“People come to compete, to test themselves, but I think they get a slightly different test of themselves that they maybe envisioned at the point of sign up. I think they picture a classic contest and what they get is a much more holistic reevaluation of themselves.”

To learn more about Katy and her Morindoo tour (still accepting riders for 2018!), visit her website.

Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce is competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, Aug. 8-27. Here’s how to follow the action, sponsored by Mane ‘n Tail and SmartPak:

• Visit Practical Horseman for daily race recaps and Jocelyn updates from 2017 Derby finisher Leslie Wylie
• Follow Jocelyn’s progress live via her GPS tracker, read official reports via the Derby website, and follow @mongolderbylive on Twitter
• Tune in for Derby Dot Watch Party podcasts presented by Horse Radio Network in partnership with Practical Horseman, broadcast live nightly at 8 p.m. EST 

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