Imagine my surprise that I’m attending a 300-mile endurance horse race in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia! You read that correctly. The Gobi Desert Cup is being held August 22-31st in Mongolia and will include riders from all over the world in this life-changing and immersive cultural experience.
I’ll clarify something for all my readers who are going, wait…what? I am not trained for endurance riding and with less than two months before the challenge, I doubt I would be ready. Instead, I’m attending as the Media Contact for this race! I’ll still experience the nomadic culture of the Mongols but as the writer/ photographer/ videographer/ and social media guru.
Endurance riding is an equestrian sport involving controlled long-distance races, and internationally recognized by the FEI. It became a formal, organized sport in 1955, when Wendell Robie and a group of equestrians rode from the Lake Tahoe area across the Sierra Nevada Range to Auburn, Washington in under 24 hours.
The American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) directs that the shortest sanctioned ride is 25 miles long and is also known as “Limited Distance.” Longer distances are 12 hours to complete a 50-mile ride and 24 hours to complete a 100-mile ride.
While originated in the US, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) rules apply and supercede AERC guidelines. Top riders and horses compete at the World Equestrian Games, the Endurance World Championships, and regional championships such as the Pan-Am Games and the European Endurance Championships.
“One-day international competitions are 40–160 km. Multi-day competitions are longer but have daily distance limits. Those that are FEI recognized and are broken into the following categories:
CEI * (one star): minimum average distance each day is 80–119 km (50–74 mi)
CEI **: 120–139 km (75–86 mi) in one day or 70–89 km (43–55 mi) per day over two days
CEI ***: 140–160 km (87–99 mi) in one day, or 90–100 km (56–62 mi) per day over two days, or 70–80 km (43–50 mi) per day over three days or more.
CEI ****: Senior Championships of a minimum of 160 km (99 mi) in one day, Young Horse. Championships for 7 year olds – maximum distance 130 km (81 mi), Junior and Young Rider Championships of a minimum of 120 km (75 mi), maximum of 130 km (81 mi) in one day.” Wikipedia.
As a resident of the Australian Outback and long-time trainer and endurance rider, herself, Camille Champagne is no stranger to challenges.
In 2016, CEI 3* rider Camille attended the world’s longest endurance horse race. It changed her life.
During that ride, participants have the opportunity stay with local nomadic people or camp out on their own. In addition to enduring the distance of the trek, some riders face the high probability of injury associated with riding 25 different “semi-wild” Mongol horses and traveling on unmarked roads.
The safety of horses and riders became a concern, but Camille fell in love with Mongolia, it’s people, and the horses. Connecting with top Mongolian veterinarian, Naranbataar Adiya, they decided to found The Gobi Desert Cup.
The Gobi Desert Cup
Began in 2017, The Gobi Desert Cup is a 480 km endurance ride on a marked course beginning in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia and the coldest city on Earth. Ride Director, Camille, and Mongolian Veterinarian, Nara, work together to train native Mongolian horses and ready them for the race.
Each rider arrives at camp and is trained for two days to learn the rules and safety protocols as well as tack. They will get to meet the horses in preparation for the race to begin. For the safety of the horses, each is ridden only one day. As a result, each rider has 6 horses for the length of the trip and there are extra points awarded for good horsemanship. Throughout the course there are two veterinary exams; one at 40 km and the second at the end of the day’s ride, at approximately 80km.
“Following a marked course and starting every morning at 7AM, riders must complete the course before 7 PM. Two vet checks are held a day; one at 40 km and one at the end of the 80km. When entering the vetting area, riders will have 30 minutes to get their horse’s heart rate to 64bpm or below. At each vet check, the horses will be trotted out under saddle and checked for lameness. After passing the vet check, a compulsory vet hold of 40min will allow both riders and horses to rest, eat and drink.” The Gobi Desert Cup.
The Gobi Desert Cup is a humane endurance race and one that promotes the welfare of the native culture and their environment. Safety is of the utmost importance for both horses and riders. At the end of the day, riders and staff talk about their day while enjoying local fare in a ger, a Mongolian nomadic home.
The Mongolian horse is a hardy animal whose breed is largely unchanged since the times of Genghis Khan. Horses play an extremely important role in the culture and many families have a horse for each member. While only semi-domesticated, they live outside throughout the year in all weather and temperatures, and travel with the nomads.
Each evening the horses will graze free and usually travel no more than 10 km away from camp. Each morning the herders will round up the horses and tie them to the line awaiting tacking for the day.
Horses play a large role in the everyday lives of Mongolians. According to Wikipedia, “Mongolia holds more than 3 million horses, an equine population which outnumbers the country’s human population.”
Horse racing is the #1 sport in Mongolia, but not all horses have the muscle fibers for speed and swiftness. The horses that do not make the cut are better-qualified for the marathon rides. These are the horses that are trained for the Gobi Desert Cup challenge. As such, the locals receive payment and compensation for horses that they would not ordinarily profit from in horse racing or at home.
About The Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert is the large desert region in Asia, stretching through Mongolia and China. The fifth largest desert in the world, it is home to many unique breeds such as the snow leopard and the double-humped bactrian camel among others, including the Przewalski’s horse. Once extinct in the wild, this endangered species was reintroduced to Mongolia and may be found in areas such as the Khustain Nuruu National Park, Takhin Tal Nature Reserve, and Khomiin Tal.
The desert was the realm of the great Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries and has a great place in our history. The most famous of all Mongolians was of course, Genghis Khan.
Temperatures vary greatly throughout the year and most locals will tell you to not trust the weather reports but dress in layers. Due to it’s northern location and height about sea level, the Gobi is known as a cold desert. Temperatures may plummet to -40 degrees and snowfall is not uncommon during winter months. August weather may vary between an average of 76 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to 40 degrees F in the evening. Due to the potential for rain and high winds across the desert, dressing appropriately with long layers, hats, and handkerchiefs is a must. This desert is known for its extremes and as such may change at any given moment.
The course for the Gobi Desert Cup is 480 km and may change each year. Daily checkpoints are arranged in advance and riders follow a marked course.
The journey begins in camp outside Ulaanbaatar, where riders will meet and travel together to the training camp outside of the city. Each day the riders have 12 hours to compete the day’s trail and relax and unwind in camp where volunteers and staff will help in the care of the horses and riders may enjoy local fare and drinks such as fermented mare’s milk or fermented camel’s milk. After 6 days, the course ends near Dalanzadgad.
Each evening a special award and extra points go to “Best Managed Horse” for exceptional horsemanship. In addition, there is a “Sportsmanship” award for the rider that may have had a difficult day but pulled through with a smile and willing attitude. In the end, the winners are awarded based on the most points received over the length of the course.
The Gobi Desert Cup is about the journey, and nothing says that like a first-hand account from last year’s inaugural ride.
But for endurance riders finishing safely in itself is a win.
Join me as I prepare for this life-changing journey into the wilds of Mongolia and as I experience the biggest adventure of my life! Do you have what it takes? There are only a limited number of spots left for the USA and Canada. Sign up at www.gobidesertcup.com and follow along on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.