Stranded On The Steppe, Sometimes You Need To Just Call A Truce

Sep 8, 2022 - 2:56 PM

I am back. I survived the Mongol Derby (barely). There are so many stories that I felt a bit overwhelmed about where and how to begin reflecting on the experience.

When most people think of the world’s longest and toughest horse race, they picture the spills, the gallops, the horizon unfolding in front of the riders. And the Mongol Derby has all of those things, plus the friendships and the people. But more than anything, as a competitor: there’s yourself.

It was the end of Day 6, and we had 3.5 hours to try to get into Horse Station 17. I set off with two friends from Horse Station 16 and led the navigation. For the first 8 kilometers or so, my horse was slow but motivated to keep pace with his friends. However, mid-canter, mid-field, he just stopped. I watched as my friends became dots on the horizon. Eventually it was just me, this horse refusing to move, and expanse. Checking my watch I saw that I had 20 kilometers between us and the next station and about 2.5 hours to get there. I got the horse moving at a very slow walk, and we crept our way along the planned paths. After a 15-minute walk break, I decided we best get on with it and began the classic “choo-choo” and rein flapping to motivate my steed. Nothing happened.

I began to “choo” with more determination and gave him a few solid whacks with the rope. Nothing. His ears were pricked, and his head swung left and right as he plodded along, taking in the sights. Local herders were out of their circular tents, called gers, watching us slowly walk past, the famous horse racers in action.

It had been a terribly long day. I was tired. I was hot. I was really, really hungry.

Mongol blog 2
Kristin Carpenter (right) and training partner Morgan Kelly on Day 2 of the Mongol Derby. Photos Courtesy Of Kristin Carpenter

I kicked. I choo-ed. I swung the rope with more and more determination and frustration. Nothing.

I looked ahead of me and behind me, as I began to realize that me and Mr. Walks-A-Lot were not going to make it to Horse Station 17 tonight. Our trackers have to stop moving at 7 p.m. or we incur penalties. It was 5:30 p.m.  As a lone woman, I actively had planned to not camp out alone on the steppe. But plans are futile in the face of reality, and my reality was that I better figure out somewhere safe to pass the night.

There isn’t a lot you are left with when you are left with yourself. I didn’t have another horse to trod along with or another rider to pass the time telling stories. I watched as the hard won gains I had made in the previous two days slipped away and began the mental calculus of how many legs I would have to ride tomorrow to be on track to finish the race by Day 10.

I got incredibly frustrated at this horse. Why was he being used in the derby if he was not fit to race?! How long could he legitimately walk before even he got bored with the pace? I found myself obsessing over what wasn’t going well and how I was going to try to recover from this leg. I hit him again with the rope, too hard.

His ears slid back in defeat. We still just walked. And I was infinitely, deeply, disappointed in myself. I didn’t fall in love with horses and end up in this race in the middle of Mongolia to beat a horse for my own wishes. I am not that person, and the fact I became that person for a fleeting moment was sobering.

I took a deep breath. I looked around at all the things he was enjoying looking at. It was a beautiful leg, as we wound by a river through steep mountains. I sighed. I patted the horse. His ears went back forward. His feet went no faster.

At 5:50 p.m., I came across a single ger in an empty valley with two men and two kids out front. I stopped and mimed that I was in a horse race. They mimed to ask if the horse was exhausted. I mimed that he was indeed exhausted…from walking. They laughed. They mimed to see if I needed to sleep there. I said I had one hour to ride, so they pointed me over the ridge ahead, and off I walked. I made it about 500 meters up the hill before I decided to just have a moment. Forget the race.

I turned around, and they cheered as I ambled back down. I dismounted, they helped get my horse hobbled and grazing, and we did lots of pantomiming and basic vocab to learn each other’s names and relationships. There was the dad and his son and daughter, and his brother (with the best English at 10 words) who was then leaving on his motorbike for home.

I felt something hit my leg and realized someone had kicked a soccer ball to me. I turned around and there was the 9-year-old boy, inexplicably in a cat suit (tail and all), wanting to play soccer. I then spent about an hour running and stumbling around with Catsuit while he leapt and tried to block my goals.

Mongol Derby Truce
The father and catsuit-clad son who were Kristin Carpenter’s impromptu hosts after her slowest day of racing in the 2022 Mongol Derby.

The vets arrived to check on me and the horse, who after 1.5 hours of grazing was still at a heart rate of 54 beats per minute. (They have 30 minutes upon arriving at a horse station to drop to 56 bpm or you get a vet penalty.) I couldn’t believe his heart rate was so high, and I realized that odds were that the next day I would spend three hours walking into the next horse station only to be served a vet penalty on my slowest leg.

I had a great night, albeit full of comedic cultural errors. I survived the evening, got to wash and dry out some clothes, was fed great food and given plenty of water, and I taught the kids how to read the topographic maps. In the morning, I left a thank you note scribbled on the topo map of their area, mounted the-horse-that-will-be-the-end-of-me, and walked on.

In truth, it was probably my favorite morning. We never broke a walk, and I ended up naming him Truce. We had a simple agreement: You keep your feet moving, and I will be perfectly pleasant up here. We had 16 kilometers to go, and I expected it to take us about two hours. But, leave it to Truce to check your expectations.

As we climbed a big ridge before entering the valley of the next horse station, Truce seemed to be struggling. I dismounted and led him up the steep path. We got 50 meters from the summit when I felt my reins go taut and turned around to see Truce lying flat out on the ground. He was panting and looked near death, and I immediately thought this was his end. I called headquarters through our trackers and told them I thought my horse was dying, and I internally felt so upset. He didn’t ask for this, and he was such a kind soul, and here he was 50 meters from the top and unable to continue.

Then, seemingly as soon as he went down, he was up. He gave a good shake and stomped right over the ridge, then once on the other side picked up pace so much that I remounted, and he trotted the whole way down of his own volition. I sent another message to HQ: He will indeed live! We will make it in.

The glory was short-lived, as once down that pass he returned to a slower walk than I remembered, and we crawled our way to the horse station. Upon arrival, I had spent a total of six hours going 35 kilometers, and he vetted right in at a heart rate of 54 bpm. At that point, I was convinced it was his resting heart rate, and I was relieved that Truce was terrible at racing but exceptional at preserving his own self-interest. And he was a great touring partner, with his flicking ears and quiet pace.

The next station was full of riders in a manic fury trying to calculate the exact minutes they would spend before setting out on the next leg and how many miles they had to do that day, and I just stood there, still in my mindset from my reckoning with Truce, and realized I was infinitely OK.

The race didn’t matter much to me anymore. I would simply go as quickly as I could, when I could, and it would be whatever it would be. As Lady Luck would have it, the horse I got at the next station reared straight up in the air, took off galloping with me, and didn’t stop until the next station. I did those 35 kilometers in a blistering 1 hour, 45 minutes. Thanks, universe.

But even at the end of it all: Of the people and the falls and the tears and the gallops and the laughs, I mainly think about that leg on Truce. I think about how it’s so easy to be so consumed by your goals in life that you forget to live. How too many of us move like bulls through the world, placing everything at our service, and never getting soccer matches with kids in catsuits or long (long) Mongolian walking trail rides. How the world can collapse into your own head and become a spinning obsession of self-interest, when all you have to do is look up, look around, take a breath.

So whatever battle you are fighting, whatever dreams you might be watching slip away, whatever perfect plans are not going perfectly: just call Truce. Life isn’t meant to be perfected, it’s meant to be lived, and living is messy and largely off road.

Kristin Carpenter is an eventer turned Mongol Derby 2022 competitor who is raising donations for Steppe and Hoofe (targeted at helping herders and their families on the Mongolian steppe to preserve their lifestyle and culture). She is Head of School for The Linder Academy and mother of two boys, three horses, five chickens and two dogs. Kristin grew up in Louisiana and produced her OTTB Trance to the CCI*** level of eventing. You can follow her on Instagram at fleetingandfinite.


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