The following is an approximate transcript of the show.
Our guest today is Tom Morgan who is the Founder of The Equestrianist organization. The organization is based in the UK and has for over 10 years now organized the Mongol Derby. The organization describes the Derby as the “longest and toughest horse race in the world.”
There is a calling that’s hard to ignore from north central Asia. The exoticness of the Orient has for a very long time been an attraction to the western imagination.
Owen Lattimore, the Inner Asian scholar and traveller and author of a book entitled, The Desert Road to Turkestan, put it this way in 1929:
“The beginnings of my own journey did not lie in scientific study, nor was I sent on a ‘mission’ or expedition of any kind. I came to it more in the way of an old man dreaming a dream or a young man seeing a vision... it all began in a longing to travel the caravan ways...” (p. 5)
Later in his book he includes this interesting observation:
“... the Mongol pony, who is at his best on a long ride, can do gallant things. Were I an Emperor, of the kind they used to have, I would summon the English Arab Horse Society to hold one of its endurance trials over the same course, with Mongol ponies in the running.” (p. 73)
While not an Emperor, my guest today has, in fact, been part of an organization which has accomplished something similar to the stated desire of Lattimore. The organization “The Equestrianists” suggests that the Mongol Derby represents the greatest equine adventure in the world. It would seem as though at least a version of the dream of Lattimore, has, albeit many years later, ultimately come true.
The Mongol Derby, this race slash adventure, is all of 1,000 km long. The Derby is, significantly, a re-enactment of a very old historical drama. It is the re-creation of that system of stations along the mail route established by Ghengis Khan, which survived into the 1950s.
To gain an appreciation of the nature of the Mongol Derby we need to take a moment to reflect on its relationship with that medieval mail, communication and merchant route. Here is how one scholar put the importance of this road system not only to the Mongols but to world history as a whole:
“The Mongols built up the largest empire in human history, an empire that embraced most of Eurasia during the 13th and 14th centuries. These postal roads served as a crucial cornerstone for maintaining the unity of the Mongol World Empire. Thus, the road system played a crucial role in the development of world history.”
Now listen to how Marco Polo, at the turn of the 14th century, described how the system itself worked:
“Let us turn now to the system of post-horses by which the Great Khan sends his dispatches. You must know that the city of Khan-balik is a centre from which many roads radiate to many provinces. When one of the Great Khan’s messengers sets out ... he has only to go 25 miles and there he finds a posting station. At every post the messengers find lodging. Here the messengers find no less than 400 horses, stationed here by the Great Khan’s orders and always kept in readiness for his messengers. And you must understand that posts such as these, at distances of 25 or 30 miles, are to be found along all the main highways leading to the provinces. And this holds good throughout all the provinces and kingdoms of the Great Khan’s empire."
The Mongol Derby is thus also organized around posts situated every 40 km along the entire 1,000 km course. At these posts the rider will find food and water and, most importantly, a fresh semi-wild horse.
The concept of the immense postal system of the Mongol Empire gives us some historical context, then, to the 1,000 km horse race that the Mongol Derby represents. Keeping in mind that the Mongol’s built up the largest empire in human history, it gives us some sense of the incredible scale upon which the Mongol Derby is modelled. One thousand kilometers on horseback is a very long way.
Another important actor in this historical re-enactment is the Mongolian landscape itself: high passes, huge valleys, wooded hills, river crossings, wetland, dunes, and of course the open, magnificent steppe. The calling of the Mongol Derby is also to experience the wildness of a landscape best known by the wind that helps to shape it. That calling to wildness, embraces not only the immensity of the Mongolian Steppe, that grassland of seemingly infinite proportions, but also the high passes through its mountain ranges. A magnificent emptiness. A silence broken only by the wind.
And of course, the other essential element – there would be no race or adventure without them – is the Mongolian horse itself. They are an amazing breed, indeed, as attested to by Lattimore and so many others. The horses are relatively short, between 12 and 15 hands (about 4 to 5 feet tall) but are incredibly stocky and sturdy and tough. They are used to extremes of climate and have incredible endurance.
And there is much to learn from the Mongolian people in terms of their relationship with horses. The Mongolian horse is semi-feral, in part because the Mongolians, interestingly, do not expect to absolutely control the horse. There is a significant degree of trust and a good measure of freedom. The Mongolians do, however, have an extremely close relationship with their horses. The male horses assist the Mongolians for transportation, herding and racing. The mares are used for milk. The children are set to play with young foals to get both used to human-equine interaction.
The nature of the Derby is in part, then, derived from the semi-wildness of the horses. It is also in part derived from the immense distances involved. The terrain. The sheer exposure to the elements and to the landscape. It is the mental stress of having to overcome the landscape, the semi-wildness of an unknown horse, the solitude, other competitors and any lingering notions of self-doubt.
And then there is the question of danger. Here is a warning taken from the Mongol Derby website that gives us an idea of the type of demand that the race and adventure places on its participants:
“These are genuinely dangerous things to do. You cannot overestimate the risks involved in taking part in this adventure.
Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals who have taken part in past adventures have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled and even lost their life.
This is not a holiday, it’s an unsupported adventure and thus is risky. You are really on your own and you really are putting both your health and life at risk. This is what makes them adventures.”
I would like to welcome Tom Morgan.
Conversation with Tom Morgan
There is something attractive to us about confronting our own fears and pushing ourselves to the limits of our power and endurance. There is something profoundly inviting about exploring new landscapes and cultures. We do seek adventure, we seek the unknown, even as men such as Owen Lattimore and Marco Polo have done before. We seek always to be the very best we can be.
On the other hand, there would seem to be wisdom in knowing our own real limitations and respecting them in the face of grave danger. There are alternatives of course to participating in a horse race across a thousand kms. There are other ways to see this incredibly beautiful and majestic and vast landscape on horseback.
Like two angels, one on each shoulder, each with their own version of us, the galloper and the trotter, we just need the wisdom to know which one to listen to.