You are entitled, within the rules of the Derby, to ride between the hours of 0700 and 2030. It can be a good racing strategy to use every available minute of riding time and go as far as you can within the rules, every day. This can mean that you leave a horse station with insufficient time to make the next station by end of play, consciously. You may also be caught short and not make the next station because you are delayed for other reasons.
In these circumstances a degree of improvisation is needed, and a degree of personal risk is introduced which simply does not apply at the horse stations, where we the organisers have personally selected and spent time with all of the families, and can vouch for them with great confidence. This risk applies especially to female riders, who have been subjected to predatory attacks by men in Derbies gone by. It's sadly the case that there is an ingrained culture of casual sexual abuse of women by men in rural Mongolia. Whilst most families are terrific, and most Mongolians are wonderful horsemen, it is naive to assume that every Mongolian you meet is intent on helping you win or complete the Mongol Derby. We cannot and will not police the whole course, and clear it of arseholes, for you, the riders. The Mongolia you are riding across is the real Mongolia, for better and for worse, and it is for you to navigate, according to your skills, your risk appetite, and your comfort zone. Some of the very best experiences on the Derby have been from riders staying with 'non-Derby' families, in their own private horse station, breaking bread and sharing sign language and photos from home with ordinary, extraordinary herding families. Regrettably, some of the very worst experiences on the Derby have also been from impromptu encounters.
In all circumstances remember that the better you ride and look after your horses, the safer you are. Your horse is your getaway vehicle. Look after him as such, leave plenty in the tank for the entire leg, pace him well, water him at every opportunity, navigate sensibly to keep him out of the mountains, the bogs, the deep rivers. And if you are a lady rider, there really is safety in numbers. See if you can trade your feminine wiles and charm, and navigation skill, for some sturdy male protection in the form of your fellow Mongol Derby competitors. Chaps, if you see a lady rider heading off solo into the sunset, be chivalrous and keep an eye, or ride with her. And if you are confident using it, have some form of self-defence on you; pepper spray, or a good knife, for example. Handy for seeing off the dogs or as a condiment in any case.
Some facts to help you decide your best strategy, day to day:
1. We do not maintain emergency response round the clock. Once all riders have checked in for the night (either at a horse station, or by sending an "I am OK" alert from their satellite tracker from their overnight location), the Ops Room team and the field crews sign off for the night, usually by 10.30pm, until 6am the following morning. This means that you are truly on your own at night, wherever you happen to be.
2. Soums (settlements) are a bad place to stop on your own, at night, with a horse. Your biggest asset becomes your biggest liability. Drunks, dogs, traffic all roaming. If you are going to camp, be inconspicuous and stay out of the soums. Wild camping is a bigger survival challenge but a much smaller security risk. Be aware of this.
3. We do not 'vet' every family between the horse stations. The urtuu system is what we provide for your comfort, security and race planning. Many of the urtuu families will know who else is in their vicinity, and may have an idea of where would be a good place to aim for if you want to leave their station and ride on with no hope of reaching the next urtuu. If they say enthusiastically "go and stay with my cousin Battur, I'll phone him now, he'll flag you down and escort you in!" then you can take confidence in that. It's still no guarantee of your safety and security, but it's a good sign. If you plan to camp between stations, have a conversation with the urtuu family and the interpreter - get as much information as you can before you decide to ride off. If they don't think its a good idea, listen to them.
4. Not all of Mongolia will be a suitable camp ground. Just because it's within the rules does not mean it's a good idea. The geographical lie of the land will vary enormously from station to station; some legs may lend themselves easily to wild camping, and some will be very inhospitable. You'll be briefed on this at pre-race training by the course design team, but it's up to you to CHECK before you leave an urtuu whether there will be water, and any hospitality if you are seeking that, between yours and the next urtuu.
5. Where one or two female riders leave a horse station for their last ride of the day, the Ops Room team flag them automatically as a 'risk' category. If you have not checked in with an OK message by 2030 we will ASSUME that you require assistance and dispatch one of the field crews to spy on you.
6. There is a rule change for 2016: riders in the Adventure Division (see here for classification) will not be allowed to ride out of a horse station after 7pm. The front runners can still camp out, and this may well determine the end result of the Mongol Derby. We will allocate the additional resource to increase the oversight of these riders and horses, both from a fairness, and a security perspective. Since the race crew resources are finite, this means we cannot simultaneously provide the same oversight to the back markers. By the time the field splits into Race and Adventure Divisions there is usually 200kms between the leaders and back markers. Where our response time to an SOS becomes compromised we must take additional steps to lower the risk of an SOS in the first place. This is the rationale for the rule.
7. Not every horse will be suitable for camping out. We do not select the horses based on "tolerance for hobbles". Again, just because it it within the rules, do not assume that it is a good idea. Some of the horses on the Mongol Derby are worth a fortune, and the owners might be rightly sensitive about letting you take them and camp wild with them. He might get away, he might injure himself on the hobbles if he is not used to wearing them. Or he might be so used to hobbles that he can still hop away 5kms overnight, and leave you without a ride come sun-up. Again, do not assume that every horse has been briefed on the rules of the Derby - you really MUST take responsibility for every horse, every station, every leg, every decision, and this is a proactive exercise which will directly impact your safety and welfare throughout the Derby. Use your common sense and respect the herders and their horses!