Caitlin Hockey, A chilhood dream....
A CHILDHOOD DREAM, A STUBBORN MONGOLIAN HORSE AND THE EXTRAORDINARY CHOICE MADE BY ANOTHER RIDER LEADS CAITLIN TO THE FINISH LINE OF THE GOBI DESERT CUP.
Mongolia has danced in my daydreams a long while before embarking on this journey… back as a horse-crazed teenager I connected with the Victorian adventurer Tim Cope after he completed a 10,000km journey on horseback through the Eurasian steppe, which he captured in his book ‘On the trail of Genghis Khan’ and other epic Australian Geo journals that I often drooled over. He captured perfectly this sense of wild magic and peacefulness within the land and the ancient nomadic societies who had survived uproars and thrived with their ancient traditions, incredibly strong horses and livestock for thousands of years. I could taste the excitement in his emails and I knew that one day I would set trail upon the greatest land empire in history and see what it was all about...
Fifteen years later a big Mongolian adventure would present itself to me in the form of a 480km race across the Gobi desert. My incredible adventurist friend and admirable horsewoman Ailenor just completed the National trail on her three Guy Fawkes brumbies that she trained, creating awareness of their strength and capabilities as riding horses when she announced her new epic adventure…. to the Gobi desert! A couple of seats remained to represent the Guy Fawkes team and I was very honoured to sign up for the challenge! I knew I wouldn’t get any saddle time between then and the race so I kickstarted the best tour guide fitness routine I could, replicating exercises that resembled galloping a Mongolian pony on boats, trains, planes and any place I could! People thought I was bonkers but I was sure my riding memory muscles would bounce back gracefully and my only real fear was that my butt wouldn’t fit in the tiny handmade Mongolian saddles…
Before long we were bouncing along some crazy dirt roads out of the capital city into the countryside with the VIP vet and doctor crew who gave me some funny looks and hot tips after telling them how little I had been riding recently. Rolling into camp that afternoon and been greeted by Mongolia’s Masterchef crew for lunch was a classic start to what would be an epic afternoon of riding, watching and learning how our ridiculously natural herdsmen broke in and ride Mongolian style. The sense of calm determination that appeared as a herdsmen would run into a herd of horses, lassoing the chosen one on foot, then with the help of a few fellow herdsmen, he would be on the horses bare back riding the buck of this wild horse back into the herd and a few laps around. Wild horse no more! That night, and the following few we were blessed with huge super moon rise's over our camps, giving me gentle reminder to keep an open and grateful heart for this experience, the people, the horses and for the herdsmen who worked all night to keep our horses safe.
I’ll never forget the first gallop I had on my sturdy little buckskin zebra horse as we yeeeeeha-ed and cheeee-ed across the plains from our first campsite into the distant plains, dodging marmot holes and sketchy roads. My soul had been craving this exact freedom and adrenaline for a bloody long time and any worries quickly slipped away with the wind as raced into the distance. I had channelled my inner Genghis Kahn and wondered if he always felt this invincible flying across the country with his short four legged comrades… There were a few local pleasures and traditions in the lead up to the race including some old school wrestling and the most exhilarating competition I’ve witnessed between the fastest kids and steeds in the area over a 3km race, one of them as young as 4 and the winner bareback! I loved everything about the nomadic lifestyle and the connections the people have between their horses was like so beautiful… they stuck together like honey and bees.
A good boogie and yoga sess to some good sunrise tunes each morning helped limber up for the days ride ahead. I remember Cindy saying that day 2 would be the hardest day, after that you don’t feel anything. I think Cindy is one of the toughest ladies I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting because I definitely didn’t stop hurting after day 2!
Every day brought different landscapes, some tougher than others which really determined how we would have to ride, finding paths that would look after the horses tender and unshod feet the best. I wouldn’t say that I was granted with any Mongolian Phar Lap’s but this really tested my horsemanship and brought my experience back to ground level… to really get to understand these strong and at times mischievous horses, take in the energy of the landscapes around me and learn a heck load about myself. I have so much love for Jane who gave up her position in the race one day to walk 30km on foot with me and my cheeky horse who decided he didn’t want a bar of racing that day. We shared many giggles, some crusty food scraps and a good share of delirium as we strolled through wolf country with our steeds. Genghis Kahn tasted sweeter than ever that night!
I really loved how my usually competitive character was forced to pipe down and just take every day as it came. The camaraderie between riders was generally really special.. friendships were strengthened in tough conditions like peeing as fast as we could side by side in a treeless desert with horses in hand so we didn’t lose too much time, to making sure we had eaten enough dinner and Genghis before we passed out at night. It was really encouraging to ride with a team of people who were so happy to give me advice and look out for each other across the 80km. The Gobi desert and everything in between definitely brought out the best and worst in all of us and it was a huge achievement to get to the end with with this group of legends!
Something that really made my heart full of love for this adventure was the people involved in making it happen on the ground every single day… One afternoon I had the pleasure of cruising with the camp crew team who would set up a sea of blue tents, a family ger, the kitchen and our outdoor bathrooms everyday. Setting up and packing down these campsites in the middle of no-where everyday in the blistering sun with zero complaints and smiles all round makes us Aussie’s look like a bunch of wusses! It was a pleasure hanging out with this team who made me appreciate the whole event of a much deeper level. I was also amazed with the vigorous work and dedication to the horses that the herdsmen put in… it really struck me how well they know their horses and how well they care for them, a different way than maybe we do with our fancy rugs, feeds and expensive gear, but a true love for them all the same. Recognising how hard everyone was working, along with our different horses everyday, for our own enjoyment was quite overwhelming and I couldn’t feel enough gratitude for such an experience. The last of my first 40km of the race was shared head to head with a few of my cheeky fellow comrades on our (for once) quick steeds across the soft velvety plains of the Gobi desert, we couldn’t wipe the ridiculous grins of our dusty faces!
A big shout out to Camille for instilling us with encouragement (and sometimes fear) to keep going, the steward Colleen for her humble words of advice in the vetting area, Anne for believing in me, Nara for inspiring me consistently with his way with his horses and the Doc for prescribing me vodka from the bottle on those hard days, Georgie’s cafe and crew for feeding us hungry riders, the incredible crew behind the scenes and most of all….the horses for carrying me away from the comforts of your homeland into the unknown! What an experience.