From the Saddle: Ruth Benney
by Ruth Benney
Early in 2017, Tania Orlov and I decided that 2018 was a good time to ride the 480km endurance race through the Gobi Desert. It would allow ourselves adequate time for preparation, without disrupting too much of our family and work life. We used the time to gain as much knowledge as we could about the people of Mongolia, the country and of course the horses. We also used time to increase our active interest in horsemanship, that we might add as much knowledge as we can to our combined 65 years of horse care and riding skills. Given that the best knowledge comes from experience, we attended and participated in organised endurance competitions. This required us to train our own horses and give ourselves a crash course in the rules and procedures of the competition.
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar a few days ahead of the race to adjust to the climate, time etc. A plan that paid off in that respect, and also gave us the priceless opportunity to meet some beautiful children at the Lotus Children's Centre. An orphanage that was founded and still operates by an Australian lady.
Mongolia is a third world country, that in addition to the country’s economic trouble (which is improving), there is also a massive alcoholism problem. All things combined, Mongolia has a lot of families, orphans and abandoned children needing support.
After our three-day cultural education, we finally met our fellow riders. We clambered into our Russian vans (nick-named “bongo busses”) and headed off to the Gobi desert. Unmarked roads that looked slightly better that goat tracks, rough and dusty, and mostly just optional. The drivers often took shortcuts across the plains and despite the language barrier, it wasn’t hard to notice that the bongo bus drivers had a competitive streak. We’d often find our convoy in a race across Mongolia’s version of the Never Never.
Everything in Mongolia (especially to the “green” traveller) takes longer than expected. The night before, the Gobi had experienced a heavy downpour. So to allow time for the awaiting tent village to dry out, organisers decided to slow down the convoy by showing us a few tourist attractions. Due to late arrival to our campsite, the plans for pre-race formalities were postponed however we managed to squeeze in a short 5 km ride for those who were unfamiliar with vetting procedures and course markings etc…
That evening, I wasn't the only person who was desperately keen to lay out my camping mat and hit the hay.
The following day the herdsmen treated us with a demonstration of their horsemanship skills and showed us their method of horse breaking. A number of our group found it difficult to watch as it was a demonstration of beast succumbing to man. There were multiple lassos, much man power, and even more riding skill than many of us here would even like to attempt!
While I don’t have any intention of adopting the Mongolians breaking methods, I do respect them. At first observation it’s easy to presume the methods are wild and cruel. When horses are being broken in, There is much energy in the air. The men are loud, cheering and yelling. It is messy with dust swirling and clouding in the air. Hooves are thundering and stomping while wild equine screams are heard from the captured animal to his buddies who avoided the lasso...this time. The horses are selected quickly and caught in record time by a small team of men with lassos. Then, whilst the horse is held firmly by ropes and hands, a brave young man leaps onto the horses back and does little more than balance and hold tight. It is now that the horse is released. There are no round pens, saddles, bits or anything whatsoever to restrain the animal. Merely a head stall with a long rope attached. The rider disappears, riding bravely bareback, into the distance. With no fences to speak of, and endless miles of open land there is no reason anymore for this horse to feel he is trapped. Once the horse understands that the man on his back is going nowhere, horse learns that perhaps this bloke isn’t so bad after all. Finally, within a short hour, more or less, the horse and rider reappear in the distance.
There is now a new riding horse amongst the herd.
After time, and with thought, I don’t believe the methods are cruel, just different.
I never once saw a horse being pulled harshly by the bit. Mongolians ride mostly with a one handed reining method. NEVER did I see a man strike a horse*, show anger or frustration. These men had a true understanding of the language of horses and they held ultimate respect for the animal.
Saturday came, the start of the race finally! Me and 17 others all on horseback at last! It had been 10 or more days since my last ride at home and my body was feeling it, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable walking on my own 2 legs... to be back in the saddle felt so good! Bliss!
Everyday we were given a new horse to ride.We had to ride the horse we were given. We were to Play the Hand Dealt so to speak! This horse selection method was an aspect of the race that at times the best tools for the job were knowledge and mindset more than riding skill and fitness. The sport of endurance riding includes horse management and welfare. Our horses had to pass a minimum of two mandatory vet checks throughout each day. The vets would check hydration, metabolics, and also confirm that there was no lameness or injury of any other kind. If any aspect of these checks didn’t pass, your horse will be “vetted out” and you are then eliminated from that particular days ride, loosing all points for that days efforts also.
Each morning I would size up everyone’s horses. Who did I need to keep an eye on? Who was a threat? Who was not? I continued to do it each day even though the horses proved very early on, that they would all perform with spectacular stamina regardless of their size or condition. I did learn that with horses that had a strong attachment to a herd buddy within the race, you had to quickly decide if you were going to ride with that herd buddy, or keep as far away from him as you could. Sometimes the herd buddy could slow you down, sometimes he could work with you and keep you up towards the front. There was never a clearly made decision here, so I just went with my gut.
I would eavesdrop to all comments and opinions, but I needed make my OWN decisions. I was confident in my decisions, but I did have to work a little harder to shut out that evil little monster I call “doubt”.
To ignore my own self doubt is where I needed to apply the DO MY BEST game plan! I needed to switch off the doubt I had in my own horsemanship, and focus on the things I knew!
I knew when my horse was tired, lame or unwell. I also made it a point to ask the herders if my horse was from the region we were in. I considered this aspect as relevant. These were things I learned through my experience as a mere “trail rider”. Some areas we travelled through were very rocky, other days the course was sandy, there were days of hills, flats... and so on It was time to trust own knowledge and trust myself. There were many things I confidently KNEW, I just had to do my best to believe it.
As you could imagine, with 6 days of riding 480-ish kms on six different horses, I have a million stories to tell of my Mongolian adventure with Tania. From being given world record worthy stubborn horses, to the region’s favourite racehorse and our big story, the day that Tania and I got ourselves lost in the Gobi desert. By popular request I will happily share these adventures with you another time, but for now I must be mindful of how much I take up of your reading time, and not overdo my welcome!
Riding in the GDC, was one of those life changing experiences that I will be eternally thankful to have experienced. My sincerest hope is that stories of my adventure will inspire others to take a step from their comfort zone and take on the opportunity to have no regrets.
Cheers, take care, Ruth Benney (MODEWARRE, AUSTRALIA )
a leather strap or whip is often used to urge speed, when herding and racing.
First published in the Australian Trail Horse Rider’s Association newsletter.