Dubai student has tales to tell after completing gruelling Mongol horse race

Spaniard Uma Mencia rode 28 different horses for more than 1,000km to complete one of the toughest equestrian endurance races in the world.

Uma Mencia prepares to mount a horse to continue the Mongol Derby. Courtesy Saskia Marloh
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DUBAI // To ride 28 different horses more than 1,000 kilometres across the Mongolian wilderness was the adventure of a lifetime for Dubai student Uma Mencia.

Nine days of brutal riding conditions in the Mongol Derby left its mark on the Spaniard, who has returned to the UAE.

The gruelling race is billed as one of the toughest endurance riding challenges in the world, requiring each participant to complete three 40km legs a day in challenging terrain across the Mongolian Steppe.

Ms Mencia, 26, suffered a bloody nose when thrown from one of the horses, while a fellow competitor was dragged along by her horse after being bucked from the saddle.

During another stage, one of Ms Mencia’s horses was spooked as she dismounted, leading to a woodland chase with the help of a Mongolian herdsman to recover the horse and continue the race.

Add these incidents to 10 cold nights spent camping on hard ground before rising at 5am for another day of riding and the Mongol Derby lived up to its fierce reputation.

“The biggest challenge was to wake up with your body cold and sore, with your knees and muscles hurting from having ridden hundreds of kilometres,” she said. “It became more routine but I found the first three days really tough.”

Each rider was navigating using GPS but the exact route was not revealed until shortly before the race started, so planning ahead was difficult. Checkpoints along the course gave riders an idea of their progress.

“I did not get completely lost but I did get a little off line at times, especially when riding a difficult horse,” said Ms Mencia, who trains at the Fazza Endurance Stables in Dubai.

“It was complicated to handle horse and GPS machine at the same time. Those situations made it difficult to navigate but we always found our way.”

The race, which was first held in 2009, is modelled on the world’s first long-distance postal route, established by Genghis Khan more than 700 years ago. Khan’s delivery system used a network of horse stations spread across the vast Mongolian Steppe, and the derby incorporates stops at 25 horse stations, 40km apart.

Ms Mencia, who rode alongside two other competitors for the duration, won a Vets’ Choice award for consistently presenting her horses in the best condition after each leg.

“We made sure that the horses had water, were calmed and relaxed before arriving at the next station and always tried to choose the best ground,” she said.

“To have the team of vets acknowledge I did a good job is a great honour. Mongol horses are very strong and sturdy. It was amazing to see how horses without shoes could go through all kinds of terrain without getting footsore.

“This is the kind of adventure I had dreamed of since I first fell in love with horses as a young girl.

“To wander freely on the backs of these incredibly powerful animals is unparalleled.”

Ms Mencia is now preparing for a master’s degree in Arab studies at Georgetown University in Washington DC.

The race was won by Byeronie Epstein, the race’s third South African champion, who was just 30 seconds ahead of her closest rival.

Third-placed rider Maxim van Lierde, from New Zealand, said: “The derby isn’t something you can experience through someone else.

“I spoke to veterans pre-race and their stories excited me, but they are such a poor imitation of the real thing. I wanted my own stories. You have to come and live it for yourself.”

Race director Katy Willings said: “This was our best ever derby but unless you were part of the event it is hard to explain what made it so special. As the 2015 riders return home they will struggle to describe what they saw.”

The event was raising money for Cool Earth, a project protecting vulnerable rainforest in two Awajun communities in Peru.