This B.C. woman finished last in the Mongol Derby. But she says the journey was worth it

·3 min read
Nancy O'Neill finished competing in the Mongol Derby earlier this summer. (Eldev-Ochir Bayarsaikhan/The Equestrianists - image credit)
Nancy O'Neill finished competing in the Mongol Derby earlier this summer. (Eldev-Ochir Bayarsaikhan/The Equestrianists - image credit)

Nancy O'Neill had been waiting years to participate in the Mongol Derby, which is considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world.

She was selected for the race in 2019, but her 2020 spot was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This summer, she finally got to make the journey, along with her daughter whom she hadn't spent much time with since the start of the pandemic.

"It was so, so heartwarming to be able to finally do this journey with her," she told Radio West host Sarah Penton.

Eldev-Ochir Bayarsaikhan/The Equestrianists
Eldev-Ochir Bayarsaikhan/The Equestrianists

Forty-six riders from all over the world joined O'Neill and her daughter on the journey, which began on July 23.

"We're all just these crazy bunch of equestrians that thought this was a good idea," she laughed.

About 1,500 horses were involved in the race, with riders switching them out every 36 kilometres. They had to ask herders for a particular kind of horse through sign language and interpreters — humble horses, fast horses, gentle ones — to suit the next leg of the ride. In total, everyone rides about 30 horses each.

The riders travel for 10 days to different checkpoints. It is intended to recreate Genghis Khan's famous messenger system. Also known as the Yam —  a chain of relay stations set up to provide food, shelter and spare horses to Mongol army messengers.

Riders travelled with all their gear, including bedding, sleeping mats, jackets and water, along with five kilograms of whatever else they needed.

Eldev-Ochir Bayarsaikhan/The Equestrianists
Eldev-Ochir Bayarsaikhan/The Equestrianists

"So there's a lot of stuff that got tossed out," O'Neill explained. "You ate what the herders provided, so it was a lot of mutton. None of us want to see mutton ever again."

O'Neill, 59, said the race got off to a smooth start; typically, most crashes and falls happen in the beginning, but her crew managed to stay upright.

However, things got a little hairy in the middle of the race. O'Neill has asthma, and the aromatic sage in the hills of Mongolia was too much for her lungs.

She ended up having an asthma attack and required medical assistance.

But she wasn't the only one who faced physical hurdles: she said there were broken collarbones, concussions, broken fingers, heat exhaustion and broken ribs. O'Neill joined what was called the "blood wagon," a crew that helps riders who have been hurt.

Joseph Otoo/CBC
Joseph Otoo/CBC

Although she had been out for five days — about half the derby — O'Neill managed to ride the last leg of the race with her daughter.

"I said, we're going to be last. We're going to be the caboose. And we were."

As they rounded the corner to the finish line, O'Neill said they rode into a national park with big beautiful mountains and tents set up for the riders. O'Neill's partner and her daughter's partner both greeted them with a cold beverage.

"I said, the only thing I want is I want my beer when I get done," O'Neill said.

She described the trek as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and money well spent.

It cost her and her daughter $30,000 apiece.

"It was worth every ounce of money that you spent on something like this," O'Neill said. "The people in Mongolia were some of the warmest, [most] genuine, lovely people I've ever met."

Eldev-Ochir Bayarsaikhan/The Equestrianists
Eldev-Ochir Bayarsaikhan/The Equestrianists

She looks back at it with a sense of humour and an appreciation for the unique experience she had — with her daughter to boot.

"Have you ever been past a pack of camels? How about yaks?" she laughed. "Getting chased by wild dogs? Not fun."

Although she's still riding the high from her Mongolian derby, O'Neill already has her next adventure in mind: she wants to do a pub crawl in Ireland on Connemara ponies — Ireland's only native horse breed.