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Hugh McMurtrie is riding the Steppes of Mongolia

By Jane Harris

In the midst of facing the worst drought in his farm’s history recently, Barraba man Hugh McMurtrie dreamt of greener pastures. Today he finds himself racing across the green steppes of Mongolia on a sturdy Mongol horse, a breed purported to be largely unchanged since the time of Genghis Khan. Hugh is participating in the Mongol Derby, a 1000km race on horseback undertaken over 10 days.

The Mongol Derby is world’s longest horse race created by a group called The Adventurists, who says their mission is to make the world less boring. Hugh says, “The excitement of the race was far more enticing than my situation. Preparations provided a reprieve from my daily grind.” Hugh said that as a cattle farmer, he spends many hours behind mobs of cattle. He was looking forward to leaving the cows behind for a while and upping the pace on horseback.

Over the years The Adventurists’ riders have raised over $1 million for charity. In Mongolia they now support the Mongolian organisation “Steppe and Hoof”. Their objective is to support Mongolian herders and their animals and work to save the unique traditions that are part of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle. Herders that migrate to the city often end up living in tent camps and are unable to find work, resulting in poverty. Steppe and Hoof aim to give herders the modern tools and knowledge they need to keep their livestock healthy and productive. The Adventurists also invest time and resources in ensuring their events support the local people as they take place.

The 2023 Mongol Derby has brought together 46 riders from all corners of the globe.

The August cohort of riders congregated last week  in Ulaanbaatar, to receive their official welcome, rules briefing and face a weigh-in. Riders must be 85kg or under when dressed to ride. 

On Day 2 out on the steppe, riders came face-to-face for the first time with their horsepower for the event with the morning’s first briefing on all things Mongolian equine, delivered by the event’s resident herders. Crash courses in hobbling and tacking-up were provided. Organisers said, “this resulted in some perplexed looking riders peering at their hobbles in confused silence, much to the amusement of their onlooking coaches. An essential skill on the steppe when camping out overnight, hobbling your horse increases the chances of waking up to find it where you left it. Sadly, this is by no means guaranteed, these horses being adept at bunny hopping and generally outsmarting their dozing jockeys.”

This Mongol Derby has two Mongolian riders competing. Erdene-Ochir Uuganbayar and Bilegbat Erdensukh are flying the flag for the home team. Both have daunting horsey CVs: Uuganbayar is a former competitor in the Herder Trials with flair for the rodeo, while Erdensukhis is a national horse racing champion.