Resident vet Poppy volunteers in Mongol Derby

Poppy McGeown is an Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Resident at the U-Vet Werribee Equine Centre studying a specialisation course to deal with finely tuned athletes and try to assist them in optimising performance on a daily basis.

She recently returned from Mongolia where she was one in nine veterinarians at the Mongol Derby, the longest horse race in the world, spanning 1000km across the steppe, 10 days and 28 horse stations. In Poppy’s story, she shares her experience of a new culture, meeting some of the most beautiful horses and purest people, learning to do more with less tools and stepping out of her comfort zone.

Rider training at start camp, standing next to me is Harry, a scottish vet who taught me pretty much everything for the race. 

I am Poppy, a European veterinarian. I started working at the U-Vet Equine Centre in January 2017 as an Equine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation resident. A specialisation path that is all about finely tuned equine athletes and performance. In August 2017, I set off to Asia for the first time to be a vet at the Mongol Derby. The Mongol Derby is a subtle concoction of adventure, open spaces and a zest of insanity. It is the longest horse race in the world. 1000km of open spaces, over 10 days, 28 horse stations and 42 of the craziest riders I have ever met.

I had applied for this job over Skype on a cold Christmas day from my family home in Belgium over two years ago. “It felt like a lifetime away”, I remember thinking to myself whilst staring at the Gobi Desert from my bunk bed on the Transmongol Express. Since then I had graduated from vet school, completed an internship, travelled the world for 6 months and started a clinical residency at the University of Melbourne which is long way from home.

Why would a vet want to go on the Mongol Derby? It is the ultimate experience for an equine veterinarian and there is simply nothing else like it. For the entirety of my short veterinary career I have been very lucky to work in university environments, where expertise, care and equipment are second to none. I have worked on big scale events before, like the Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games. Mongolia is a long way away from any of that and I knew it. That is what drew me, as the French poet Baudelaire would say “to the end of the unknown, to find the New”.

What do vets do on the Mongol Derby? The Mongol Derby is designed to mimic the postal system of Genghis Khan. Each rider has to ride through every single one of the 28 horse stations set 40km apart from each other. At each station they get off the horse and jump onto a fresh one and every time that happens there has to be a vet. Being a vet is only 30% of our job, yes we treat horses that require treatment and the vet checks them in and out and we are the watchers on the wall of their welfare, but we are also horse station managers, first aid providers, emergency responders, penalty givers, ground control and much more. Out on the steppe the crew and the logistics are put to the test. We are vets yet we are small actors of a much bigger picture.

The only thing that is predictable is that it will be unpredictable. In the land of ‘The Eternal Blue Sky’, anything can happen. Each vet is teamed up with an interpreter, a driver and a vehicle. When we first met, little did I know that these three elements were going to be the only constants for the following 10 days as everything else would change. As the head vet Emma Alsop told me, “less is more”, and this was true in every sense. We were well equipped; our truck full of generous supplies of basic veterinary equipment, food and water (and toilet paper!) – but we only took what we needed and worked with what we had.

There are nine vets on the team. We each head out to a different horse station, living and working with the local family there for the few days while we set the station up and see the riders through: finding, identifying and vetting the selected horses for the race, getting the horse station set up and ready for when the riders come in and then vet the riders in and out as they come. HQ instructed us to which horse station we need to head out next, sometimes leapfrogging more than 300km on dirt roads (if any roads at all).

© Julian Herbert. Traditional Mongolian dress.

Living alongside Mongolians and witnessing, being part of their everyday was an honour. They are a nomadic people that live off their livestock (horses, cattle, sheep and goats), they have little but give without counting and they smile all the time. We lived in ghers, drank lots of milk tea and ate lots of noodles (when I say lots, I mean lots). It is a formidable culture with many traditions and customs you have to learn quickly. They have a deep-rooted respect and understanding of their animals - we should all be taking a page from that book.

The Mongolian horses are something completely different from any other equid I have ever come across. Small and weighing probably around 300kg, they are semi-wild and hard as nails. They have nothing to envy of our (Australia’s) finest thoroughbreds or best bred showjumpers. Quintessentially primitive, they are capable of carrying heavy loads for hundreds of kilometres with minimal food and water. Paradoxically both beautifully trustworthy and unpredictable, physiologically fascinating, they are catalysts of emotions and thought for anybody who has the privilege of riding them or being around them.

The landscapes are soul wrenching, endless plains and rolling hills, persistent sun and unpredictable storms, we had it all. It echoes remoteness and reminds you that you are out there alone. The veterinary work was fascinating. We not only treated the racehorses but also, when possible, any animal presented to us by the locals. 
When I told herders I was going to give their horse medication, the immediate question was always “injection?”. If so is the case, the entire population of the horse station gathered to watch me administer a simple intravenous injection. As soon as I finished, they bursted into laughter. I asked my interpreter why they were laughing and she said “oh they are just saying that you western vets are like magicians, they are very impressed you got into the vein so easily”. When doing a basic thing was perceived as semi-miracle, it was quite refreshing! I felt I was making a real difference here, more palpable in the steppe than in the comfort of our expensive stables.

We reached a point of the race where we were following a group of three riders in the mid pack that were too isolated from the leaders ahead of them and the followers behind them to warrant a vet waiting at each station. Our mission was to vet them out of a station, give them a 30 min head start and then head off on the road to reach the next station before them. This sounds easy, but in Mongolian terrain, horses are usually more efficient than motor vehicles. We spent days going through up to four stations a day. Opops my interpreter, Sambu my driver, the three riders we were following and the families that briefly welcomed us into their homes were the only people we saw for days. Constantly on the move we were lucky to go through nearly all the stations, witness the diversity of landscapes and live the race at the rhythm of the riders.

One of the last riders on the final leg of the race, sunset and all.

At horse station 24, nearing the end of the race we were lucky enough to stay for a few days, near a river. It gave us time to wash some clothes, wash ourselves, organise our kit, relax a little bit and catch up with some other members of the crew. It was also nice to get the chance to spend more time with the family that lived there. An old man made me the greatest gift a Mongolian can give: he gifted me a horse. It is regarded as the highest honour as their horses are their pride and joy and they only gift them to people that are “pure of heart” my interpreter explained. I am not sure about being pure of heart but I felt very honoured and promised I would return to visit my horse. Mongolians believe that the more good you give to people around you, the more good things will happen to you.

We departed for the final haul towards the finish line when we got a satellite call from HQ: one of the riders had hit their “SOS” button on their tracker. We were the closest crew to her and had to get there ASAP. The people who ride the Mongol Derby are pretty much insane and this rider we knew was a tough cookie. They all carry trackers and can either hit “help” – which is a non-emergency request for assistance or “SOS” meaning what it means and is dreaded by any crew member on the Derby. Luckily we were only 3km away from the GPS coordinates we were given by HQ and quickly found the rider laying on the ground and no horse in sight. She had sustained a fall, injuring her head and neck. Fortunately the stellar team of medics were on their way and the evacuation happened swiftly. We later learnt that no serious injuries were sustained by the rider and made our dash for the finish line.

Although we were not taking part of the race, crossing that finish line, there was a definite sense of exhilaration and achievement. What a journey it had been, after a good shower, a warm night in our gher and numerous vodka toasts the great Steppe Hustle was over. The motto that came back was “Courage is grace under pressure”. I am not sure about being graceful at any stage but it was definitely the adventure of a lifetime.

The on field crew for the Mongol Derby 2017, medics, field operators, referees, veterinarians, interpreters, HQ

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