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Michael Gascon at the Mongol Derby


By Nancy Brannon; photos by Lawrence Squire, The Adventurists

There were 44 competitors who came from around the world to tackle the 2018 Mongol Derby, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, August 8-17, with pre-race training August 5-7. This year’s race attracted 18 men and 26 women from 12 countries to ride 1,000 km (just under 622 miles) across the Mongolian Steppe on semi-wild Mongol horses. There were 14 riders from the U.S., including renowned gaited horse trainer Michael Gascon, 29, of Poplarville, Mississippi. In his words, it was “the adventure of a lifetime!”

Upon returning from completion of the Derby, Michael shared his thoughts about it on facebook: “It was an absolutely amazing adventure – the adventure of a lifetime! Everything we were searching for – and more! It was probably one of the most challenging things that I’ve ever done in my life, but also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. It was just amazing: the culture, the people, the horses, and how much travel there was, how many miles there were, how long you had to go. It was like the never-ending story! We would get through one obstacle and there would be another one right after it, and another one right after. We were able to make it through. And then party at the finish, and make it home safe and sound and in one piece.”

I talked with Michael after he returned home, as he was getting right back into riding horses without delay. What would prompt a person to try the strenuous Mongol Derby? He said a friend mentioned it to him and, when he heard, he replied, “It sounds legendary! I have to do it!” Michael says he “wants to be the most educated horseman alive.” To do that, he wants to find out about other countries, other cultures – ones that are completely new to him – and learn all about their horses. As part of his global education, he regularly likes to travel. He has attended the School of Equestrian Arts in Spain; he has traveled to England, Germany, Denmark, Mexico, Canada, and has studied various riding disciplines in the U.S. He says he “rides anything you can strap a saddle on.”

I asked him about the nature of the Mongol horses. “The biggest difference between our culture and Mongol culture is that their culture believes that the more undomesticated the horses, the stronger their spirit; it is better for their survival. If the horse is too wild to ride, they believe the horse is majestic and they turn it free to be breeding stock. The most rambunctious, the most spirited horse – they see it as an honor if you can ride it. The language of the horse is universal. These horses have been conditioned to be tough.”

I had seen photos of Michael on a Mongol horse that was rearing and bucking. “That happened on a practice day before the race.  They had to hobble the horse to get a saddle on.” The local herders are the ones who provide horses for the race. So after that day, as he traveled to each Horse Station, where food, shelter, and fresh horses were provided by the locals, they recognized him and always tried to have a rank horse for him to ride.

I asked about his progress on the ride. “It was a combination of bad luck up front and the fact that I have no experience in endurance riding. They kept warning us not to get the horses too tired. So I took it easy on the horses, walking them quite a bit to make sure they didn’t get too tired, while other competitors ran their horses. It took me a couple of days to learn how to run the race. You run the horses as far as you can as fast as you can, all the while making sure you go through all the water places and that you go through pasture land [for them to graze].”

Here’s the Derby report from August 15: “From what we can tell from the GPS tracker, Michael is currently camping or staying with a Mongolian family just outside of HS 24. Yesterday he traveled 143 km, almost 50 km more than he has done in any other leg of the race in one day. It’s going to be so awesome to hear the stories about the steeds he’s been able to ride! He is 827 km in to the 1,000 km race now with no vet penalties! He should finish the race tomorrow or first thing in the morning on the 17th. We want to give a huge congrats to the winners of the 2018 Mongol Derby! They made it through 28 HS stations and received no vet penalties, showing that they took the best care of their horses and allowed them to compete at their highest potential.”

Michael maintained, “It was an absolutely amazing adventure! Like an Iron Man competition – a long, grueling self test. I was not rushing to get in front. So if you are not in a position to vie for the win, like first, second, or third, then you don’t really care where you place. The rest are just trying to complete the race.

“I rode for eight days. The longest day I rode was from 5:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The last two days I rode over 100 miles each. I got stronger as the race went on. From day three, I got stronger and stronger and galloped most of the time.
“You ride standing in the stirrups – you don’t sit. The saddles have conchos in a place that really punishes you if you sit. I rode in 2-point position or posted the gallop. Every other stride you post. That saved my knees and legs.”

I asked about the horses that were provided. “This race is an economic opportunity for the Mongolians. Few herders have 40 race horses, so many riders got average horses, and some got what was left over, who weren’t up to the task, that you had to really help along.”

The weather on the trip was quite variable. “We had a jawbreaker-size-hail storm the first day that lasted for an hour. My horse just shut down and kept his butt to the storm. There was absolutely NO place to take cover. Then we had flash flooding after the hail storm,” Michael said. “The temperature fluctuates a lot. It can be extremely hot, as in desert areas; then a short time later you run into rain and then to cold.

“It’s simply amazing how vast the land is. It’s a sea of green and goes on as far as the eye can see, like the ocean. There are rolling hills, but no structures and no trees. It was truly beautiful to be there and to see a life lived so simply.”

I asked about the food and where he stayed after each day’s ride. The riders stayed at the Horse Stations. “Families had two or three gers (their houses), and riders stayed in the empty ones. The families supplied the horses and fed the riders. The people have no refrigerators, so if they had recently butchered a goat, it might be hanging in the empty ger. Many riders couldn’t eat the food, and if they couldn’t eat, they couldn’t finish the race. The diet was mainly mare’s milk and rice. We had a lot of mutton; it might be in a soup or with noodles. There were few vegetables. And the bread was small; the size of donut holes; and it was hard. But I made it a point to eat every time we switched horses and I ate whatever they offered. I filled my camel pack with water, regardless of what it looked like. The water usually looked dirty (having a bit of turbidity), but it was boiled. Some people had water filters. I had an in-line filter.”

Michael finished the Derby on August 16, and if he were to ride in it again, he thinks he could contest for winning it. So I asked if he would try again next year, but he said he would prefer to go to Patagonia or South Africa – “just to have a new adventure.”

He was in Mongolia for 20 days, with a 22-23-hour flight each way to get there and back. But the race didn’t slow down his home riding schedule. Right after his return, he was riding horses most of the day again. Within a couple of weeks after returning from Mongolia, he was headed to the World Equestrian Games to do colt starting demonstrations. At WEG, he would get to share the round pen with some of his mentors and idols, like Monty Roberts.

“At the colt starting demo, I will have 30 minutes to take a horse from unbroken to under saddle, performing maneuvers, going over obstacles, at walk, trot, and canter. That calls for crystal clear communication with the horse. You make sure the horse is OK with what you are asking. You go step by step. This will be an amazing opportunity, when people who are my heroes, my mentors, will be my co-workers.” These mentors of his are scheduled before and after his work in the round pen. “You have to be a good student!” he said.

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