Meet adventure race organiser Tom Morgan: ‘I swore I would never have a proper job’ *H&H Plus*

  • Tom Morgan on basing a race on Genghis Khan’s postal system, and the genius of Mongolian horsemen

    When I left university, I swore I would never have a proper job. I always found the most interesting times I had while travelling were when I had no plan and everything went wrong – that’s an adventure.

    I can’t say a lot of thought went into founding the Adventurists – the parent company of the Equestrianists – it began in the early 2000s with the Mongol Rally, a race in rubbish cars which begins in the UK and ends in Ulan-Ude, Russia.

    I charged nothing for people to enter, and even then it wasn’t very popular – six people came along when I imagined there would be thousands. When I did it for a second time I realised that money would be useful, so I charged people £50.

    We’ve spent the past 14 years designing and running large-scale, often slightly ridiculous, adventures and races around the world, from air races to tuktuk adventures.

    In 2008 we started researching and planning the Mongol Derby – the world’s longest horse race, inspired by Genghis Khan’s postal system. We didn’t really know much about the traditions of horseracing, and waded straight in with a multi-horse race, where riders change horses every 40km over a distance of 1,000km.

    The semi-wild Mongolian horses are wonderful, hard-as-nails little beggars who do everything on their own terms.

    The equine culture of Mongolia is magical; the symbiosis between horse and human is extraordinary and they are horsemen of genius. Everyone who takes part in the Mongol Derby learns something from them.

    We found that in a similar but different way in the Gaucho Derby, which we ran in Patagonia for the first time in early March 2020. They are very different races; the Mongol steppe is flat and riders spend a lot of time travelling at speed, whereas the mountains of Patagonia dictate a far slower pace but riders need plenty of skills to navigate them on horseback.

    At the beginning we had some sponsorship from a company involved in the world of endurance, and they flew in the FEI’s head of endurance to help us establish the rules. We have refined and expanded on the rules every time we’ve run it; we’ve improved the way the horses are trained and conditioned in the build-up to the Derby, and our rules are actually more stringent regarding heart-rate levels and so on than those in endurance racing.

    We drill it into competitors that they are not there to win at the expense of the horses. Staging a Mongol Derby is a huge operation; around 1,500 horses and 500 people. It’s a bit of a monster and incredible at the same time.

    Our riders come from a huge variety of backgrounds; some work with horses, some do not. We have had tech geeks, businessmen and women, CEOs, jockeys, an MP, polo players. We’ve had a 70-year-old winner and a 19-year-old winner.

    What they have in common is mental and physical toughness, a willingness to adapt, a seriously stubborn streak and an urge to push themselves really hard.

    I don’t have a horsey background; I rode a little as a child, but that was it. My training, if you can call it that, has been on the Mongol steppe – if you put me in a riding school lesson they’d laugh at me. But I do love it and horses are now a huge part of my life.

    Splitting the “horse” side of the business off from the other races and forming the Equestrianists means we can focus more comprehensively on horse welfare, and emphasise the utter centrality of the horse to the people and cultures we work with.

    The world is in turmoil at the moment, but we hope to run two Mongol Derbies back-to-back this summer to make up for having to cancel in 2020. We are also adding a US leg, which will make Mongol, Gaucho and North American Derbies into a “triple crown” series.

    As told to Catherine Austen

    Ref: 18 February 2021

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