Riders take off across the Mongolian steppe in the 2016 Derby, the world’s toughest horse race. (Facebook: Mongol Derby)
When people hear that Jodie Ward is planning to ride 1,000 kilometres across the Mongolian steppe on semi-broken ponies as part of the world’s longest and toughest horse race, they immediately ask her two questions.
“The first question is, ‘are you crazy?’ The second question is, ‘what would make you want to do something like that?'” Ms Ward laughed.
“And then, ‘you must be a good horseperson,’… Well, no!”
Riders take on challenging terrain in rapidly changing temperatures over 1,000km. (Mongol Derby: Richard Dunwoody)
Ms Ward, who lives in Katherine, has completed some 40 to 120 kilometre-horseback endurance races in the past, but nothing like the mammoth undertaking ahead of her, riding 120 to160km per day for about 10 days during the Mongol Derby.
Only one in every 40 applicants makes it through the screening process to be selected to race along Genghis Khan’s ancient mail delivery route across the remotest parts of the vast country, but for Ms Ward, it only took three days from her initial application being submitted to getting the nod.
“I was so surprised, I didn’t think I would be qualified or I would have a chance,” she said.
She said the interview process was a test of would-be riders’ mettle.
“It’s that you’re going to take care of the animals while you’re over there, and that you’ve got a bit of grit and a bit of rogue in you that you’ll push yourself that far,” she said.
“I’ve got absolutely no doubts that it’s not going to be an easy journey.”
Jodie Ward on horseback while training for the 2017 Mongol Derby in Darwin. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
Riding 1,000km on semi-broken ponies
Organisers are currently drafting a pool of about 2,000 local ponies to rent from Mongolian pastoralists, which will be narrowed down to a pool of about 1,000. Each racer will choose 25 horses to ride over the course, changing horses every 40 kilometres.
Local horses are only partially broken in, which is an added challenge for riders. (Mongol Derby: Richard Dunwoody)
“The horses have been at various stages of being broken in, some not so broken in, and I’ve been told definitely not to the level and skill we would consider a horse to be broken in, so that’s interesting,” Ms Ward said.
She said she’d be looking for horses like the buckskin she rides in the Top End.
“He’s just got a big heart and gives me everything he’s got every time, so I’ll be looking for a horse with his characteristics,” she said.
Although she’s been riding since childhood, growing up helping to muster horses, she said she hasn’t had much experience breaking horses, or much formal training.
‘I want to prove to myself that I have the grit’
Rider Anthony Strange tries to hold onto a bucking horse during the Mongol Derby 2016. (Facebook: Mongol Derby)
Ms Ward’s father passed away from leukaemia two years ago, and she initially wanted to do the race in his memory.
“He was a great horseperson and a great bushman and I really wanted to do something to honour his memory and to just really think about all the things he taught me in life,” she said.
She also wanted to prove that she could take on something this tough.
“Growing up, it was always that the men did the job and the women were the support people… my sisters and I were the support people rather than the main achievers,” she said.
“I would like to prove to myself that I can do something along those lines, I want to prove to myself I have the grit and endurance to do it.”
Ms Ward has also struggled with anxiety, and says the training has helped her prove to herself she can do things she didn’t think were within her grasp.
“I’d never been a goal-setter, I didn’t really believe in what it could do for you, I thought it was just a thing you did at workshops so you could tick a box and say you did that,” she said.
“But I’ve been really amazed at how much having a direction and a focus has helped me.”
Jodie Ward says the training has helped her focus and quash her anxieties. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
Rabid dogs, broken spines, hypothermia
Riders can only take five kilograms of gear with them each day, containing essentials such as their sleeping equipment, medications, food and toilet paper.
They ride without a local guide, using GPS to stick to the route.
“I have this fear that I’ll fall off and the horse will take off and take my bed with it and I’ll never get it back… because that’s happened before!” Ms Ward said.
“I do have a fear of my mind getting the better of me. But I’m keen to prove it wrong.”
Riders pass through different elevations, going from -5 degrees Celsius temperatures at night, soaring to about 35 degrees during the day, she said, and there have been cases of hypothermia and heat stress on the same day.
In previous years competitors have ridden with broken bones and spines, some have been flown to Beijing for medical treatment, and only about 40 per cent of them finish the race each year, she said.
“One girl’s horse had taken off in the wrong direction and a pack of dogs set upon it and the horse bolted… she was terrified because she hadn’t had her rabies shot so she just knew she had to hold on,” Ms Ward said.
“Being set upon by a pack of rabid wild dogs is probably up there on the list of terrifying things.”
But she said she was choosing not to think about it: “I like to think that the excitement outweighs the fear at this point,” she said.
As for whether her father would be proud of her effort?
“I think he would think I’m a little bit silly and probably would ask the first question everyone else asks, ‘are you crazy?'” she said.
“But yeah, maybe, maybe a little bit.”
The Mongol Derby begins on August 9.
Only about 40 per cent of riders complete the race each year, some with serious injuries. (Facebook: Mongol Derby)