A Land with No Fences
Veterinarian cares for horses in Mongol Derby
By Dan Thompson
Photos Courtesy of Bruce Pedersen
As a traveling veterinarian and a world traveler, Bruce Pedersen is accustomed to rugged terrain.
He practices veterinary medicine in Watford City, North Dakota, and Butte, Montana, boom towns 550 miles and 150 years apart, and lives the rest of the time—“the goal is half the year”—in Sandpoint, Idaho, he said. He has also traveled to India a number of times, climbed to the base camp at Everest with his daughter and taken a humanitarian trip to Swaziland and South Africa.
But none of those places quite compare to Mongolia.
“The landscape was like nothing I’d ever experienced,” Pedersen said. “No fences. I describe it as a Galapagos experience: It’s the same that it was probably 3,000 years ago. These horses were pure, naturally selected, semi-wild, just amazing.”
He was describing the 1,400 or so horses needed for the annual Mongol Derby, an event first run in 2009 that re-creates and pays homage to Genghis Khan’s version of the Pony Express, meant to send messages across the vast Mongolian Steppe as fast as possible.
Pedersen, one who relishes new experiences and the personal connections that open such opportunities, was encouraged by a friend to apply to vet the race. His application was accepted, and last August, he headed to Ulaanbaatar for pre-race training and a three-week adventure along with eight other vets (for the horses), a team of medics (for the humans), about 40 riders and a host of locals.
Their goal? Keep everyone healthy—most certainly the horses—and finish the 1,000-kilometer course in 10 days or fewer.
He nearly didn’t make it out of the United States. A day or two before the race he looked at his passport. Expired.
So, he and Heather (his wife) drove through the night to Seattle, secured a last-minute passport, and then Pedersen boarded a plane headed across the ocean toward Mongolia.
“I didn’t really explore it that much. I’m not the best at preparation,” he said this winter, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the bed and breakfast he and Heather own and operate in Sandpoint. “It was like going to a movie where you haven’t seen the trailer.
“I’m gonna vet the Mongol Derby,” he said to himself. “It sounds like fun.”
It went far beyond pure fun, though. For Pedersen, the trip became about the relationship between a people and the earth that sustains them, and the balance between how technology is an aide but also a hindrance to the human connections that it so often seeks to foster.
“Animals are a piece of our connection with the earth and what I saw in those people and how intimate their lives were with those animals and agriculture,” Pedersen said of the Mongolians. “How much removed we’ve gotten.”
The Mongol Derby draws riders from across the world. The 2018 roster included women and men from 11 different countries, mostly from the United States and Australia.
“The riders help each other, and that’s one of the big important points,” Pedersen said. “They call it a race, but it’s really more of a journey. It’s not as much about winning as it is about completing.”
The task is daunting: Ride 1,000 kilometers in 25 to 28 stages in 10 days—this year’s winners finished on day seven—navigating with a GPS and elementary maps that show little more than peaks, valleys and the next checkpoint.
At each checkpoint riders meet unique horses. If you’re first to reach a checkpoint, then you get first pick of your next steed.
All the animals belong to Mongolians who loan them to the race—part of each rider’s $13,000 entrance fee goes toward paying locals for their horses and hospitality—and are then returned after a leg of the event.
“There is enough value in 50 horses hired to the Derby to satisfy all their cash needs for a year. It's a game changer,” Katy Willings, Derby chief since 2018, wrote in an email. “That said, we tend to hire the horses in fives and 10s, numbers which mean we can be confident that the herders have spent time on each horse to prepare it: Can it be caught and handled, saddled, mounted, is it fit to carry an adult at speed?”
No horse is ridden twice, and the horses that go well earn a financial bonus for the herder, Willings said.
Pedersen’s job was to check the horses for injuries and elevated heart rates. To some extent, too, he, along with the medics, was assessing the well-being of the riders and their fitness to keep riding, especially mentally.
But over the entire event Pedersen said he only assessed one penalty, and not one horse sustained a serious injury.
“We had one colic, but 1,400 horses, just pretty minor lamenesses, a cut we had to sew up,” Pedersen said. “The riders were beat up way worse than the horses.”
The Steppe is unforgiving. Vast and varied, the terrain tests riders’ skills in navigation and horsemanship, and also their mental mettle.
Between checkpoints, riders wore an emergency SOS button that they could press if they got into trouble. That happened a couple dozen times over the course of the event, usually because a rider had been thrown from the horse and it had sped off. Other times it was for minor injuries.
But this year, the majority of riders finished.
Each rider wore a GPS, which, pragmatically, showed the operation center where everyone was at a given time, helping ensure their safety in an emergency. But it also ensured they followed the strict rules of riding only by daylight.
A rider could either bed down at a checkpoint or stop along the course overnight, taking care of their horse and lodging with locals or sleeping wherever they opted to. They just couldn’t ride again until 6:30 the next morning.
Pedersen also stayed with locals and drank his share of yak milk and other fermented dairy. Their hospitality impressed him.
“It gives me a unique perspective on a working animal, and I think that’s where I’ve grown to really appreciate purpose, as in when animals have a purpose,” Pedersen said. “A sled dog, a Mongolian Derby horse. There’s a need to do something, something that drives us, to give us purpose.
“Out there they are one step away from being wild.”
Indeed, many of the horses still bore the faint stripes of their Zebra cousins, Pedersen said, and most were only about 13 hands tall. But they were stout, strong, fast—and they sure loved to run.
Pedersen knows a thing or two about competitions like the Derby. He has vetted the Iditarod in Alaska five times—he plans to do so again in March—and has done so in other races as well.
Often the events recreate some sort of historical journey of necessity: The famed serum run in Alaska, for example, is the inspiration for the Iditarod. Others, like Race the Wild Coast in South Africa, are held so that riders and horses can test the limits of their capabilities.
Pedersen first worked the Iditarod when he was a young vet in Jackson, Wyoming. The parallels between the sled dog race and the Derby were many for him, especially the high level of respect for the animals.
But the level of support is much different. The Iditarod ensures very quick access to primary care for mushers and dogs, but that’s simply not possible in Mongolia.
“The Mongol Derby was a lot more isolated, more intimate with the way things used to be, not as much technology or modernization,” Pedersen said.
And for as harsh as the Steppe was in August, it’s not nearly as treacherous as Alaska in March.
Alaska wouldn’t be safe if there was less support, he said. “The Alaskan environment in the winter is so much more unforgiving.”
The experience in Asia reminded him of the life-saving value of technology, most certainly. But the nights spent with people who lack so much of what Pedersen has back in the United States also reminded him of the ways that technology gets in the way.
“To observe their family time was a bit enviable on the quality of those interactions. The single focus of tending for their animals, they milk yak, they lived off the land,” he said. “Modernization has infiltrated a little bit … but I still felt that it was preserved to some historical aspect of how it was.”
Pedersen sees parallels in North Dakota, where, when he sees large animals as a vet, they are ranch horses. Animals with a job, a purpose, a clear connection with the land.
Toward the end of the Derby, Pedersen and a handful of vets found themselves at the final checkpoint, and they had a realization: Why not ride?
“We said, wait a minute, we’re in Mongolia. We need to throw a leg over a horse and ride,” Pedersen said.
So, they cobbled together what equipment they had, including the Mongol saddles that were, to put it much more delicately than the saddles themselves, jostling to ride.
The final leg was about 36 kilometers, and Pedersen was on it. The horse he rode belonged to a Mongolian boy who loaned it to him.
“I was honored by that young boy. That’s his prized possession,” Pedersen said. “That was his horse and he let me ride it.”
The horse knew how to choose a path, much better, he realized, than he did as a rider. He nicknamed it Cereb, short for cerebrum, because it was so automatic for the horse to navigate the terrain.
One leg into a marmot hole—which were multitudinous and often obscured—would undoubtedly toss Pedersen and lame the horse.
“These horses want to run, so they are hell bent. It’s not just a trot. At first I’m steering them, and then I realized, no, you let them have their head,” he said. “Just to be on them and feel them, it gave us a real appreciation for the riders.”
They rode across the finish line and steered right into a lake.
It ended with a big party, including some Genghis vodka (he brought back a flask of it).
“I think among the crews in particular there is a feeling of having been into battle together,” Willings said. “So many of the challenges of the event are unbeknownst to the riders, thank goodness, and we adopt a kind of ‘game face,’ which at the event's safe and successful conclusion, is fun to take off again and admit how crazy things got at times.”
Five or six days later, Pedersen boarded an airplane in Ulaanbaatar, bound for Beijing, then Seattle and then Spokane.
Pedersen is still often on the move, driving to Butte and Watford City, maintaining his role in the vet practices he helped start.
But he is always looking for the next adventure. He’s even considering riding in that race along the South African coast.
“I might still have it in me,” he said.
At the least, Pedersen has the Iditarod coming up. And maybe even another trip across the Steppe, where there is no fence in sight.