Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race
by Lara Prior-Palmer
Impulsivity is an intimate friend of the teenager. This emotional siren lures newly-minted adolescents into making rash decisions, most stereotypically taking the form of raucous parties and torrid love affairs. And though we all go through our own form of the teenage phase, most of us wouldn't, on a whim, choose to ride the world's longest and most demanding horse race to assert our individuality. But it seems someone had to be first.
The Mongol Derby is a 1,000 kilometer feat of endurance. Participants ostensibly travel in the hoof prints of Genghis Khan's postal couriers who, in the 13th century, pounded their way across the picturesque Mongolian steppe using a similar system of horse stations to the ones redeveloped for the race. This trek is to be made over the course of ten days with limitations on ride time per day and with strict rules on how hard they can push their horse in order to protect the welfare of the animals. The riders are given one horse per stretch and considering these horses are still semi-wild, achieving a partnership will be easier said than done. This won't be their only challenge as they will face brutal weather conditions, rough terrain, and the wildcard element of the human and non-human residents of the steppe. Getting injured or facing setbacks are less potential risks and more like certainties with hurdles and partners such as these.
This is the kind of race that takes months – even an entire year – to prepare for with not just physical training, but also by acquiring a whole host of supplies within a designated weight limit. To have a shot at winning, it also requires familiarizing oneself with the vastness of the landscape and the myriad of potential obstacles to completion. Yet Lara Prior-Palmer, the 2013 winner applied only two months ahead of the race. With her unlikely win, she became not only the first woman to claim the top spot but also the youngest competitor to ever complete the Derby.
In her new memoir Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race, Prior-Palmer describes this experience. She begins with an admission of the disconcertingly low level of foresight she gave to her decision to participate. Most fundamentally, she lacked the steep admission fee (now up to £11,375 for the 2020 race). Most oddly, though she is the niece of a well-known equestrian, she did not have abundant experience on horseback. None of this ended up being a deterrent. She defied the odds even early on, managing to piece together the bare bones requirements at the 11th hour.
With all the odds stacked against her, one must question why someone as underprepared as our young author would take on this challenge. It's a puzzle she subtly tries to solve for herself throughout the book with tones ranging from the contemplative to the outright exhausted. But although her choice to join the race was impulsive, her resolve remains steadfast as she navigates from station to station.
The wide open space ahead seems to satisfy an itch early on, but the loneliness of the race unexpectedly drives her inward. In true teenage fashion, it pushes her into the realm of the poetic, at least partially inspired by the copy of The Tempest stuffed in her pack. This tone does not dominate her storytelling, instead mimicking the checkpoints she reaches. At times, we're fully invested in mechanics of the ride and then, every so often, she invites us into her inner world.
Lara's mind is full of thoughts of home as one would expect from someone not far removed from their childhood years, but she frequently compares this mental image to her current surroundings. The complete dissimilarity of place and experience to anything having come before in her life makes for a stark contrast. Mongolia comes out favorably in these match-ups, with Prior-Palmer providing historical and cultural context to help the reader feel as immersed in the place as she is. As she allows herself to sink into the landscape, Lara finds in the race not only something to keep her busy for ten days in August, but a sense of her own purpose:
The race did seem to lend me some faith in my placement in this world, and that faith released an energy my teenage sloth-self had let go of. I felt it fueling me for months afterward.
Coming-of-age storytellers take note: here is your model heroine. Across time, adolescents have sought to define what they are by first defining what they are not. Lara Prior-Palmer canters away from the known world and all the expectations of her it contains. And though her teenage qualities at first glance appear to foretell her failure, it seems that perhaps Lara's spontaneity and youth are her greatest assets. For her, the race was never about winning, but about the freedom it would provide. In fact, the finish line provides less motivation than does her toughest competitor, Texan Devan Horn who is nearly obsessively determined to win. But instead of marrying herself to the future by clinging to a picture of herself coming in first, she lives firmly in the present moment. This allows her to better cope with obstacles, however clumsily, as they come along.
Readers will be grateful for her investment in the present, but also her choice to faithfully write down the events of each day in her Winnie the Pooh notebook. Her recorded experiences combine with the wisdom of hindsight to create the pure magic of this book. In writing it, we can feel the author, now aged 24, returning to this defining the experience in her mind's eye and retrospectively defining it for the lasting impact it has clearly had on her life. This memoir is a glance behind at trodden ground and acknowledgment of the course to come. Each pony gallops across the in-between.
—Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at http://youtube.com/c/abookolive) living in Pittsburgh.