Photo: Cornege Photography

Kiwi horsewoman to support RDA in Mongol Derby

15 June 2022

After a three-year COVID-enforced abeyance, the Mongol Derby is set to run again in 2022, and New Zealand will again be represented in the world’s longest horse-race.

Wellington horsewoman Siobhan Ryan was one of 40-odd riders from around the world selected for the 2020 edition of the Derby, and next month she will finally get the chance to travel to Ulaanbaatar ahead of the 1,000-kilometre marathon across the Mongolian steppe.

In equestrian circles, 36-year-old Ryan is best known as a regular competitor on the showjumping circuit. A Victoria University graduate with an Honours degree in philosophy and media, her day-job is investment analyst working on regional development programmes at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. In partnership with her mother Trish Ranstead, she also operates Wainuiomata Sporthorses, breeding horses, training, instructing and competing.

With her parents having run a Matamata training and breaking-in operation, Ryan grew up in thoroughbred racing. Her mother was the first female jockey to compete in a steeplechase over the Ellerslie hill, while her father is well-known racing journalist Dennis Ryan.

“I’ve been riding all my life, and got my first pony when I was three, a 10hh paint Timor called Jojo,” Ryan recalls. “The first pony to give me a competitive edge was Bro, a Welsh Mountain/Thoroughbred cross, bred by my grandparents. Later in my teens I reached Grand Prix level on my first hack, a lovely horse known to everyone as Hogan, who under his racing name Mighty Happy had been a multiple winner for my parents.

“Watching my parents and others working in the racing and sporthorse codes, and making my own way through, I’ve found the formula that works is concentrating on what’s in front of me, giving every horse a chance, and trusting and enjoying the process just as much as the end game.

“I may not be the most talented athlete on the circuit, but I am one of the most resilient. I will ride horses that others won’t, sometimes to my detriment, but also to my benefit as I’ve taken opportunities that others haven’t recognised or explored.”

That approach is probably the best explanation for Ryan’s desire to meet the demands of the gruelling Mongol Derby, which has been contested since 2009 under the auspices of the League of Adventurists International. The race across the vast landscape of the Mongolian steppe relives the world’s first pony express, Genghis Khan’s 13th Century horseback messenger system.

Riders compete on locally-bred and semi-wild Mongol horses, with the race set in stages of around 35 kilometres and riders changing mounts at each checkpoint. Contestants have up to 10 days to complete the pre-set course across widely varying terrain. Welfare is paramount, hinged on strict veterinary checks at the end of each stage ensuring that the horses have not been overtaxed.

“The idea of competing in the Mongol Derby came about one day in 2019 when I was schooling a client’s horse, and it was in a rather unlovely mood – inexperienced and grumpy, hard of steering,” Ryan explained.

“I’ve learnt that emotional control is an important part of horse training, so I was letting the horse process its new surroundings while allowing my mind to wander, and I’m thinking about the semi-feral Mongolian horses, who I’d heard can also be a bit difficult in the steering department.

“The thought of the Mongol Derby stayed with me for quite a while, so I decided to give Chloe Phillips-Harris a call. She was the first Kiwi to complete the Derby in 2013, and I wanted to check in with her, basically to see if I was losing my mind, or if the race was a viable option for someone like me.

“Chloe was not a moderating influence at all – ‘If you’re thinking about it then you have to do it,’ she said, or words to that effect.” 

Thus Ryan lodged her application and got the call in March 2019 that she had made the cut. It’s been a waiting game since, but now that the July 23 start date has been confirmed, she’s making final plans.

“As part of my preparation I’ve competed in a number of endurance events, mainly to familiarise myself with pacing my mount and ensuring I meet the welfare requirements around heart-rates, soundness and the like.

“Fitness-wise I’m feeling good – there’s hardly a day goes by that I’m not out riding in some form or other – although I’m under no illusions as to the daunting challenge ahead.”

A number of New Zealanders have contested the Mongol Derby, most recently in 2019 when Australian-based Justine Hales put up a huge effort to figure in a three-way tie for third, while 19-year-old Elise Stables also acquitted herself admirably to finish 10th the same year. Back in 2015, the Kiwi pairing of Maxim Van Lierde and Ben Wilks finished third equal in the race.

Past winners include Annabel Neasham, who was part of the two-person team that took the honours in 2018 before she embarked on her high-profile career as a Sydney-based thoroughbred trainer. A year later 70-year-old American Bob Long, a self-styled Idaho cowboy, set a record as the oldest contestant to not only complete the race but also win it.

The ethos of the Mongol Derby includes supporting the nomadic herdsmen and their families who are integral to the event, as well as individual riders nominating their charity of choice as part of their participation.

In Ryan’s case that will be New Zealand Riding for the Disabled, the nationwide organisation that provides valuable therapeutic horse riding for people experiencing disability.

“Riding for the Disabled is a cause close to my heart,” says Ryan. “I have a five-year-old nephew on the autism spectrum, and he has the good fortune to have access to supervised riding experiences; it does wonders for him.

“By nominating Riding for the Disabled as my charity, I’m hoping to make a difference for others in the community whose health and well-being would benefit from the fantastic work the organisation provides.”

You can find out more about the Mongol Derby and NZ Riding for the Disabled, including how to support our Kiwi contestant, via the following links:

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