It’s been called the toughest horse race in the world. The Mongol Derby is a 600-mile horse race around Mongolia. Riders must change horses – semi-wild Mongolian ponies – every 25 miles and penalties are assessed if the horse’s heart rate is too high at each checkpoint. Battling fatigue, varied terrain, sickness, bad weather and recalcitrant ponies, riders have 10 days to complete the course.
In August 2013, 30 riders gathered in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, to begin their preparations for the derby. Among them were Lara Prior-Palmer, a lanky, restless 19-year-old Briton who entered the race at the last minute as a lark. With no endurance riding experience, no knowledge of GPS (the primary way riders follow the route), none of the recommended vaccinations, not even a toothbrush, the mischievous teen saw the race as a bit of ridiculous fun. Fun, that is, until her competitive spirit was roused by cocky, 20-year-old Devan Hunt, a well-trained, well-equipped Texan utterly determined to win. The race was on!
Of course the very word “race” implies a level of adrenaline that Lara Prior-Palmer’s memoir, Rough Magic, doesn’t have. Think of it as a slow canter rather than a full gallop to the finish line. As she rides through the endless grassy steppe, Prior-Palmer, when she isn’t plotting how to overtake Devan, has plenty of time to ruminate about horses, Mongol culture and her childhood. Readers will be drawn to Rough Magic because of the unique race, but they will stay because of Prior-Palmer’s equally unique voice.