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Erik Cooper, of Troy recently completed the Guinness World Book of Records most grueling horse race in the world, the Mongolian Derby.
From the moment Cooper landed in Mongolia, he was excited. “All you see is a whole lot of green, and I was anxious to get out on the steppe and get on the Mongolian horses, and see if they lived up to all the hype,” says Cooper.
When Cooper and the other jockeys from around the world boarded the bus leading them to “start camp” he let his mind wander. “We were all definitely hoping we (jockeys) wouldn’t be the first to get bucked off or knocked out of the race due to injury. I know I, for one, was asking myself, ‘are you really as good as you think you are’?” says Cooper. Every jockey was overwhelmed with emotions, as they didn’t know what to expect during the upcoming 10 days of the race.
Cooper adjusted to the culture of Mongolia. He spent nights in Gers (huts) with locals. He ate Mongolian food, which he mentioned turned his stomach inside out, and rode a series of different wild horses throughout the 10 days of the race. The horse riders were split into teams. They raced through rain, sleet, hail, lightning, mosquito infested swamps, and rivers and were chased by wild dogs throughout the Derby.
Injuries were inevitable. Cooper hurt his back on the first day. “I didn’t say anything about the injury to the medical team until day 7 as I didn’t know if they would try and pull me from the race then. They didn’t. It turns out it is a faucet joint injury and it hurt like hell throughout the entire race,” says Cooper.
Despite Cooper’s back pain, he trotted on. Cooper tested his riding expertise every time he hopped in the saddle. Each time in the stirrups was another adventure.
One day Cooper and his team were trotting through a relatively flat valley when his horse suddenly collapsed. Cooper’s horse’s legs both went through a marmot hole, sending the horse in a somersault…with him on it. Cooper’s teammate, Jess, from Austraila saw the whole thing.
“Its (horse) front end plunged from view, and its back legs flew up higher than where Erik’s head had just been moments before,” says Jess.
Erik’s horse jumped up and ran away, later to be wrangled by a Ger owner nearby. Cooper was in even more pain as he walked towards his teammates, who were both walking his horse back. Cooper was in pain, yet the accident could’ve cost him his life.
“I have to take a moment to commend Erik’s riding ability (and by extension, self-rescue ability) here. Most people would have been crushed beneath their horse during an accident like this, but Erik is part ninja, apparently. He was able to fling himself to the left of the horse and thus was not hit at all by its falling body. While watching it happen, I was convinced that we would be scraping a paralyzed Erik off of the steppe, so hopefully that emphasizes just how exceptional Erik’s dodge of the bullet was,” says teammate Jess.
Later that same day, teammates Jess and George were a distance from Cooper when Cooper heard a yell. He turned to see George had been bucked off his horse. To make matters worse, Cooper was out of water, it was dark and wild dogs were chasing their horses.
“It was pretty scary being in the dark with these crazy things around you on a tired horse and basically feeling helpless,” says Cooper.
Cooper’s teammate George encouraged him to go to the next camp; saying he’d meet him there with his horse. As Cooper was slowly moving towards camp in the dark, surrounded by dogs, he almost gave up.
“I had a ‘what the heck was I thinking’ moment. At this point, I really just didn’t believe in myself anymore…BUT then I started visualizing my family and friends and could literally see the posts on Facebook in my mind; the comments I read from everyone before leaving, with everyone back home believing I was capable of this huge feat. It seriously was the reason I pulled myself together, grabbed my headlamp and horse, walked through the dark, and the dogs. I ended up finding George on the road and we walked all the way, 7K, to the horse station.”
Cooper continued to race, pressing on to the finish line. Near the end, Cooper saddled a horse known for a exciting ride. The instant Cooper was in the saddle, the horse took off at full speed.
“I steered him around and literally it felt like this horse had hands instead of hooves and was grasping the ground with every jolt,” says Cooper.
The horse didn’t stop for anything, not even a creek. Cooper stayed on as the horse hit the bank. He lost a stirrup, but Cooper stayed on. By staying on, Cooper hurt his back even more. It was the final straw. Cooper hopped in the medic van which headed towards the finish line. He’d managed to ride on horseback almost the entire way.
As he glanced out the window of the medic van, he reminisced about the adventures he had had since the beginning of the race and shook his head. “There is no way in hell I am arriving at the finish line on anything BUT a wild horse!”
Cooper was dropped off at a camp and saddled up a horse. On the way to the finish line he glanced to his left to see 45-50 wild horses running in a pack along side him. “There’s not a more free feeling in the world than that,” says Cooper.
By James Brandly