What it Takes to Win the World’s Loneliest Horse Race

Halimah Marcus talks to Lara Prior-Palmer, the youngest woman to win the Mongol Derby

Lara Prior-Palmer riding a horse at the 2013 Mongol Derby
Photo by Richard Dunwoody

From the opening pages of Rough Magic, readers understand they are entering the mind of a unique personality. First, there are the superlatives. Lara Prior-Palmer was the youngest and the first woman to win the world’s longest and toughest horse race—25 segments totaling 1,000 kilometers on the Mongolian steppe, each ridden on a different semi-wild horse. (With a $6,000 entry fee in 2013, the year Prior-Palmer ran, and a nearly $15,000 entry fee for the 2020 race, one might also call it the most expensive.) And lastly, the subtitle of her memoir calls it the loneliest; many of those kilometers were spent without another human in sight, with only a horse to talk to.

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Prior-Palmer describes the Mongol Derby as “a perfect hodgepodge of Snakes and Ladders and the Tour de France on unknown bicycles.” As a former horseback rider with and adventurous streak (who also happens to appreciate the Tour de France), I was predisposed to enjoy this book. But it was turns of phrases like that, I quickly realized—surprising, playful, unexpected—that were going to make me love it.

Six years have passed since her victory, secured at the audacious age of 19, during which she was able to write and publish a truly remarkable book. But the thrill of the story comes not from the fact that she won but how she did it. “Accidentally—or rather, fully intentionally,” she writes, phrasing that embodies the texture of Prior-Palmer’s storytelling: engaged, yet passive; present, yet dreamy; fierce, yet congenial.

The most popular adventure stories, to which Rough Magic has been compared, are often structured around emotional obstacles—to grieve, to overcome, to escape. Worthy projects, certainly, in memoir and in life. But the purpose of Prior-Palmer’s journey is less about the weight of the past then it is about the challenge of the present. It’s about committing fully to what’s in front of you and the emotional, physical, and spiritual requirements of going all in.

We spoke in Electric Literature’s Brooklyn office when Lara Prior-Palmer was in town for her New York book launch.

Halimah Marcus: You signed up for the Derby, as you describe it, on a whim. What do you think it is about your life experience and your personality that compelled you first to do that, and more so to actually follow through?

Lara Prior-Palmer: I was in a very constricted space in that year. I was going to university in the autumn, so I couldn’t commit to anything proper, and the pattern of my friends and I to work and then travel just felt bizarrely self-serving and to no end. I really had this urge to explode myself out of everything, and so, with that impetus, the race just walked into the stencil that I was holding. It’s a short race. It wasn’t going to take up my life.

It’s difficult because it’s a dangerous part of my personality that’s wrapped up in the potential for total lack of self-care. There’s also that part of me that doesn’t feel protective of my physical self, but is very protective of other parts of my inner psyche. But I didn’t realize the race was going to be so horrible, actually. I had no idea.

HM: What was the most horrible?

LPP: The relentlessness of it.

HM: The monotony.

LPP: Yes, monotony. Riding one horse from A to B, 25 miles farther than I had ever ridden—that’s something I would have to do 25 times in a race. So I did it once, I felt like the whole race had already happened. And it was horrible being alone and feeling neglected or self-neglected. Or like, ‘Why did I want to do this? Why did I want to put myself into this position?’

HM: I love this paragraph early on where you kind of fess up to the project of the book:

I’m telling the story about myself. There’s a British disease called modesty, which nearly stops me from sharing what I’ve written. After all, this is about an event that seemed to go well. Somehow, implausibly, against all the odds, I won a race labeled the longest and toughest in the world—a race I’d entered on a whim—and became the youngest person, and first female ever to have done so.

Given that this paragraph admits a disinclination to tell your story because of this modesty you’re culturally conditioned to have, what role did being the youngest and first woman to win play in giving you permission or an excuse to write this book?

LPP:  The state of being that the race put me into that was so shocking, having grown up in London, never feeling like my life had cohesion and never having put the whole of myself into anything. The race demanded all those things. And I had such a clear memory. I just wanted to write down every sight I saw, every thyme bush I could smell.

The fact it was being written about in the media—because people love the idea of the first woman and the youngest—meant that I felt legitimate in making this an outward project rather than an inward project. I didn’t ever particularly trust the first woman thing just because, frankly, it was the horses. Why is it impressive that a woman should win it? [The equestrian sport of] eventing, as you know, is mixed. Women are often winning. My aunt was winning in the seventies.

Lara Prior-Palmer at the 2013 Mongol Derby. Photo by Richard Dunwoody.

I felt very proud that I was the youngest because I had always a faith in my naiveté and my innocence. There’s something in children that is far more mature than anything that adults have. [I believe] life is an inverse journey, and we’re eroding into something rather than the other way around. Not that we begin pure. I don’t believe that either.

One of the things that I went into the race knowing is that if I finished I would become the youngest to finish it. I really liked the idea of that because I think young people need to reclaim their authority and their power. We go to school and we get taught to listen and oftentimes we are told we don’t know anything, and I really disagree with that. I think we know so much, and we are so much.

HM: Most people don’t realize that equestrian sports are one of the few sports where men and women compete equally at the highest levels. Your aunt, Lucinda Greene, was the World Champion and the European Champion of eventing, and that’s just full stop. She wasn’t the “Women’s World Champion.” Then at the same time, there are these condescending stereotypes about “horse girls,” or girls and their horses. Your aunt was featured a photographic book called All Those Girls in Love With Horses. It wasn’t “All Those Boys in Love With Horses,” of course. Here’s what you write about that:

They intrigue me, these mini republics of equestriennes. Do women really love horses? Or do horses love women? There’s the Freudian theory that women direct their erotic energy towards horses, whereas men often relate to them through dominance . . . If horses can make us powerful, they can also make us feel powerless—it’s the persuasion required to access their power that I find compelling.

Could you expand on that? Is anything to the “horse girls” stereotype? Is it just like patriarchal bullshit, or is there something there? Is your relationship to horses different as a woman?

LPP: I’m excited to think [on this topic] with you because I felt lonely writing those parts of the book. I couldn’t find much literature out there to bounce off. Women in the horse world aren’t writing about this much. I went through that paragraph many times, trying to work out what I really meant and felt. I’m still not sure I know.

There is that horrific and condescending male voice that associates pink, purple, horses, girls, glitter, as though it’s sickening. Whereas I think anyone’s relationship with animals is a beautiful thing.

But I also mistrust when the horse is somehow filling in for something that the person can’t give to a human being because it would irritate a human being. Or it allows the person into a complete monologue because to influence a horse you don’t have to listen. You have to listen to their body, but you don’t have to listen to their words. It does allow you to love them in weird ways.

HM: I want to ask about your transformation from kind of hapless entrant to fierce competitor. How did you experience that transformation?

I really had this urge to explode myself out of everything, and the race just walked into the stencil that I was holding.

LPP: Well there’s a plumb line going through all of it which is a sort of awareness that none of it matters—if it all goes wrong, it’s okay—and that giving me faith in myself, somehow. I didn’t feel hapless really until I spoke to someone on the phone who told me I sounded hapless, a past competitor who said that you don’t have any of the right attitudes, not to mention equipment. So maybe I did feel a bit hapless, but I was used to being classified as hapless. That was something that teachers had done, that my family had done. So I knew how to inhabit it without fully believing it, I guess.  

The fierce competitiveness was very human-centered. I felt very perturbed by the person who was in the lead of the race, and she lit the fire in me to go get ahead. Whereas prior to that moment of finding out she was in the front, I was just trying to get through it and not quite having a good time of it, imagining that that was the idea. Then, I just wanted to overtake her.

HM: That rival was Devan. What did she symbolize to you that stoked this competitive fire. What was it about her that made you want to win against her, specifically?

LPP: Now it all seems a bit false to me; everyone’s a human and no one wants to be irritating. At the time, I was very disaffected by what I perceived as a blindness to any other dimension of the race other than getting ahead. Someone said, “Can I ride with you?” in the beginning—because we were all trying to make partnerships—and she said, “If you can keep up.”

I was convinced she would win and she was very capable of talking about herself, and I think I got the most upset when it involved me, which is slightly, you know… That’s what it all ends up being about—me—doesn’t it? I asked her some questions one night at start camp because I wanted to find out more about her, and she didn’t ask me any questions back. I felt really unseen by her. I think I probably was quite unseen all the way until the end.

HM: Perhaps you needed to have that rival to find the strength within yourself to finish or to push.

LPP: There’s a line in the book somewhere which asks why can’t I just want to win for myself, not for the steward I have a crush on nor to beat Devan, but just my own volition and desire to put the whole of myself into something and do it as best I can.

HM: Going back to your aunt, Lucinda Greene, there’s some great kind of comic relief in the book when you ask her for advice about the Derby and she’s like, Hell if I know, you got yourself into it. What lessons did you learn from her, growing up with her, and how did you take them into the race?

I think we can all be brave if we just have the right inspiration.

LPP: I always absorbed by osmosis her way of being around [horses] and also loved to watch her riding cross-country. She just didn’t ride like anyone else and moved with the horse almost as though she wasn’t there. I was often trying to imitate her. She was my absolute idol and she just knew how to get on with it.

But also, I came to horses of my own volition and I don’t feel she has total ownership of my relationship with them. She was an idol, like a light in the distance. It’s easy to sort of say that it all harkened from her because I wanted to be her.

HM: Speaking of this instinct that she has for riding and that you learned from her and through your own riding, did that translate across all these borders? You’re in Mongolia, you’re a foreigner, you’re dealing with different kinds of horses. Was there a universal language that you found when it came to riding?

LPP: Lots of people see a horse in a field and want to be near them. Whether you’re privileged enough or can afford to do so is a whole other matter. So is there a universal horse language? There is. When I get on a horse I drop all of the sound out of my body. Because I know what the horse needs me to be and I know what horse is not going to respond to in me. It’s not utilitarian. It’s not like I want the horse to like me. It’s like the horse just puts me into another mode and I become more like a fairy around them.

[People think] these are inanimate or non-speaking beings and they don’t have voices and I think they absolutely do. That’s one of the things that I was trying to extract in the book: what all of these creatures have been saying. It’s quite easy to forget to ask them what they want or ask them what they think of you, in your head or aloud.

I remember a really scared friend; she’d come to ride recently at a place that I go to in California and she was terrified. When you’re terrified you’re trapped in yourself. Weirdly it came out of me, and I was quite forceful about it, but I just said, “Just thank the horse! He’s carrying you or she’s carrying you right now. Just say thank you.”

HM: The epigraph and the title for Rough Magic are from the Tempest, which you carried with you for the derby. Why that book?

LPP: So weird, isn’t it? In these lines like, “The isle if full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs,” there’s some musical tenor in there that felt to me like piano, a traveling adventurousness with a sort of delicate song. When I was preparing for the race I wanted things that I felt like came from the heart, because the heart is where bravery comes from and I knew that I was going to need to be brave. I think we can all be brave if we just have the right inspiration.

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