Home Counties girl who had the ride of her life

Home Counties girl who had the ride of her life: First female winner of the world’s longest horse race recounts the competition in a compelling new memoir

  • Lara Prior-Palmer recounts becoming the first woman to win the Mongol Derby
  • She was just 19, when competed in the world’s longest, toughest horse race 
  • Her Hampshire family had hoped that she would just go quietly to Oxford



by Lara Prior-Palmer (Ebury £16.99, 320 pp)

You’re three days in to the world’s longest, toughest horse race, a gruelling 1,000 km endurance marathon across the Mongolian plains. You’re entirely on your own. Medical help is five hours away. And you’ve just fallen off your mount.

What do you do? Give up? Cry? Panic? Not this author. ‘Honestly, I think I loved the fall,’ she confesses. ‘Quick shock, full time, very real. Splat.’

Welcome to the not-a-little loopy world of Lara Prior-Palmer. In 2013, aged just 19, she became the first female, and youngest ever, winner of the Mongol Derby, a ten-day race based on the pony express postal system devised by Genghis Khan.

Many of those who sign up to the challenge, which involves mastering a new semi-wild horse every 40 km, never make it to the finish. Half a year of preparations are advised. Prior-Palmer gives herself a month. Until now, she’s spent no more than two hours, at a stretch, in the saddle. In Mongolia, she’ll be riding from dawn to sundown.

Lara Prior-Palmer pictured in the saddle, recalls competing in the Mongol Derby in a compelling new book about her victory

It’s hard to imagine less of a natural-born competitor. Her Hampshire family had hoped she’d go quietly to Oxford. But she had ‘a longing to be wild and snort about like a horse’.

Things don’t start well. When Prior-Palmer gets marooned on a Mongolian mountain during training, she decides simply to have a doze. ‘I hadn’t noticed until now that part of me preferred to travel slowly . . . Nor had I realised this preference would be at odds with participating in a race.’

It takes a blonde Texan to awaken Prior-Palmer’s will to win. The pink Gore-Texed, energy supplement-sucking American rider rapidly becomes her bete noire — and ours, too. When ‘Devella Deville’ takes a wrong turn mid-race, I caught myself punching the air.

Like many adolescent girls, Prior-Palmer is more comfortable with horses than humans. In every other respect, she’s a one-off. Rivers and trees speak to her as she rides. Out of the saddle, she is incurably restless: as a child, she rotated between bedrooms, reluctant even to sit in the same place twice.

There’s a shadowy side to her wanderlust that surfaces as mysterious stomach pains, which continue to dog her during the race. One can’t help but wonder if these are the precursor to the Hodgkin lymphoma Prior-Palmer reveals she was diagnosed with three years after her epic ride.

She dismisses the entire subject in a single, typically remarkable paragraph. ‘Kind people will write cards saying how brave, how tough you are . . . I’ll find it hard to reconcile the word “brave” with simply living through the disease life has given to me. Bravery won’t feel like a choice.’

Her famous equestrian aunt, the former Olympic event rider Lucinda Green, offers little in the way of pre-race encouragement.

ROUGH MAGIC by Lara Prior-Palmer (Ebury £16.99, 320 pp)

‘I suspect you won’t make it past day three,’ she informs her niece, handing her a can of ‘Anti Monkey Butt’, a powder for the prevention of sore backsides.

Evocative and utterly idiosyncratic turns of phrase colour every page, whether Prior-Palmer is describing a torrential rainstorm — ‘thunder burgles the sky as we sweep up off the plains’ — or the night-time neigh of her horse, shrill ‘as though calling a star down to Earth’.

It’s not so much that she’s incapable of writing a dull sentence. It’s more that you suspect her brain wouldn’t know how to formulate an even moderately humdrum thought.

When she finally crosses the finish line, she is overwhelmed, not with elation, but a slightly befuddled embarrassment. ‘I hadn’t thought about how the person who wins the world’s toughest horse race ought to act, let alone feel,’ she admits.

Rough Magic is transporting, beguiling and terrifically entertaining. I hope that Prior-Palmer’s itchy feet result in more adventures and many more books.

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