Katy Willings - the Basingstoke woman in search of adventure
PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 May 2020
Basingstoke’s Katy Willings gave up a career in the city for a life of horses and adventure in Mongolia.
Basingstoke-born adventurer Katy Willings was already planning to take a bit of a backseat in 2020, as she expected the arrival of her first child.
But like all of us she wasn’t expecting the coronavirus lockdown to strike, which would instantly put her Mongolian adventure holiday business Morindoo on hold. “It has had a catastrophic impact,” she admits over the phone. “Every single booking I had a month ago is no longer in the diary. There is no possibility of forward planning – even if people were able to travel to Mongolia I’m not sure it would be ethical thing to do for quite some time. The Mongolian government has been on the front foot as regards the lockdown and social distancing and shutting businesses and public places down, as they have a very poor health infrastructure. To combine a busy late international tourist season with that could be very catastrophic for them. I have paid back every deposit, and now we are just in my house trying not to spend any money while we apply for relief grants!”
Up to this point she had a very personal connection to the holidays her company provided – which are centred around horse-driven tours of Mongolia. She was directly involved in planning each trip, and frequently could be found leading them. This year she had been planning to focus more on pushing the business forward through PR and personal appearances, while profits were to be ploughed into developing a boutique hotel just 50km outside of Ulaanbaatar which would double as a hospitality training centre during the off-season.
She credits horses for her sense of adventure, which first came about in her formative years in Hampshire. “My mum is a fantastic horsewoman,” says Katy, now 37. “From the moment I could sit up she sat me on the saddle of a horse. We went riding together before I was one, I was riding my pony at a walk and canter aged two, and I was off the lead by the time I was three. I always had this sense of wonder of the horse as your ticket to freedom and being like the grown-ups as a child.”
While at school she was bright academically, and in her free time took part in dressage, joining the British team for three years. “I got into Oxford I was quite true blue,” she says. “I felt like I was on a path to either go to the Olympics Games or be a very important businessperson or a lawyer. Looking back on it I was very attention-seeking – my parents split up when I was small, so doing well in school and trying to be good with ponies was the currency with which I could get parental approval. I wasn’t adventurous or free-spirited.”
When she finished her degree she got a job as a management consultant. But a hint of what might be on the cards came when she went out to Malawi between finishing university and starting on the career ladder. “Some friends of ours had gone on a horse safari in Botswana,” she remembers. “They invited their safari guide, who was visiting the UK, to a drinks reception. I found this woman really inspiring. The experiences she had and lives she touched and how she spent her days – I found the stories of her days bewitching.
“Within a week I had finished my finals, sold my horse and got on a plane to Malawi. The thing which made me bold was knowing I would be getting straight back onto horses.”
It was her love of horses which led to Katy discovering Mongolia, as she took part in the inaugural Mongol Derby in 2009 – an 1,000km (600 mile) endurance race across the Steppes riding semi-wild horses. The experience led to her re-evaluating both her management consultancy career and her relationship with horses. “After the Mongol Derby I was invited to a debrief with the company [Adventurists] to say what had worked and what didn’t,” she says. “I said they needed somebody in-house who is a horsewoman, who could see off any concerns about horse welfare. I finished with my CV.”
For the next two-and-a-half years Katy organised the Mongol Derby, before supervising other trips for Adventurists, including a vintage motorcycle run across a frozen lake in Russia in 2012, and a long-distance paramotor challenge in 2016. “It was really good not to be the expert in the room,” she recalls. “I learned how to listen and how to build a team. I realised you can’t know everything about every event.”
Launching her own company Morindoo – meaning ‘mount your horses’, which was apparently Genghis Khan’s battle cry – meant she could focus on her first love of horses once more.
“My first trip to Mongolia was life-changing,” she says. “I had spent my life developing horses to perform in dressage, trying to change the shape of the horse by an inch here or there. Seeing how the horses performed in Mongolia made me re-evaluate what a performance meant. I realised I hadn’t been developing the horses’ potential. A horse isn’t a circus animal, waiting for you to turn it on or off. They are on all the time – their awareness saves your life, time after time. The trip gave me a whole new respect for horses. There’s something incredible about their semi-wild state in Mongolia. If you can get them to stand still long enough to get a saddle on their back, you can go with them. They are faithful and will look after you, but they are mainly looking after themselves.”
She was also impressed with the approach the Mongolians took when it came to looking after the horses. “They leave them to themselves,” she says. “The Mongolian way of life respects the animals in their animal state. In comparison the New Forest is more like a safari park – the horses are still in a managed environment. In Mongolia the horses are the herders’ transport, they are ready to work, but they are also their own person.”
Following her experiences in Mongolia she sees herself as a better dressage rider. She has taken up distance riding too. “My experiences of horsemanship are much more holistic now,” she says.
Now with Morindoo she shares that experience with adventure holidaymakers. The company offers both pre-planned itineraries and bespoke options, with the aim of conveying the real Mongolian experience. “I would rather take someone for a week and give them a direct sensory experience than just chase a photo opportunity,” says Katy of the Instagrammable holiday trend. “I want people to feel it, smell it and drink it all in. That’s the kind of person I am. I would rather make a human or environmental connection than just worry about what I’ll put on Instagram.”
She’s looking forward to getting back out to Mongolia. “I know the herders will do nothing with their horses this year,” she says. “The strong ones will continue to survive and thrive – they will be ready when we are. That’s the nature of that land. The Mongolian countryside never really changes. My partners in Mongolia will be there waiting for us.”