Starting August 10, I will be thundering across the Mongolian Steppe, covering 1000 wild km of grasslands, scenic vistas, and nomadic villages.
I will be undertaking this adventure with 44 other riders and will be partnering for 35-40k stints with about 35 tough, just in from the range, native Mongolian horses.
10 days of all day riding, with some rather interesting and foreboding food and drink as fuel.
This is the Mongol Derby, known as the longest and toughest horse race in the world, and after 3 years of waiting, from my first application sent in, with 2 years of canceled races for the pandemic, the time has finally come.
For me, there is more to this ride than the adventure.
I am riding to raise money for veterinary care for working equines around the world. Read on!
Why am I doing the Mongol Derby?
The easy answer is I love adventure, I love wide open spaces, I love riding horses, and I love experiencing new cultures.
The true answer is when I applied, 3 years ago, I was in a period of intense restlessness and change and needed something to pull my life forward.
It was summer, mid July.
I was traveling through California to attend an event at the Equitopia center in Sacramento. In my usual style, I was making an adventure out of it, flying into LA, renting a car, and road tripping for two days.
I was stopped in Santa Barbara, sitting on a bench along the walkway by the pier. Leaned forward, my feet swung back and forth, my typical restless energy seeking an outlet.
My mind jumped to many different things.
I was in transition, just months before I had ended an 11 year relationship.
Part of that ending was my desire to leave Pennsylvania, and to live other places in the world.
My late teens and twenties had passed steadfast. I worked, building the riding school at the farm, and learning the world of video and online publishing to create HorseClass.
Now my soul was calling for freedom, and the restlessness demanded that I move.
I had first learned of the Mongol Derby when a family friend cut out an article from a magazine about a rider in the race and sent it to my Mom, with a note – “this reminded me of Callie”.
She was right, and the clipping went on a tack board that hung in my office, waiting for the “right time”.
I thought the “right time” would be a period of life where I wasn’t so busy, where I would have lots of time to prepare, the kind of “right time” that allows for a dream to be shelved year after year, in favor of continuing with the grind of daily life.
But right times can appear when logistically, all seems impossible, yet a knowing deep inside us says “yes – now”. This was one of those times for me.
Sitting on the bench, I grabbed my phone and searched the Derby. I found the website, registration for the 2020 race was still open. I clicked on the link for the application – long, essays to write, and lots of experience needed to prove I was up for the challenge.
In a moment, I made a decision that would shape many other choices in the coming years.
Letter in the Desert
I can remember the very moment I opened my acceptance letter for the Derby.
It was four months later, application submitted and interviews had.
I was on another roadtrip, the longest time I had ever been away from the farm, six weeks living out of my car, a 97 Chevy Tracker.
The best part of that trip was the nights. I had taken the backseat out and put in a little bed. With the front seat flipped up, a little piece of plywood built into the bed would flip up, and could be propped with a piece of 2×2. This allowed me to stretch out my feet and sleep like a baby, with my best friend and constant travel companion, mini-dachshund Freida, curled up beside me.
This particular night I was in Nevada.
I had driven into the large State Park North of Vegas, Valley of Fire. There weren’t campsites or the like, just open space and a handful of other campers, miles apart spread through the land.
I drove for 30 min back in, swung left off the road and drove into the desert until I decided to stop. That was the night’s camp.
I woke a few times during the night, wanting to venture outside my car to look up at the stars and the distant mountains, but the chilling cold had already inspired me to pull every article of clothing out of hiding and pile them on top of me.
More than the cold, the silence unnerved me.
I have always lived in quiet places, farms, cabins, woods, but there is a difference between quiet and silence.
Some places have a silence that is deafening. There are no bugs, not distant cars, no breeze through trees, just silence. This was one of those places.
Between waking and ducking back under the pile of blankets and clothes I had arranged for myself, I slept well, and when I woke in the morning the sun had already risen.
Surprisingly, there was cell reception in this place, so I decided what better place to work for a bit, so I set about getting my computer out, connecting the internet from the phone, and opening email.
And there it was – an invitation to ride in the Derby.
Out of over 200 applicants for that year’s race, I was one of 44 selected riders.
I immediately sent the reply to confirm I was in, and as my mind began making plans for the months between then and the anticipated start date of the race, no other productive work was done that morning.
Life is sweet, the time is now.
I am not sure if it was growing up on a farm, having many pets as a child, and becoming acquainted early with the passage of life and death of my beloved animal friends, or if it was the accidents I had in life, the first at 13, where I felt that death could be just a breath away.
Or perhaps the fact I have always been drawn to a good dose of adrenaline, one reason I started riding horses, then took up motorcycles, and love most activities with a healthy dose of risk.
However the knowing came for me, it is a part of me.
A deep knowing that tomorrow is never promised, for myself or for the ones I love.
Because of this, I believe in living, in always making space for the things I love, and for striving to be present and open hearted.
The Mongol Derby holds many things that I love.
Adventure. Open spaces. New people and culture. And of course, Horses.
Thinking of 10 days of wild open country, with nothing more to do than ride, think, and convince about 35 tough native horses that I am worthy of being carried… it makes my heart sing.
As big challenges often do, it has (and still is) guiding me on new paths.
From volunteering at a series of endurance races in California and meeting incredible people, like the tough old man who rode every race in denim cutoffs and a coonskin hat, a flask of vodka always tucked away in his saddle bags, to moving to Oaxaca Mexico to ride endurance horses and complete a 7 day progressive ride, to learning first aid and navigating skills (ok, the last one is still in progress!), my life has expanded immensely as a result of this one decision – to enter the Derby.
About the Derby
The Mongol Derby is known as the longest and toughest horse race in the world, recreating the world’s first long distance postal transmission system.
This system was set up in 1224 by Chinggis Khaan, and using a massive network of horse stations – ‘morin urtuus’ in Mongolian – his hardy messengers could gallop from Kharkhorin to the Caspian sea in a number of days.
For ten days each August, the Mongol Derby recreates this legendary route, building a network of urtuus at 35km intervals along the entire thousand kilometer course.
The horses are the backbone of this event, descendants of their ancestors who carried the all-conquering Mongol warriors across half the world. “Diminutive, sturdy, fearless, wild, and unbelievably tough, they are revered in Mongolian culture, and have changed very little over the centuries, remaining essentially free from human interference.
Of the three million horses inhabiting the vast Mongolian steppe, the great majority of them live in huge quasi-feral herds. They live, eat, and die here having to survive temperature extremes from minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter to plus 30 in the summer. They eat grass and little else, drink water as they find it, and are rarely given any nutritional extras by their human compatriots.
In spite, and also because of this, Mongolia remains one of the last places on earth where the relationship between man and horse is symbiotic. To the nomadic Mongolians living on the steppe, the horses are an integral part of their social culture.
“A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings.”
The male horses are used for transportation, racing, and occasionally, meat. The mares are rarely ridden but are used for milk (up to six times a day in summer) and breeding. Most of the horses are ‘owned’ by a herder or family and branded appropriately, being brought in a few times a day in a similar way to cattle being herded.
The horses tend to seek out the same grazing places during the seasons so the Mongolians (most of the time) know where to find them. They usually stay within 10kms; herding takes a few hours, and is sometimes just performed with a team of two riders. Once brought in, at the family ‘ger’ (dwelling), the horses are either put in a pen or tied to a line whilst milking takes place or horses are used for work.”
This is where we Derby riders come in.
For the 10 days of the Derby, we will have the honor of riding these horses as we progress from urtuu to urtuu.
In honor of these working horses, I want my part in this race to make a difference for working horses around the globe, in countries where veterinary knowledge and care is very limited.
And that’s why I am riding to support Equitarian Initiative.
About Equitarian Initiative
Over 100 Million people rely on working horses, donkeys, and mules for family survival.
There are approximately 100 million working equids in the world, representing 90% of the world’s horse population. They are essential for trade, commerce, transportation, and subsistence agriculture.
The ownership of a working equid means a family can generate a livelihood or a child can access an education or medical attention. Communities worldwide rely on these hard-working animals.
Very few families have the resources for veterinary treatment. We work with communities to ensure these animals get the care they need.
From our clothes to our coffee to our coconut water, we are all benefitting from the hard work of these beautiful animals. Working equids play an integral role in our own consumerism, carrying the raw ingredients for products we later buy from field to market. Our consumerism literally rests on their backs!
Supporting the Equitarian Initiative allows you to practice responsible consumption and advocate for the welfare of animals. But it’s not only that. The families that own and care for these beasts of burden suffer economically when their animals are not well and cannot work.
By facilitating the mission of Equitarian Initiative, you support not only the health of working equids but also the health of the families that depend on them.
Learn more about Equitarian Initiative.
You can also visit their website here: https://equitarianinitiative.org/