Jocelyn Takes on 2018 Mongol Derby

Jocelyn will be tackling her biggest adventure yet in August 2018.

The challenge: completing a 620-mile race on semi-wild horses across Mongolia … without getting seriously injured. Known as the toughest and longest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby is inspired by the “pony express” system created under Genghis Khan in 1224, which was instrumental in the expansion of the Mongolian Empire.

Jocelyn Treya

There is no trail or marked course, but riders must hit 25 horse stations/checkpoints over 7-10 days, using their own navigation. Riders can only carry 11 pounds of gear and rely on local herders for food and shelter or camp out alone under the stars.

Hundreds of hopefuls apply to compete in the race but only 40 international competitors are selected. Historically, half complete the race. To stand a chance of finishing, riders must balance survival skills and horsemanship, preparing to endure harsh weather conditions, headstrong horses and unforeseen challenges.

Wait … why is she doing this?

Jocelyn has followed the derby every year since first reading about it in Outside magazine in 2013 and has always kept it in the back of her mind as a true adventure to undertake one day.

She’s always stricken with a severe case of wanderlust and thrives on finding the next adventure to plan. With the added horse component, the Derby is the most epic challenge and journey she can think of. Immersing herself in one of the last surviving nomadic cultures on the planet, especially one with such a connection to and dependence on horse seems like an incredibly unique and special experience.

Most importantly, each Derby competitor’s entry fee helps gives back to Mongolian families who help make the race possible and the official race charity, Cool Earth, works in partnership with indigenous communities to end rainforest destruction.

The Derby’s effort to foster an understanding of the importance of protecting and preserving wild places like Mongolia is of high importance to Jocelyn. Contributing to the Cool Earth’s mission of stopping deforestation gives the adventure even more meaning

Plus, with her previous USPS mail carrier experience, she’s pretty much a shoe-in … this whole pony express thing should be a breeze … right?

Treya USPS Post Office Pony Express

Why Jocelyn needs your help:
The race is expensive! Though a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the race is not without costs.

The $12,995 entry fee goes toward:
The Horses-Riders compete on 25-27 different horses, plus 3 for training, and need the assistance of 150 nomadic herders
The Support-A team of vets, a team of medics, and a race crew (to ensure the race is run fairly and smoothly)
Pre-race Training-Three days of medical briefing, veterinary briefing, technical training, and riding practice, both on the steppe and in the classroom.

Jocelyn is asking for $16,000 to help cover some of the other costs she will likely incur: flight ($1,800?), additional medical insurance (and after-the-fact medical bills depending on how things go…), travel insurance, training and gear, etc. etc.

Funds raised beyond travel expenses will be donated evenly between The Cool Earth and the Brooke.

Gifts for Donors as a Thank You for Your Generous Support:

Any donation: Jocelyn’s eternal gratitude and updates on pre-race training and prep, and the Mongol Derby aftermath!

Donation of $50 or more: Jocelyn’s eternal gratitude and freshly baked cookies made by Jocelyn herself

Donation of $200 or more: Jocelyn’s eternal gratitude, freshly baked cookies and a Mongol Derby t-shirt

Click here to donate. 

For more info, visit Jocelyn’s Mongol Derby Facebook Page.


Blog, Travel

Mongol Derby Part III: Sometimes You Just Have to Close Your Eyes

Only partway on my sleeping pad, I woke up to the sound of a downpour, with a pit in my stomach over the dream: I was mounted on the silvery gray gelding and we were somersaulting, head over heels, down a big grassy hill. Rolling over on the sleeping pad in a ger at HS28, I drifted back into fitful dreams of crashing and burning with just the final leg—a mere 18 miles—of the 600-mile Mongol Derby to go.

Covering ground on Day 6
Bill Selwyn/Mongol Derby

The next morning, my gloves couldn’t grasp the slippery suede reins as my horse thundered down the steep and slick slope in the rain, throwing clumps of mud behind us, his neck outstretched, his nose nearly touching the ground. I shut my eyes tightly for a moment thinking back to my dream, just hours before. I took a deep breath, pushed my legs way out in front of me and leaned back as far as I could. I was on a naadam, or race, horse—one of my best horses of the whole race—but we were in a dead heat racing against another rider to the finish line. My mount was damned if someone was going to pass him—or worse, stop him.

“You OK, Joc?” yelled Ed Archibald, upon probably seeing that my eyes were closed on the downhill. “Is this what a panic attack feels like?” I shouted back.

My team of six, including Ed, his two brothers, Rob and Jack, their cousin Henry Bell, and Michael Turner hadn’t seen another rider for 3 or 4 days when Valeria Ariza, who had been riding solo, caught up to our group coming into HS28, the last station before the finish line, at the end of Day 7. We had an amiable evening, swapping stories, sharing a meal and ger, but now the six of us and Valeria were in a heart pumping, or for me, heart stopping dash to the finish.

The “Archibells,” Mike and I had come a long way from HS15 and the trials and tribulations of Black Beauty—13 stations to be exact, and each leg was unique as the horses.

On the morning of Day 5, our horses weren’t on the line when it was time to head out, and so we piled into some vans with our saddles to find them. At the next station, there was no vet there to check our horses once we arrived and so we waited for 45 minutes debating on whether or not we should just head out (we waited). We had duds, we had bolters, we crossed rivers, we covered ground.

By the evening of Day 6, I was pretty worn out. I wrenched my back at some point on Day 5, when I overcompensated by pulling my horse up and sharply to the right after he took a clumsy digger in a marmot hole. My back had held up pretty well, but as we prepared to ride out from our fourth station of the day, the pain was pretty intense. Mike gave me a couple sugar tabs to perk me up, and I shuffled over to the horse line.

I usually didn’t ask the herders for help selecting horses, but this time motioned that I was very tired and needed a calm, but fast horse. One of the herders must’ve sensed my desperation and seemed to say “Aha, I have just the horse for you!” as he walked immediately over to a cream-colored gelding with an endearing little fluffy forelock. As soon as we were galloping out of the horse station I knew I had an absolute gem. His gaits were smooth and rhythmic, and he followed the horses in front of him, not caring in the least that one of my hands was pushed forcefully into the side of his neck, holding jumbled reins and the other clutched a fistful of mane as I mustered my best impression of a two-point, flopping along like a rag doll and gritting my teeth.

Mongol Derby Favorite Horse
The horse that the herder chose for me on the evening of Day 6, and one of my favorites of the race. He even let me pat him and hobble him without a fuss!
Courtesy, Jocelyn Pierce

We were aiming for a well that was marked on the map, thinking we could water our horses there and hopefully there would be a family nearby to take us in. There was a collection of gers on top of a hill close to the well, and Mike headed up with his note to see if our large group could stay. The young woman began jumping up and down with excitement about the prospect of guests and sent her husband into town to get supplies for dinner. We grazed and watered our horses and then put them in the small, convenient corral behind the ger.

“Spaghetti?” our charming hostess asked. And with an enthusiastic and simultaneous response from our group, she smiled, nodded and went to work. She prepared a spread like no other. We had a smattering of appetizers to hold us over—fresh jam, something similar to clotted cream, bread and what looked to be yesterday’s dinner of rice and meat accompanied with nori sheets that she motioned to roll up like sushi—while she worked on dinner, chopping vegetables on her cutting board on the floor. She was slicing and dicing everything with such precision and expertise that we might as well have been watching an episode of Top Chef. “She’s really going to town, isn’t she?” asked Rob. We sat around in the ger for close to two hours, as her friends and family stopped by to meet us and have a cup of milk tea. It wasn’t until well after 10:30 pm when she finally presented us with her masterpiece—Spaghetti Bolognese à la Goat, beautifully garnished with a cherry tomato cut in quarters on each plate.

When it was time to go to bed, she motioned to us that she, her husband and their 1-year-old daughter would sleep in their van and we could sleep in the ger, which we adamantly refused. We happily rolled out our sleeping bags outside, doing our best to avoid piles of goat poop. It was easily my favorite night of the whole Derby. I had a good horse, a full belly and there were more shooting stars in the night sky than I could wish upon.

Mongol Derby Night 6
Jack, Henry, Ed and Rob grazing their horses in the morning before our 6:30 am start.
Courtesy, Jocelyn Pierce

The next morning, we were up at 5 a.m. to graze and water our horses, but our hostess had already been up for who knows how long. She made us delightful cups of coffee with little chocolate sprinkles on top. Then, still in her chic nightdress, she strolled into the corral to help Rob, whose horse was so wild he needed to be hobbled to be saddled. Our seemingly dainty hostess held Rob’s horse by the ears, reprimanding him in a no-nonsense tone as Rob tightened the girth.

Mongol Derby Rob Saddling
Rob saddling his difficult horse with the help of our hostess. 
Courtesy, Jocelyn Pierce

One of the things that struck me the most about this country was how, time and time again, the Mongolian people came to our rescue with a true willingness to help total strangers. In what other place in the world could you walk up to someone’s house, not speak the language, look totally different and know that, without a doubt, they would gladly take you in, feed you, feed your horses and let you sleep under the same roof? It’s truly magical. And I’m not just talking about the four families who hosted us overnight during the derby; we received help all along the way—that we didn’t even ask for. Like on Day 6, when Mike had, as he called it, “a bit of a slide and a dismount” when his horse stepped in a marmot hole and stumbled, breaking the girth in the process. We all dismounted and were standing on the side of the road, while Mike tried to repair his girth with zip ties, when a father and his three sons (driving past with two horses in the bed of a pickup truck) stopped to help us. They wanted nothing in return other than a handshake and a pat on the back.

A Mongolian man and his three sons stop to help Mike fix his broken girth. 
Courtesy, Henry Bell

After our night under the stars, Day 7 was so full of promise and we fully intended to finish the race by 8 p.m. that evening. But as we’ve learned, in the Derby, anything can and will happen. The next leg that should’ve taken us three hours took us over five and just like that our chances of finishing that day slowly slipped away.

From the outset of our final leg, it was clear it would be a racing finish between our team and Valeria. This leg’s horses were so fast and fit that we covered the 18 miles in about an hour and 15 minutes. For me, it was an hour-and-15-minute white-knuckled ride up and down hills, with plenty of opportunity for somersaulting. The horses galloped in a tight group and, at one point, Valeria’s horse and mine clipped heels and almost crashed, as hers made a beeline out the other side of the pack. Right up until the end there were four of us close to overtaking Valeria, but two of the horses in our group weren’t quite as fit and fell behind. So we pulled up and waited, so we could cross together. Well—actually—I couldn’t pull up, but Jack turned his horse sharply to the left in front of me, causing my horse to slam into his like we were in a demolition derby. This, for all intents and purposes, got the job done. Rob, Ed, Jack, Henry, Mike and I finished in equal ninth place—at 8 a.m. on the morning of Day 8, 170 hours and 28 urtuus after beginning this adventure—and later received the Best Team Award.

From left: Jack, Rob, Jocelyn, Ed, Henry and Mike cross the finish line in equal 9th place.
Bill Selwyn/Mongol Derby

For a race with a lot of unknowns and what ifs, I couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out. I left Mongolia with the satisfaction of finishing the derby in the top 10 with no vet penalties, but more importantly, with five new friends, a greater understanding of Mongolian horse culture and nomad life—and a lot of wild stories to share.

Friends, family and acquaintances have already asked me if I would do it again. I’m not so sure about that, but there’s a rumor that a similar race in Patagonia is in the works, and I certainly have my eye on it.

Read Part I, ‘Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth,’ here and here.

Read Part II, ‘Slow and Steady Does Not Win the Race,’ here and here.

For more articles, photos and videos on the Mongol Derby, visit Practical Horseman. 

Blog, Travel

Mongol Derby Part II: Slow and Steady Does Not Win the Race

The wind blurred my vision as I unknowingly careened toward a bog. I glanced over my shoulder at the row of sharp teeth snapping closer and closer to my right foot, as my riding companion Michael Turner shouted to me just in time. “Turn right!” Yanking on the rein toward the frothy-mouthed beast towing 4 feet of heavy-duty chain behind him, we skirted the bog in a flat-out gallop, gaining enough speed to outrun the dog that made Cujo look like your granny’s Bichon Frise.

Mongol Derby 2018
Michael Turner and Jocelyn Pierce riding toward sand dunes on Day 2
Courtesy, Mongol Derby

In Mongolia, dogs usually are left to roam around gers (portable dwellings, much like yurts) and livestock, acting as protectors. Most of the time they trot alongside you, barking a very mild warning before returning to the perimeter of their territory with the satisfaction of fending off intruders. But this dog was something else altogether, and it didn’t take much imagination to determine why he had been tied up. Luckily, Mike and I were both on fresh and fast horses, who didn’t need any input from us to get the hell out of striking distance.

Throughout the 600-mile race, we rode a total of 28 horses. Statistically speaking, this means we were bound to get a mix of first-rate mounts, some certifiably insane ones and worst of all, duds. Thankfully our mounts on the leg with the vicious dog were the former, but by the morning of Day 3 we got our first and definitely not last, introduction to the dud category.

Mike and Jocelyn heading out from HS7 with less than an hour of riding time left. 
Courtesy, Mongol Derby/Bill Selwyn

Mike and I shot each other exasperated looks as three big kicks got him about two canter strides before his horse settled back into a listless walk, while mine was content to show off his best impression of a Western Pleasure jog. This might be desirable for a leisurely hack around the stable yard, but in the Mongol Derby it is nothing short of pure agony. Twenty-five miles of coaxing, kicking and “choo choo-ing” (the Mongolia equivalent of a cluck), takes a toll on already exhausted riders pretty quickly.

Mike and Jocelyn aboard horses taking their sweet time 
Courtesy, Mongol Derby

Hearing a sound like thunder behind us, we swiveled to see a large group of riders and horses galloping over the hill, costing us the little bit of a lead we had gained by camping between stations the night before. Mike’s frustration quickly turned to jubilation when he realized the group about to lap us was the polo-playing Archibald brothers from Australia, Rob, Ed and Jack, and their cousin, Henry Bell. Mike had gotten to know the “Archibells” (nicknamed so on the Mongol Derby live Twitter feed) in start camp and they had planned to ride together. The Archibells’ herd of galloping horses gave our two plodders the incentive to get moving that Mike and I could’ve never generated, and we began to close the gap to HS8.

The six us of ended up sticking together, making good time with relatively few hiccups through the rest of Day 3. At the end of the day, we cruised in and out of HS11 with about 45 minutes of riding time left on the clock, passing several riders who were there serving vet penalties. (Horses must all pass a vet check in which the horse must be sound and meet a heart rate of 56 bpm within a half hour of arriving at the station). We ate up the mileage on six well-matched “flyers,” sprinting toward a water source notated on the map in hopes of finding a family nearby to stay with. Our good luck continued as we spotted three gers by the river with less than five minutes of riding time left. Mike presented his note written in Mongolian to see if we could stay, and a shy 14-year-old girl responded in English that yes of course we could, and actually that three of the six horses belonged to her. We spent a serendipitous evening eating, laughing, miming and sipping Mongolian vodka with the family who so generously took us in and helped us care for our, er … their, horses.

Mongol Derby Family we stayed with Day 3
From left: Jocelyn with three hostesses; Rob, Jack and Ed Archibald, and Mike on the evening of Day 3
Courtesy, Rob Archibald

The Derby has a way of taking riders from their highest high to their lowest low, and we had been running pretty high. The next morning we galloped toward HS12 on well-rested horses and continued moving smoothly through Day 4. And then we arrived at HS14.

It was slim pickings on the horse line at HS14. I settled on a small, scrappy looking black horse after I had pointed to three others that the herder inexplicably shook his head no to. Departing from the horse station, our group of six, usually somewhat harmonious, was in total disarray. My rough and ready horse was bolting to the front and didn’t have much in the way of steering while behind me Henry’s horse—latter dubbed Black Beauty—was bucking and zig-zagging like a spasmodic drunkard, looking like he had never had a rider on his back. Henry rode alongside one of the other horses, and then between two horses to keep him straight and moving forward. The horses settled in and things seemed like they were going to be OK.

But within an hour, our leg went downhill quickly. Black Beauty’s antics were replaced by the much worse dogged persistence to not move a muscle. He made the horses that Mike and I rode on the morning of Day 3, who arrived at the horse station with comically low heart rates of 44 (mine) and 46, look like Man O’ War and Secretariat.

You know the saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”? Well that definitely applies in the Mongol Derby, but more like, “you can select a horse off the line, but you can’t make him run.” We had already tried putting Henry’s horse in the middle of the group, ponying him off of one of the other horses, encouraging him from behind—all of which worked—but only for a few hundred meters. My five riding companions, all non-smokers, divvied up the cigarettes meant as gifts for the herders and began anxiety-ridden chain smoking as we discussed what to do next. Should Henry push his “need assistance” button on his tracker, thus prompting help from the Mongol Derby crew and an hour penalty? Should we keep at it and hope we could drag Beauty into the station in time? Should we take off his tack, smack him on the rump, look the other way and pretend like we lost him?

We noticed a ger at the bottom of the hill, and thought if we could make it there, maybe we could recruit a herder to do a little horse whispering, so we made our way down. Soon Henry was sitting on the back of a motorcycle, hanging onto his saddle with one arm and clutching the strong Mongolian man sitting in front of him with the other as they rode up the hill. We followed, ponying along Henry’s loafing black gelding.

Once at the top of the hill, we bid the Good Samaritan farewell and Black Beauty, well-rested from making his way to the top of the hill without the added weight of saddle and rider, was re-saddled and re-mounted. But he refused to move forward down the hill. Instead, Jack unsaddled him and began backing him down the hill, which much to our delight, seemed to work. Ed, still mounted on his horse, strapped Henry’s saddle to himself, while Henry rode Jack’s horse and juggled his saddle bag.

Jack’s strategy quickly floundered, but before long we devised new one. Another herder with a motorbike appeared so Jack hopped on behind, ponying Black Beauty off the back. Whooping and hollering, we followed along, taking our time with Ed and Henry’s added baggage. We crested a hill and saw Jack and the herder off the bike with—no surprise—the horse standing still. The herder dragged an aloof Black Beauty up to Ed’s horse, tied the reins around Ed’s horse’s neck and without a word set off on the bike with Jack toward the horse station.

Mongol Derby Hero
The Mongolian horse whispering hero
Courtesy, Jack Archibald

It was the Mongolian herder horse whispering that we had all been waiting for. Just like that, we were off with Black Beauty happily trotting alongside Ed’s horse. We exchanged puzzled glances, not entirely sure how this was different than ponying him but, honestly, we could care less.

With a sigh of relief, we rode into HS15, passed our vet checks (even Ed’s horse who had the hardest job of all—towing the dud) and realized we didn’t have enough time to ride out. I think we were all a little secretly relieved to be done for the day. We hobbled down the horse line to select our mounts for the next morning. I was eyeing a flashy looking paint, when the herder and translator walked over to me. The herder pointed at another horse that I had already passed by. Even from where I stood, I wasn’t particularly impressed by him. I pointed at the paint and made a “is he fast?” motion with my hand. Conferring with the herder, the translator told me that the paint was a little faster than the horse the herder pointed to, but very wild. Again, I eyed the dull-looking horse that the herder seemed to be pushing on me. For an instant I thought about our miserable leg with Black Beauty, looked the translator square in the eye and said, “I’ll take the paint.”

For more of Jocelyn’s Mongol Derby blogs, visit: https://practicalhorsemanmag.com/lifestyle/mongol-derby

Read Part I, ‘Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth,’ here and here.

Blog, Travel

Mongol Derby Part I: ‘Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth’

Everywhere around me horses were spinning and shooting forward. Along with the other 43 riders, I struggled to keep my stout liver chestnut gelding quiet between the white start flags flapping in the wind while Mongol Derby Chief Katy Willings recited some “inspirational” quotes about the adventure we were about to embark upon. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Katy stated pointedly in her usual wry tone, citing Mike Tyson.

Mongol Derby Starting Line:Bill.jpg
Forty-four semi-wild horses galloping off the start line. What could go wrong?
Courtesy, Mongol Derby/Bill Selwyn

Circling my horse, I thought about how we’d already been punched in the mouth once, and the race hadn’t even started. The day before and official start date, all 44 riders had finally mounted and were heading to the start line when the race was suddenly postponed. Waiting at the start line now for the second day in a row, I half expected the race to be called off any second, like some sort of sick Groundhog Day. With so much build up to the race—a year of planning and training, three days at start camp discussing protocols, sitting through briefings and learning about the Mongol horse, finally it was here, all to be swiftly pulled out of reach just when it seemed to be within grasp.

Later we would learn the last-minute call-off was for good reason—the satellites that communicate with the SPOT trackers that the Mongol Derby crew uses to keep tabs on riders had suddenly, and for the first time ever, cut out.

Start Camp Breakfast
Breakfast of champions
Courtesy, Jocelyn Pierce

With a state of mind of “let’s get this show on the road once and for all,” an extra day in start camp seemed unfathomable to many. But as storms with (no joke) black skies and golf ball-sized hail came crashing through camp, I felt quite content to spend another day eating a bizarre breakfast of carrots, cucumbers and mayonnaise, and curling up on a comfy air mattress I could call my own.

Now, as my horse began shaking his head impatiently, the starting gun was fired, the possibility of Groundhog Day was gone and soon my horse was making headway from the back of the pack, weaving in and out of the others and galloping along with a mannerly professionalism that I did not yet fully appreciate. 2016 Derby veteran Maddie Smith of San Francisco and I had planned to ride together throughout the race if possible and had strategized to aim for horse station 4 (HS4) by nightfall to get ahead of the congested pack of riders. This meant blowing through the horse stations as quickly as possible. As soon as our horses passed the mandatory vet checks, we would refill our water packs, take a few sweet rolls to go and select our next horses.

Leaving Horse Station 1
From left: Maddie Smith, Jocelyn Pierce and Pam Karner leave HS1 with donut rolls securely in pockets
Courtesy, Mongol Derby

These rolls, I would learn, are at pretty much every horse station and would become a staple in my diet for the week. Picture a plain cake Dunkin’ Donut munchkin, sans glaze. Now imagine that donut has been sitting on the counter for 2 weeks. When you bite into it you worry that maybe you’ll leave your tooth behind. It’s dry, it’s flavorless, you definitely need some water to choke it down, but it is in fact edible and as a bonus, it’s pocket sized. Nuke that baby in the microwave for 10 seconds, add a little Nutella and it wouldn’t be so bad.

Mongol Derby Selecting New Horse
Jocelyn ready for the vet check at HS2
Courtesy, Mongol Derby

Throughout the day we stuck to our plan and before we knew it, we had torn though the third leg and about 65 miles. As we approached HS3, thunderstorms crackled all around us and the skies opened up. If there was one thing I learned during my brief stint at start camp, it was that the weather in Mongolia can change in an instant, in a way that’s unlike any other place I have been. One minute you are soaking up the sun, feeling like you’re on a holiday at the beach, and in the next, you’re looking on the horizon for Noah’s Ark to come to your aid.

Pulling up my hood, Maddie and I were soon on new horses and on our way to our goal of getting to HS4 with Irishman JD Moore in tow. We soon caught up to Michael Turner, an African safari guide in Botswana, who we had rode with for a bit on the previous leg, and Saif Noon, the youngest competitor in the Derby, of Pakistan. With about 15 minutes left on the clock to ride (riding hours are between 6:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.), we realized we weren’t going to make it, even though we could see the horse station on the horizon, taunting us. Not wanting to add time penalties for riding outside the prescribed hours to our rap sheet so early in the race, we headed to a ger (a traditional, portable dwelling) about 2 miles short of HS4. The five of us dismounted and feeling the pain of riding 85 miles, hobbled over to the ger like a group of 90-year-olds shuffling down the hall of the nursing home to get to bingo on time.

Mongol Derby
From left: Jocelyn, Maddie, and Karrin O’ Loughlin on Day 1
Courtesy, Mongol Derby

The family that lived in the ger graciously helped us hobble our horses—Mongolian horses are accustomed to being hobbled, which limits them from going too far away while they are grazing … for the most part—and then they ushered us inside. We sat around the fire while our hostess prepared dinner and the 6 kids crowded around JD as he showed them how to play a card game. After eating Mongolian “donuts” all day, I was happy for some hot soup. Already my vegetarian diet was going out the window as I eagerly slurped down chunks of goat meat. We must’ve looked like quite a wretched bunch to our hosts, water-logged and moaning while we mustered up the energy to do some pathetic stretches in the tight quarters. When finally I had given myself a little wet wipe bath in my sleeping bag and happily exhaled, ready for sleep, there was a knock at the door. Pierre, one the Mongol Derby vets, had swung by to check our horses. We begrudgingly got back into wet clothes, wet boots and tramped outside to present our horses, who all got the thumbs up.

The next morning, feeling refreshed from a night of sleep and 10 hours not on a horse, we pulled on still-wet clothes and set off to HS4, where we quickly chose our next horses. The five of us rode out together, and Valeria Ariza of Uruguay quickly caught up to us. We were more than halfway through the leg, trotting slowly down a slope, when Maddie’s seemingly docile horse swerved to the side and gave a couple bronc bucks, throwing Maddie and bolting for the hills.

A pre-teen herder riding bareback saw Maddie’s once seemingly good citizen of a horse peace out and immediately sprang into action, joining Mike and Saif in pursuit of him. Initially Maddie thought she was fine, nothing but a little bump and a brush with Derby disaster. But as the adrenaline wore off, she realized she wasn’t and pressed her help button to get checked out by the Mongol Derby medical crew. JD and Valeria rode on, while I waited with Maddie for Mike and Saif to return.

Mongol Derby Start Camp
Start camp ger-mates. From left: Karrin, Kathy Gabriel, Maddie, Jocelyn and Pam. Maddie was so incredibly helpful with insider tips and tricks to all competitors, especially her fellow ger-mates. 
Courtesy, Jocelyn Pierce

About 15 minutes later, smiling triumphantly, like a white knight returning from battle was Mike, holding the reins of Maddie’s horse. But when he heard that Maddie wouldn’t be riding on after all, his face fell and I could tell he was just as crushed for Maddie as I was. Maddie urged us to keep going and after a few minutes we reluctantly said our goodbyes, hopeful that she was actually fine and that maybe she would be able to meet up with us later. I was so heartbroken for Maddie, who was taking her second stab at the Derby and was the absolute epitome of good sportsmanship. Days later we learned that Maddie had suffered a dislocated shoulder and fractured ribs, ending her goal to complete the Derby. Our plan to ride together had been thwarted, and it was only the beginning of the second day. Anything in the Derby can and will change in an instant, and nothing can be taken for granted. This was a reminder that I kept with me throughout the race, especially when I felt like things were going smoothly. Like the very wise Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”


Erik Cooper: Reindeer Adventurer and King of the Bloodwagon

Mongol Derby rescue crew member Erik Cooper shares his take on the longest and toughest horse race on the planet.

It was raining, it was cold and it was after the cut-off time for riding when Erik Cooper got the SOS call from a rider in the Mongol Derby. She was less than ¼ of a mile from the horse station, had gotten lost and was stuck on a high ridge. “We didn’t reach her until about 11 p.m. [2 hours later] because it was dark and we had to move at such a slow pace going up,” recalls Erik. “When we got to her, she was pretty hypothermic and a little shaken.” The team got the rider into the jeep, but they couldn’t just leave her horse there. So Erik jumped on the horse and slowly made his way down to the camp. “We got everyone back safe and sound around 2 a.m. or so,” Erik said.

Erik Cooper leading horse Mongolia

“If it’s a medical emergency, the riders will press 911 and the medics will be dispatched, but if they press SOS, it just means they need some sort of assistance,” Erik explained. This is where he comes in. He heads the aptly-named “Bloodwagon,” and performs search and rescue missions for riders in need of help during the Mongol Derby. When the distress calls come in, Erik never knows what sort of disaster he’s about to walk into. “This is what we live for, these rescue missions,” he said.

A 2012 Mongol Derby veteran, Erik is spending his sixth summer in Mongolia this year. In addition to being part of the Mongol Derby race management, he also leads his own expeditions in Mongolia with the Tsaatans, the last tribe on the planet that ride reindeer. “There’s only 44 families left. Pretty rare,” Erik said.

Erik Cooper Reindeer
Erik (center) leading one of his reindeer expeditions

I have Erik to thank for my spot in the Mongol Derby, as he interviewed and selected me to ride in the race. In preparation for my upcoming Mongol Derby adventure, I caught up with him and asked him about his experience and for some advice.

JP: Why did you decide to compete in the Mongol Derby?
EC: I was looking for something to motivate me to get in shape. I thought I’d do something like a Tough Mudder [a 10–12 mile obstacle-course race], but then I stumbled upon the Mongol Derby. I grew up on a horse farm in Missouri and I thought I could handle myself, and what better way to test that than by competing the longest and toughest horse race on the planet?

JP: What was your main goal going into the Derby?
: I think everyone wants to win it, but you don’t know what the hell you’re getting yourself into until you’re over there. All of us have maybe one thing we do instinctually really well, but maybe we’re too afraid of failing at that one thing we’re so passionate about. So we keep living in this safe zone with it because we never want to push past that and be told we aren’t good at what we love to do. My whole goal was I just wanted to prove to myself that I was as good as I thought I was. I wanted to just to throw it all on the line and see what happened.

Erik Cooper swimming reindeer
Erik riding reindeer with the Tsataan tribe, which is the only remaining tribe that still rides reindeer.

JP: What was the biggest surprise about the Derby?
EC: There was one day when I was cold, wet and miserable, and I thought it’ll be fine, because there would be a fire [at the horse station]. That’s what I think of when I think of camping. But there are no trees and so [the Mongolians] burn horse poop as fuel and it doesn’t last too long. I realized I was going to sleep cold and wet and that’s just how it is. I also didn’t realize there are so many wild dogs that are trying to bite you over there. Literally every day you’re pretty much chased by wild dogs.

 JP: So you would recommend I get the rabies vaccine?
Yeahhh. Ya know, either that—or just be fast.

JP: What was one of the craziest moments of your race?
My year was the year that the rider broke his neck, and I was there when it happened. It’s kind of crazy because you sign up for this race and kind of sign your life away. It takes forever for the SOS team to find [riders]. You are in the middle of Mongolia, you are in the wild. So seeing this dude laying there with the broken neck—it became real. When you see it first-hand it’s a game changer and you realize that could be you. It’s not that the person can’t ride. It’s just that the rider was unlucky. Unlucky shit happens.

JP: What was one of the most inspiring moments or something that has stuck with you?
EC: The people of Mongolia. We are complete strangers. We look weird as hell riding up to their homes. They’re just so generous of what they have, even if they don’t have much and they are so hospitable. In what other place in the world do you see strangers taking in strangers, regardless of race or where they come from?  In Mongolia they just take care of you. Now I live there every summer and I get to experience the generosity and hospitality and it’s just incredible. Riding the horses was amazing and so was being in the beautiful scenery—but the people really made it.

Erik Cooper Horses Mongol Derby
Erik with a herder during the Mongol Derby.

JP: Do you consider the Derby more of a mental or physical challenge?
: It’s a combination of both. It will take its toll on you physically, but I think the biggest thing about it is that the human body is able to adapt to certain things, more than what you think. If you’re physically fit and you’ve been riding your ass off, yeah you’re still going to be sore, you’re still going to be tired. But mentally, it can wear on you especially if you’re getting lost all the time and you start letting that get to you. If you start letting yourself get dark-sided, you’ve got to find the light. Mental fortitude and the power of positivity is important. You have to make light out of situations. Try to find humor in everything that happens.

JP: How did you train for the race?
I was living in California riding endurance horses out in the desert, and then I moved back to the East Coast and trained on polo ponies. Then I moved to Missouri and finished training on my own horses back at my parents’ place. The biggest thing is to train on as many different personalities as possible. I think you get more out of riding a variety of horses because that’s what’s really going to give you that power to adapt. You’re riding 28 horses in Mongolia. Each one has his own personality, his own tick. Once you get to Mongolia and you’re on those horses, you can find each one’s match with a horse you trained on at home.

JP: Do you think it’s possible to build a relationship with the horse in such a short amount of time?
(Laughs). You need to connect and understand that individual, I’ll say that (laughs). I don’t know how close of a bond you can build. The biggest takeaway from racing a horse in Mongolia is don’t control him too much. This is his home, he knows what he’s doing. I think we micromanage way too many things [in the U.S.] and we don’t let the horses have their own head and lead the way. Sometimes you just have to let go. Sometimes the horses are going to want to bolt. You think you can control that horse? You can’t. Let it go and just hope that you’re bolting in the right direction.

Erik Cooper with Golden Eagle
Erik on an adventure in the Altai Mountains with a Kazakh Eagle hunting family learning about the ancient Golden Eagle hunting training process.

JP: Do you have any tips on selecting horses?
Look at the terrain that you’ll be crossing next and pick a horse based on that kind of terrain. If you’re going to be in a lot of hills or mountains, pick a horse that looks a little more steadfast and looks like he has some fuel in the tank. If you have flat ground, pick that horse that looks like a speed racer. But then again, it could just be that that horse’s body looks amazing but he decides, ‘I’m not running today.’ And he won’t. So sometimes it’s a crapshoot.

Erik Cooper on Mongol Derby van
Erik and his translator, Yanja, looking out on the horizon for riders during the Mongol Derby.

JP: Was there anything in your kit that you brought and wish you hadn’t?
Fruit snacks. I was like ‘Oh this will be great, I’ll ration these.’ I ate them all by Day 2. Don’t bring those comforts of home. A small roll of duct tape is amazing, obviously some painkillers, anti-chafe cream, a solid rain jacket.  If you’re white as hell, sunblock.

Less is more. You don’t need it. Also, the horses are hyper-sensitive. Think about your gear in respect to the noise it makes, the color and brightness. Does your jacket have a lot of Velcro on it? Don’t bring it!

JP: Any parting words of wisdom?
The biggest thing is having a positive attitude. You should have one moment in your Derby that you want to give up and you want to drop out. And in the moment, that’s going to be where you grow. When you persevere through that and you rally yourself and you get through—that’s going to be the game changer.

Keep up with Erik’s adventures and beyond by following him on Instagram at @ErikCooperAdventurist


Mongolia Lessons in Utah

Mongol Derby training with Christoph Schork resulted in more than lessons on endurance riding.

Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce will be competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, in August. As she prepares, she’s reporting on her progress with weekly blogs here at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and www.JPMongolDerby.com and in Tips & Talk in Practical Horseman.

Feeling defeated, I slowed my horse to a walk as endurance rider and trainer Christoph Schork cantered ahead, out of ear shot as he weaved in and out of the patches of low brush. I was only 2½ hours into my first of three days of training with Christoph and my body seemed to be breaking down. My left ankle kept rolling in the stirrup, similar to when you’re walking and out of nowhere your ankle rolls. I felt unbalanced and unable to stay with my horse in anything other than a walk or sitting trot.

I’d also already run out of water. My measly 1.5-liter hydration pack had been drained in the 98-degree desert heat.

Once Christoph caught on that I was not in fact following on his tail, he stopped and we walked six miles back to his Global Endurance Training Center. I spent the ride scolding myself for signing up for the Mongol Derby when I couldn’t even last three hours on a well-trained horse in Moab, Utah. When we made it back, I apologized. Christoph answered slowly and deliberately with a smile. “We are here to build you up, not tear you down,” he said.

Christoph Schrock Moab Utah
Endurance rider and trainer Christoph Schork with GE Danex on Day Two of training

Of all the endurance riders to train with for the Mongol Derby, there could not be a teacher more well-suited for the task than Christoph. With more than 320 first-place finishes, 580 completions and over 140 Best Condition awards, Christoph is truly a leader in the sport. In addition to his immeasurable endurance accolades, he has competed in biathlon, alpine skiing, mountaineering and was even named the Ski Archery World Champion in 1993. He’s also been to Mongolia nine times and even served as an expedition guide there. Throughout the three days we worked together, he offered riding theory and advice sprinkled with invaluable tidbits about Mongolian culture and the Mongol horse.

As I dismounted from my horse, wobbly-kneed and cotton-mouthed, I wasn’t completely confident that I wouldn’t pass out, barf or some horrifying combination. We untacked and bathed our horses and then Christoph explained how vet checks work, before we headed up to the house where I watched YouTube videos on how to properly tape an ankle.

Christoph Schrock Mongolia Bridles Detail
Christoph’s bridles from Mongolia which are 100 percent handmade.

After about an hour, we headed to the barn where I rode 14.1-hand Saffy—bigger than the average-sized Mongol horse but whose shorter stature and gait offered good practice. Taping my ankle made a world of difference, and I had no issues with it the rest of the trip. Feeling a giant sense of relief, I made a mental note that plenty tape would be coming with me to Mongolia.

Jocelyn Pierce Christoph Schrock Endurance Riding
Jocelyn aboard 14.1-hand Koaladee Saffire, or Saffy, and Christoph riding GE Danex with views of the La Sal Mountains in the background.

Read the Horse
As we started out the next day, Christoph laid out the objectives. I was riding Zazo, a 7-year-old gelding with a reputation of testing riders and taking advantage of their weaknesses. “Put yourself into that horse’s head and read it,” Christoph said. “That is something you’ve got to do with each one [in Mongolia]. You have to switch every 25 miles, so you have to be quick reading the horse: What does it need? What do you need to do with him? Is he stubborn? Does he want to go?”

In addition to feeling out the horse, my objective was to focus on my balance and having equal weight in both stirrups. In Mongolia, Christoph said, “it is flat and open for miles and miles, so you will have a lot of time in your head to focus on balance, on your horse, marmot holes, contact [in the bridle], driving the horse, letting it go—whatever. Your mind should be busy all the time. There shouldn’t be any boring time,” he said. But, he said, minimize chit-chatting with your riding companions because that’s when accidents happen—when your mind and your body are separated. Another tip: Don’t look at the end. Don’t look at the whole day. Ride one step at a time or one mile at a time.

Since Zazo is known to balk, spook or refuse to go with a timid rider, Christoph had me take the lead to test my assertiveness. I felt him slightly hesitate but with a strong leg aid and drive of my seat, he settled in and seemed to trust me. Then I was able to stay in two-point as much as possible, another Christoph tip. “It will strengthen your leg, it will strengthen everything,” he said, also make it easier on the horse and the rider’s body. He also encouraged me to imagine landing on my feet if my horse was suddenly gone from underneath me—another balance tip. I found that a lot of Christoph’s training principles were dressage-heavy, which makes sense since he is originally from Germany and has a background in dressage.

Little Tests
We snaked through the sagebrush and headed up rocky climbs until we came to a plateau about 1,000 feet higher than Moab where we cantered for a long stretch. Christoph had me try other little tests with Zazo throughout the ride, like making him turn and go the opposite direction in an “exercise to see how strongly we connect.”

We also worked on avoiding holes and cacti, as a way to simulate staying clear of the marmot holes that are common in Mongolia. “Plan your route ahead,” Christoph said. “The horse will go where you look. Look and scan the overall picture, and then look at smaller stuff, like holes or rough ground.” The amount of concentration it took to focus on the horse, my position and scanning constantly for the best route and bad ground was exhausting. Add in that while in Mongolia I’ll need to be frequently consulting my GPS to determine the route I will travel, I can see how the Derby can quickly take a mental toll on riders.

I rode for about three to four hours, twice a day, and after each ride, I practiced listening to the horses’ heart rates with a stethoscope and then tested my accuracy with a heart rate monitor. To pass the vet checks in the Mongol Derby, your horse needs to have a heart rate of 56 bpm or lower, while in most endurance competitions, it’s 64 bpm.

Jocelyn Pierce Endurance Riding Wheelz
Jocelyn and GE Haat Wheelz, a fun ride with a few quirks on the ground–catch him if you can!

Christoph gave me little tips on how to get the heart rate down, like splashing water on their neck and shoulders throughout the ride and getting them to drink and to pee. The horse’s heart rate is to four to eight beats higher when he needs to urinate, so some endurance riders even train their horses to go on command by whistling. While this isn’t exactly practical for Mongolia, I can still try to entice my horse to pee by leading him to a grassy area before bringing him to the vet.

The remainder of my training finished without a hitch and as I was making the four-hour drive to the airport I thought of all the things I had worked on with Christoph—but the biggest takeaways from him were more abstract and had less to do with the Mongol Derby and were more about life lessons and integrity.

Endurance Riding Moab Utah

“I believe in karma,” Christoph said one evening after we were done riding for the day. “Of course I want to win, but I don’t want to win because somebody else has bad luck or gets hurt or the horse gets hurt. I want to win because of my ability and my focus and the training of my horse. So that’s why I always wish every other competitor the best of luck. That’s helped to contribute to why I have so many wins. It comes back to you … There are enough challenges out there and if we can support each other we can still be as tough of a competitor as we want. We don’t have to fall over by the wayside, but be kind, be supportive and it all comes back to you.”


Organizing the Mongol Derby

Inaugural competitor Katy Willings shares how she oversees the world’s toughest horse race.

Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce will be competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, in August. As she prepares, she’s reporting on her progress with weekly blogs here at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and www.JPMongolDerby.com and in Tips & Talk in Practical Horseman.

Imagine trying to secure hundreds of Mongolian horses to race 600 miles across rugged and remote terrain. Or selecting 40 riders willing to ride those semi-wild horses, carry only 11 pounds of gear and forego showers and a decent mattress for the seven–10 days the race may last. Or ensuring that enough support people—veterinarians, medics and a crew of native herders, to name a few—are in the right place at the right time throughout the race.

Katy Willings Mongol Derby Mobile Headquarters

Welcome to the life of Katy Willings, chief of the Mongol Derby, who left her management consulting job in London to lead a life of adventure. She sets the race’s course, selects the riders, herders and horses, writes the rules, manages the budget and leads the race crew. In trying to find out more about what to expect during the race, I spoke with Katy who filled me in on the logistical challenges of coordinating the “jewel in the crown of equine adventure” and the types of riders who are most successful.

Logistical Challenges
Challenge #1: The course. Every year Katy, who lives in the U.K., scouts territory for a new Derby route. “We set the course by trying to find the best horses that we can in the most forgiving geography. There must be water and we try to avoid ridiculous passes,” she says. She also avoids bodies of water that the horses can’t cross and areas liable to flood or famine which ends up eliminating vast areas of Mongolia.

Katy Willings Mongol Derby Finish Line

Challenge #2: The horses. Trying to find horses in the off-season who will be at regular intervals throughout the 600 miles during the race is a challenge because “the herders are genuinely nomadic,” Katy explained. There have been times when “we just hit these great big deserts where we don’t see families and it turns out the water got spoiled … and there’s not going to be any families there next summer either, so we kind of have to divert the course.”

A few years ago, when Katy had a 60-mile stretch in the middle of the route without any horses, she started a delivery run, or horse trek, to herd them into position from another area of Mongolia. This year, 10 riders overseeing Katy’s delivery run, called Morindoo which means “mount your horses,” will move almost 50 horses to the last horse station on the course.

Challenge #3: Manning the horse stations. By the time the winner crosses the finish line, about half of the riders will just have reached the midway point. So it becomes a juggling act to make sure enough crew members are at each station for each rider. Katy moves crew members between stations so every rider has a similar experience. “It’s sort of like mobile speed chess going on to make sure the riders coming through every single station have crew there,” she said.

A Profound Affect
Before the logistical challenges of the Mongol Derby were giving Katy headaches, she experienced it firsthand in 2009. Initially the Derby’s organizers, the Adventurists, put Katy on a reserve list, but that didn’t deter the dressage rider who didn’t know anything about endurance. “I rang their office every week or two weeks. But they kept telling me that the list was full.”

Katy Willings Endurance Riding

Three months before the race began, they told Katy she had been accepted and she started working with Maggie Pattinson, “one of the old school endurance gurus of the country.”

“The rhythm of preparing for something that life-changing and that scary, the discipline it imposed on me at the time, it was just so good for me,” Katy recalled. “I got a lot out of the Derby … before we even got to the start line.”

The race had a profound effect on Katy, where she says she learned a lot about survival and horses and most importantly, herself. “Once I wasn’t on social media … the reality of the experience and the proper human-to-human, human-to-horse interaction became much more important,” Katy explained. “I didn’t really care how I looked and that is incredibly liberating. You can just let go of your image for 10 days and just live moment to moment, horse to horse, kilometer to kilometer.

“There aren’t very many experiences that give you that,” Katy added. “This is what it’s about. It was like a full factory reset basically and I think that’s what I like giving to other people as well.”

Katy Willings Mongol Derby
The Derby seems formidable now in its 10th year, but when Katy rode in it, the Adventurists didn’t even know if the race was possible to complete.

Hooked on Mongolia and the Derby experience, Katy wanted to stay involved. “I came to Mongolia and just wanted more,” she recalled. In a similar fashion to the way Katy called the Adventurists constantly to get a spot in the Derby, she kept asking if she could work for them and was eventually brought on board. After overseeing the race for almost a decade, Katy has an idea of what makes competitors successful.

Not All About Winning
“The successful ones deal with the ambiguity,” Katy said. “They can deal with little irritations and knocks and surprises. It’s the kind of resilience where they don’t overplan. They would never say, ‘I’m going to ride this horse at [35 miles] per hour. They’ll just get on the horse … They don’t waste time, but they’re not obsessed with time.”

Katy Willings Mongol Derby 2009

Katy also said that one of the hallmarks of successful riders is that they fully immerse themselves in the experience and aren’t so focused on the competitive aspect of the race that they forget about experiencing the country. “They speak to the families that supplied the horses,” Katy said. “They join in. They’ll help people and be helped by other people.”

“People come to compete, to test themselves, but I think they get a slightly different test of themselves that they maybe envisioned at the point of sign up. I think they picture a classic contest and what they get is a much more holistic reevaluation of themselves.”

To learn more about Katy and her Morindoo tour (still accepting riders for 2018!), visit herwebsite.

In case you missed the first, second and third installments: Destination:MongoliaMongol Derby FAQ and Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable.


Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

U.S. Air Force Captain and Iraq War veteran Tim Finley completed the Mongol Derby in 2016 to raise awareness for a greater cause.

Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce will be competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, in August. As she prepares, she’s reporting on her progress with weekly blogs here at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and www.JPMongolDerby.com and in Tips & Talk in Practical Horseman.

Right before the 2016 Mongol Derby was about to begin, U.S. Air Force Captain and Iraq War veteran Tim Finley stood at the start line with 42 other competitors while Derby Chief Katy Willings gave a “Churchill-style speech,” wishing the riders Godspeed.

As Tim stood in the midst of a “wild writhing throng of ponies” with nervous riders, he realized something that would stay with him throughout his 600-mile ride. “It was kind of hazy and I looked out on the horizon and I realized that no one here had any idea what was on the other side of the horizon any more than I did. And there was no one more comfortable with not knowing what lay ahead,” he said, indicating that his service in the Air Force had prepared him for the unknown. “My ability to be comfortable in conditions where I was uncomfortable gave me an advantage … and as soon as that feeling hit—ice in my veins.”

Tim affirms he never thought about quitting. Not when he was thrown the first day and cracked his pelvis, not when he was in the midst of “biblical” swarms of insects and not when he had a debilitating bout of dysentery. He believes his ability to smile, enjoy the experience and embrace being uncomfortable was what helped him get across the finish line—in 13 place nonetheless.

Tim also had other incentives to compete and complete the Derby: He was competing to face his own demons and to raise awareness for the 22 military veterans that commit suicide every day. He honored them by naming each horse he rode after a veteran that had taken his own life. After he completed a leg, he would write the name on his shirt, eventually carrying the 28 names across the finish line with him. “These are people who never had an example, never had a solution, never had a finish line to cross,” Tim said.

Tim Finley Veterans Suicide Awareness

In preparation for my upcoming Mongol Derby adventure, I had the opportunity to ask him about his experience and for advice when he was spoke at the World Horse Expo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in March.

Q: What was your riding experience before the Derby?
TF: When I applied, I had been riding only for a total of a year and a half. I had never done an endurance race longer than 30 miles. So this was way over my head.

I had been riding a 17-hand Thoroughbred who’s rambunctious and tough to control and he really was good training because I had to stay on my toes. But let’s face it, you can’t be a horseman in a year in a half. (Although Tim claims “you can’t be a horseman in a year in a half,” he was the veterinarian’s choice for good horsemanship for the 2016 Mongol Derby).

Q: What was your Derby preparation like?
TF: I was in really good physical condition when I showed up—I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about horsemanship.

You bring four buckets with you to the Mongol Derby. Horsemanship, athleticism, grit and luck. Grit is a choice, you can choose how much you put in there. Luck—you have no idea what’s in that bucket. But horsemanship and athleticism are the things you can prepare for.

I knew I was going to be riding horses I didn’t know and I knew that was going to be the crux of my success.

To prepare, I did two 50-mile rides a month. I’d travel to different states and people would give me a horse and I’d just ride blindly, hop on a horse and go. And maybe the next day someone would have another horse and I’d ride that one. And then two weeks later I’d go to a different race in a different state and ride a couple a horses there.

Every horse in the race was different so the best thing you can do is to train on a lot of different horses. Not a single one of those horses thinks or operates like a western culture horse. If you use your feet, you’ll spook the horse. If you squeeze your legs, you’ll spook the horse. You have to completely change your language with the horse. Each horse is different.

I knew the more minds I could ride would prepare me the fastest.

As for athleticism, I’m a natural athlete so keeping my balance on the horse and staying in the saddle is something I’m good at naturally. Athleticism I had, grit I had.

Q: Do you have any tips for selecting horses at each checkpoint?
TF: Though all the horses eat the exact same as all the other horses, you’ll see plump, round ones and you’ll see ones who look emaciated. The plump ones are most likely lazy, and the thin ones are runners. So look for thin horses who are in good muscular shape—they should have good tone.

Tim Finley Hits the Dirt Raul

Another thing to look for are galls on the corners of the horses’ mouths. These are from their Mongolian riders pulling back on the reins, an indication a horse is a runner. And horses who are scarred up on the face are good picks because they’re competitive and they’ll run alone or bite to be in the front.

The horses are mostly geldings. Occasionally you’ll get a stallion. You can tell the sex of the horse by the way their hair is trimmed. All of the horses have a long forelock to keep the flies off and have long manes at the withers so you can get up on them bareback. But the geldings by in large have the rest of their manes buzzed and the stallions have their whole mane.

There are occasionally herders who really love the naadam sport [a traditional festival in Mongolia that includes horse racing] and they breed and train racehorses and will loan these horses for the race. The herders are all about presentation. If you present yourself as a fighter, puff up your chest in a warrior ethos kind of way and speak confidently they’ll cue in on that. Bribery also goes a long way. I used snus [snuff tobacco] because it comes in a cool little can that’s waterproof and durable.

Q: How hard was it to make the weight limit?
TF: The weight limit—don’t worry about it. Because if you’re approaching 11 pounds, you’re carrying more than you need. There’s a lot of things you don’t need. It all boils down to what you are comfortable with. And if you are comfortable being uncomfortable, it’s amazing what you don’t need.

Q: You had a different approach to how you carried your supplies and wore a vest instead of using saddle bags. Do you think that was the way to go?
TF: Wearing that kit is comfortable for me, it’s what I’m familiar with. And it made no sense to even have a saddle bag. It would have just been something else to bang around and worry about.

Tim Finley Mongol Derby

People were like, “Where’s your bed roll?” And I would say, “I’m just going to sleep on the ground. What’s the difference?” I crossed the finish line with my stuff and they saw that we as competitors really didn’t need all this. A few competitors since have asked to use my vest. It’s not cheap, but man it works.

Q: How hard was it to navigate?
TF: I just brought a little compass on my wrist. I dead reckoned almost the entire race. Dead reckoning is the process of calculating your current position by using a previously determined position and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over time. I would turn my GPS on at night and go through all the next day’s legs and I would look at the magnetic bearing from each point on the GPS like river crossings, or mountain passes and I would look at that line between them, get the bearing, write it on a little notecard and I would plop it down in this little plastic window on my front pouch and I would just look down, get to that point, point in that direction until I got that magnetic bearing, look and pick out a landmark and then ride to that landmark.

The Mongol Derby doesn’t require navigation training per se, but just an understanding of how a compass works and it’s really as simple as pointing, saying OK that matches, finding a point and then riding to the point.

I realize a lot of people don’t know how to dead reckon and that’s kind of unnerving if you don’t know what you’re doing because you risk going off in the middle of nowhere.

Q: Did you camp by yourself between horse stations?
TF: The one time I did camp out with another rider, it was by chance. We stayed in this old log cabin and slept on logs that were off the ground. There also happened to be a corral next to it so I hobbled my horse and put him in the corral. Always try to camp at a ger with a herding family so that they can help you with your horse if you can, but don’t let them give you water.

Q: A lot of the riders have experienced illness. How did you fare?
TF: I was really sick with dysentery with just six legs left. I was barely coherent. I would ask for the fastest horse, though I was in no condition to ride him. I’d get off the horse and collapse to the ground. And I’d just lay there while the herders tacked up my next horse. I wouldn’t get water or food because there was no sense in it since it would just go through me. So I would get on the horse and while I was on the horse I was actually in more control. It was when I got off that my body shut down. I pushed through three legs and at the end of the day I crashed and was in and out of consciousness. I woke up the next morning and remember hearing people talking like I wasn’t going to finish … I heard the doctor say, “he looks bad.” I remember lugging my saddle out to the horse and hearing the doctor say, “Well I’ll be damned, there he goes.”

Tim Finley Kneeling at Finish
Despite being incredibly ill, Tim crossed the finish line on a “horse that wouldn’t quit” who Tim later learned was a 10-time undefeated naadam champion.

Q: What did your military buddies think about you competing in the race?
TF: Most of the guys I worked with [in the military] knew my backstory and that I going through a tough time when I got back from Iraq, so they were supportive. This group of guys is pretty rough around the edges. There were some jokes about riding ponies, but there was definitely a level of you could die doing this. So they said things like, “You’re crazy man. Good luck. Have fun.” I think the reason why I was doing it made it easier for them to understand.

If you ever get the opportunity to listen to Tim speak, do it. He’s an incredible person with a moving story to share. Watch for his upcoming book, To Live With Honor, a prequel to his Mongol Derby experience and visit his website to sign upfor more details on the release. 



Step One: Learn About Endurance Riding

Practical Horseman Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce will be competing in the Mongol Derby, a 600-mile expedition considered the longest and toughest horse race in the world, in August. As she prepares, she’s reporting on her progress with weekly blogs here at www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and www.JPMongolDerby.com and in Tips & Talk in Practical Horseman.

About 20 miles into a 23-mile ride—my first endurance outing—it occurred to me that maybe I should have learned a little more about long-distance riding before submitting my application for the Mongol Derby. According to the sport’s standards, an endurance ride is at least 50 miles. During the Derby I will need to ride about 75 to 100 miles a day for seven to 10 days. But flying by the seat of my pants is kind of my style, and I still have a few months to learn more.

Prac’s Associate Editor Jocelyn Pierce (right) aboard 10-year-old OTTB Siracha with Angela Kemerer on 7-year-old Spotted Saddle Horse Randy.

Since being accepted to participate in the Mongol Derby, I’ve reached out to numerous past competitors to pick their brains on everything from fitness to gear suggestions and general overall advice. I’ve chatted with on-site Derby organizers, including Maggie Pattinson, who’s also chef d’équipe of the England home endurance squad. Maggie is an invaluable resource who’s shared lots of tips about endurance riding, such as learning what 25 miles—the length of one leg of the Derby—feels like so you have an idea of how far you’ve gone, how much farther you have to go, if perhaps you’ve taken a wrong turn or, God forbid, are horseless and need to decide if heading forward to the next station makes more sense or backtracking is the way to go. The guidance Maggie emphasized most was to get as much saddle time now as possible. I have my own horse, but riding one horse for an hour a day simply isn’t enough.

I’ve sought out horsepeople in the greater Washington, D.C. area for more rides. First, I met up with a local racehorse trainer, thinking that galloping on the track would apply to galloping across the Mongolian steppe. While it was a new experience and a total blast, I decided it would be more beneficial for me to rack up miles at a slower pace with endurance riders rather than do four 25-minute trot and hand-gallop sets. So far, I’ve been able to ride with decorated endurance riders and husband–wife team Skip and Angela Kemerer, of Myersville, Maryland, who took me on that aforementioned 23-mile ride, as well as with fellow 2018 Mongol Derby competitors Carol Federighi, an experienced endurance rider, and Matthew Graham, both from Washington, D.C. Skip and Angela showed me how endurance vet checks work, explained the importance of changing your diagonals and leads frequently to help your horse stay sound and patiently answered my rapid-fire questions about their preferred stirrups, breeches and so much else. I’ve also enlisted my patient and accomplished eventing trainer Rose Agard, of Monrovia, Maryland, to work with me on weekly longe lessons on my own horse to improve my seat, balance and coordination and to tighten up my position overall.

I’ve also changed up my out-of-the-saddle fitness plan. I consider myself active and before signing up for the Mongol Derby, a typical day of exercise for me usually consisted of some kind of cardio or high-intensity interval training workout (I see so much of world renowned fitness expert Shaun T on my computer screen that sometimes I forget he isn’t actually my personal trainer), a 4- to 5-mile hike and a ride on my mare. But now I’ve kicked things up a bit, adding more core conditioning and isometric exercises with barre classes three to four times a week and spin classes two to three times a week to target my legs and glutes. On the weekends when I don’t have an endurance ride I go for a long hike, at least 15 miles, to challenge both my physical fitness and my mental toughness.

Focusing on my physical fitness has been my main priority so far, but I’ve got plenty of other things to consider. Researching and testing gear has become an obsession. I’ve spent hours upon hours reading reviews of the best and latest helmets, riding breeches, stirrups, down jackets, sleeping bags—the list goes on—to figure out what will make up my precious 11-pound allotment.

Throughout this process, it’s occurred to me how truly generous horsepeople can be. I’ve cold-called several people who’ve willingly agreed to let me ride their prized horses without ever seeing me ride–to help me reach my goal. They’ve patiently answered my rookie questions, given me useful tips and shared encouraging words about my big adventure. I know that I can’t prepare for the starting line all on my own and that to log miles in the saddle I must rely on others—sometimes even total strangers—to help,but so far it hasn’t been a problem and for that I am incredibly thankful.

In case you missed the first and second installments—Destination:Mongolia and Mongol Derby FAQ.  


The Mongol Derby: 600 Miles in 10 Days (or Less)

Photos Courtesy Richard Dunwoody/Mongol Derby

The Mongol Derby is a bit unique and usually emboldens lots of questions about the who, what, why, where and how. Here are the 11 most frequently asked questions I’ve encountered since signing up for the Mongol Derby.

Over the past few months as I’ve slowly told family, friends and acquaintances about my upcoming adventure in Mongolia, I’ve found that an onslaught of questions about the race, how it works and why in the world I’d want to do it usually follows in rapid succession; understandably so, because there is a lot to the Mongol Derby. Here are the 11 most frequently asked questions I’ve encountered over the past nine months:

Mongol Derby 14

1. What is the Mongol Derby?
The Mongol Derby is a 600-mile (more or less) horse race that loosely follows the route created by Genghis Khan in 1224 to carry riders whose mission was to deliver information and facilitate communication throughout the empire. This year will be the Mongol Derby’s 10th year and the route that the 40 competitors follow changes year to year, but is likely to include the following variety of terrain; high passes, green open valleys, wooded hills, river crossings, wetland and floodplains, sandy semi-arid dunes, rolling hills, dry riverbeds and open steppe (characterized by grassland plains without trees and extreme temperatures). Riders must balance survival skills and horsemanship as they use their own navigation to figure out how to get to 25–28 checkpoints.

2. Where is Mongolia?
Mongolia is a landlocked nation in East Asia, located to the north of China and south of Russia. About one-third of the country is nomadic or semi-nomadic, meaning they live in portable dwellings and practice seasonal migration, moving from one place to another in search of grasslands for their animals and are still very much dependent on the horse.

3. How long is this going to take?
I’ll be arriving in the capital city Ulaanbaatar on August 1. Pre-race training will be held from August 5–7, during which riders will receive medical briefings, veterinary briefings, technical training and riding practice, both on the steppe and in the classroom. Then, the race begins on August 8 and will run until August 17. This means riders have 10 days to complete the race, but if you want to win, you will likely need to finish by day 7. Riders can ride only between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.; essentially daylight hours.

4. Have you done this before?
I have never competed in the Mongol Derby, or even a 50-mile endurance competition. I’ve ridden almost my whole life but before applying for the Derby had zero endurance-riding experience.

5. Are you bringing your horse?
This question tends to be from my non-horsepeople friends, and while I wish I could pick a team of horses to bring with me, I’ll be riding 25–28 different semi-wild native horses, on loan from local herders. While there will be many challenges in the Mongol Derby, perhaps the biggest challenge and unknown factor will be the horses.

Mongol Derby

The Mongolian horse is unique in that he hasn’t been affected by outside influence—the horses out on the steepe today have changed little since Genghis Khan’s time. Small in stature—between 12 and 15 hands—Mongolian horses have short necks and short legs but are incredibly sturdy and tough. And they have to be tough because they live out on the steepe year round, in huge feral herds, enduring extreme temperatures, eating grass and little else and drinking water when they can find it.

Horse welfare is the Derby’s primary concern and the rules of the race are in place to protect the horses. For instance, horses must all pass a vet check in which the horse must be sound and meet a heart rate of 56 bpm. If, after 30 minutes, the heart rate is still above 56 bpm, the rider will serve a penalty. Because the horses are small, riders can bring just 11-lbs of gear and cannot weigh more than 188 lbs. dressed to ride.

Vet Emma Alsop checks MG's horse at HS15 under the watchful eye of herders

While riders will be trying to travel 75-100 miles a day, each horse will travel about 25 miles or so, and each horse is used only for one leg during the Derby. It’s first come first serve at the horse stations, so riders that get in first get their pick of the horses.

Mongol Derby 14

6. What’s the prize money?
As far as I can tell, there might be a trophy for the winner. This is the point where I usually lose non-horsepeople, who can’t seem to understand why anyone would want to ride in this sort of race with no chance of bringing home a bucketful of money.
Which takes me to the next FAQ that usually follows …

7. How much does this cost?
The entry fee is a steep $12,995 and that doesn’t include other expenses like travel costs, extra medical insurance, gear, training, etc., etc. But there’s a reason for the hefty price tag and it all makes sense to me. To put on an international horse race with 40 competitors and 1,400 horses, you’ll need a support crew. This includes the veterinarians needed to care for the horses, the team of medics to care for the riders and the 150 herders who generously loan out their horses. The entry fee also goes toward the three days of pre-race training and use of a saddle that’s custom built for the Mongolian horse. Practical Horseman’s parent company, Active Interest Media, has generously picked up my entry fee. Thanks, AIM!

8. Where do you stay?
Riders can stay at horse stations, called urtuus, in yurts, called gers with families that have been vetted by the Mongol Derby race organizers. Alternatively, riders may want to maximize their riding time and get ahead by riding out of a urtuu close to the time they must be off the horse and then camp out between urtuus or find a family to take them in for the night. While this is a great race strategy to get ahead it does have its drawbacks and adds another risk component. First, riders are responsible for the horses, so it will be up to the rider to secure the horse for the evening, graze him, find him water and then saddle him and get on him without any assistance in the morning. Staying with a non-Derby family can be a good alternative to camping out alone as they can provide more security to riders and horses, but they haven’t been assessed by the Derby crew, so riders must be cautious.

Mongol Derby Ger

9. Do you speak Mongolian?
I’ve yet to learn a word of Mongolian, but I do have a phrase book and dictionary I was gifted by one of my best friends at Christmas. Words like lost or help willprobably be useful. Several Derby veterans have said it’s a good idea to carry a note in Mongolian that explains the situation you’re in, especially when looking for a place to stay in the evening. Something to the effect of: I’m riding in a race and I need a place to stay. Can you help me? Previous Derby riders have also hinted that nonverbal cues can go a long way and that offering herders at the urtuus tobacco or western novelties might help you get the fastest horse. Additionally, herders are more likely to pick out the best and fastest horses from the line-up for competitors whose horses come in good condition from the legs and whose riding style they like.

10. Is this safe?
This a question that comes up quite a bit, especially from my parents (multiple times), friends’ parents and pretty much anyone who seems to remotely tolerate me. Of course there are risks in any equestrian sport and even more so in the Derby—that’s part of the fun—but there are safety measures in place for when things totally go awry. Riders are all given a GPS tracker, so that not only can those in their armchairs at home follow along, but so that officials know where you are and if you are riding when you shouldn’t be. Riders also have an SOS button they can push if they get into real trouble. While it might take the support crew a few hours to find you, they will eventually come to assist.

SN AH AN and DR ride into the finish of the MD 2016

11. So, why do you want to do this?
This is probably the question I get asked the most and maybe even the question I ask myself the most.

Mongol Derby 14

I’ve been intrigued and have followed the race every year since learning about it in 2013 from American cowboy Will Grant’s firsthand experience in Outside magazine. Almost always stricken with a severe case of wanderlust and thirst for adventure, I have always had the Mongol Derby in the back of my mind as a true adventure I could undertake someday. It seems to fall in line pretty succinctly with my three main passions: horses, travel and exploring the outdoors. I’m excited to experience one of the last surviving nomadic cultures, especially one with such a profound connection to horses while challenging myself physically and mentally and having a great big adventure and (hopefully) a little fun along the way.


Travel, Uncategorized

Destination: Mongolia

This summer I’ll be competing in the Mongol Derby, which is touted as the longest and toughest horse race in the world.

Come Aug. 1, I’ll fly some 6,500 miles from Washington, D.C., to the nation that lies between Russia and China and is known for vast rugged expanses and a nomadic culture. I’ll have three days of pre-race training. Then on Aug. 8 the 600-mile adventure will begin.

Jocelyn Pierce Mongol Derby

I was introduced to the Mongol Derby in 2013 through a firsthand account by American cowboy Will Grant in Outside magazine. Captivated, I scoured the Internet for more about the race, which loosely follows the route created by Genghis Khan in 1224 to carry riders whose mission was to deliver information and facilitate communication throughout what would become the largest contiguous empire in history. Every year, I followed the race. But it wasn’t until last summer, when someone I’d met—Tennessean Leslie Wylie from the website Eventing Nation—was a competitor, that it occurred to me maybe I could be one, too.

I was surprised when less than a week after submitting my application I had an interview with Erik Cooper, a former Mongol Derby competitor and current support-crew member. He was convinced I was a shoo-in. Truth be told, I wasn’t as sure. As an eventer, I have zero endurance-riding experience and the most time I’ve ever spent in the saddle in one day was for six hours on a horse trek in Ireland. But I’ve been a lifelong horsewoman and have ridden my fair share of headstrong horses. I grew up riding at a small training and breeding farm in Massachusetts, where I helped to saddle-break babies and retrain problem horses—among them my own Arabian mare, who was wildly inappropriate as a child’s horse. She put me in a wheelchair with a broken leg and arm three days before the start of seventh grade. More importantly, she taught me how to sit a buck and what it means to have determination and patience.

I hope those traits will serve me well during the Mongol Derby as I ride 25 different semi-wild horses—on loan from local herders—for roughly 25 miles apiece as I cover each day’s route of between 75 and 100 miles. Along with 39 other international competitors, I’ll be racing for seven to 10 days. I know I will be tested in many ways. Even so, I can’t think of a better way to pursue my three passions: horses, travel and exploring the outdoors. At age 30, I’ve already hiked the Alps while studying in Europe and made a solo seven-week journey across the United States to experience all that the country’s National Parks have to offer. Now I’m eager to immerse myself in one of the last surviving nomadic cultures on the planet—one with a profound connection to and dependence on the horse.

As they did in the 13th century, modern-day Mongolians rely on horses for their livelihood, using them for travel, herding, hunting and racing. Small in stature but sturdy and resilient, Mongol horses are said to have remained largely unchanged since Genghis Khan’s time. They live off the land in huge feral herds in harsh conditions year-round. Ridden infrequently, they become nearly wild and must be caught and broken each time they are to wear a saddle.

Whatever challenges the horses present to their riders in the Mongol Derby, their welfare is paramount. Each one must pass a vet check before a rider can move on, and time penalties will be imposed when a horse has an elevated heart rate, shows signs of lameness, is overridden or on course beyond the prescribed time for each phase of the race. A rider who incurs sufficient penalties will be pulled from the derby. In addition, all riders must comply with a weight limit and may carry only 11 pounds of gear so the horses aren’t overtaxed.

I’m incredibly grateful that Practical Horseman’s parent company and my employer, Active Interest Media, has generously paid the $12,995 entry fee, which helps support both the Mongolian families who help make the race possible and the official race charity, Cool Earth, which works in partnership with indigenous communities to end rain-forest destruction.

Traditionally, only half of those who start the Mongol Derby finish. So there are lots of things for me to consider as I get ready—my physical fitness, the clothing I’ll wear and the equipment I’ll pack to name just a few. In the coming months, I’ll be sharing my experiences as I prepare for and participate in this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Follow my progress in Practical Horseman and here at http://www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com and http://www.JPMongolDerby.com.