Conversations at the Finish Line: Your 2022 Mongol Derby Winners!

Deirdre Griffith (USA) and Willemien Jooste (SA) crossed the finish line of the 2022 Mongol Derby two days ago as unplanned partners. The two riders hadn’t anticipated riding together, but had unexpectedly met up to ride out to camp on Day 2 of the race, and never turned back.

I had a chance to talk with both riders to hear about their experience, the highs and the lows of the Derby, key takeaways, and helpful tips for future participants. A big thank you to Erik Cooper of The Equestrianists for connecting us.

Both Deirdre and Willemien immediately expressed their gratitude of having the partnership to support them through the race. “It’s helpful to have another person to help navigate and make decisions, but also to keep you smiling, to keep that optimism,” Willemien stated. Deirdre shared similar sentiments, expressing “It would have been hard to do alone. And the horses go better when they’re together.”

The partnership between Deirdre and Willemien served them well, combining the two riders’ experience with packing and distance rides with navigation practice. Both Deirdre and Willemien come from horse-related backgrounds.

Deirdre, of Jackson, WY, grew up riding English and in Pony Club, which she mentioned was a wonderful upbringing with horses. During her time in high school at the Thacher School in California, Deirdre was introduced to and involved in everything horse related: rodeo, gymkhana, and eventually, packing.

Packing horses turned into Deirdre’s passion, which she continued through her time in undergraduate and graduate school at the Colorado State University. Continuing to work on ranches and on packing trips through her time in school, Deirdre moved to Wyoming after graduation to work as a wrangler on these pack trips.

While these experiences uniquely prepared Deirdre to take on the Mongol Derby, preparing for the race didn’t come without nerves. With a determination to set and achieve a goal, have something to focus and train on, and show her young children that they too can achieve goals they set, Deirdre’s focus, experience, and resiliency set her up for success.

Willemien has a horse background as well, although had come back from a riding hiatus to participate in the Derby. Growing up on a farm in South Africa with horses, cattle, and dogs, Willemien is no stranger to working around animals. That said, Willemien hadn’t been riding much when she saw the Mongol Derby on social media.

Seeing the Derby for the first time on social media in 2019 immediately captivated Willemien. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she reflected. “I applied out of a moment of weakness, I guess!”

In preparation to further train for the Derby, Willemien began her endurance riding endeavors in 2021, which helped in fitness for riding long distances. It certainly was useful practice, as crossing 1000km of Mongolian steppe is no easy feat.

Despite years of experience and practice in preparation for the Derby, both riders stressed the importance of navigation time and time again – “You’re not just following a line on a GPS… navigation is complex, and plays a big factor of where you need to go to save your horse’s energy while getting as far as possible,” Willemien states. “Although we had a GPS, it is even more important to be able to read a map, to understand elevation, and to ask “is it worth it?” to go over or around an obstacle,” Deirdre suggests. So, future participants beware: practice with those maps!!

While each rider sets off in the Derby as an individual, they are by no means alone. Neither Deirdre nor Willemien had been to Mongolia previously, yet felt so welcomed and accepted from the first day.

“We stayed many nights with families in their gers,” Willemien reflected. “It is remarkable how everyone works as a team. When you come in from a long ride, no matter how terrible you feel, you are met with people that are happy to see you, and happy to help.”

“What really struck me was the generosity [of the families] to take in complete strangers and give us the food off of their tables, and space in their gers,” Deirdre commented.

Even thought the riders were facing the challenge alone, each of them on riding their own race, and on their own horse, help and encouragement were never far away. From the friendships built between riders, the welcoming atmosphere created by the families along the steppe, the support, care, and attention to detail from the vets, medics, and coordinators working to organize the race, and each and every friend and family member back home cheering for their person, each rider was riding with a group of people rooting for their success.

Are you interested in taking part in the longest and toughest horse race in the world? If so, head over to The Equestrianists website to sign up for future races.

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