In August 2017 writer/rider Leslie Wylie will be attempting her most fearsome feat of #YOLO yet: a 620-mile race across Mongolia. Riding 25 semi-wild native horses. Carrying only 11 pounds of gear. Relying on nomads for food, water and shelter. On a mission to help stop deforestation.
The Mongol Derby is widely regarded as the toughest horse race in the world. Inspired by the Genghis Khan’s original “pony express,” there’s no trail or set route, just 25 GPS checkpoints/horse exchange stations to hit over the course of 7-10 days. Keep it here for weekly updates from Leslie as she prepares to embark upon the ride of a lifetime! Click here to read previous stories in the series.
Part I: Sink or Swim
Here in the South we have a bad habit of inviting people we’ve just met to do things — “Let’s have lunch sometime!” — as a matter of politeness, with no real obligation or even intention of following through. But if we learned anything from last year’s Lady Martha Sitwell series, it’s that you should never invite Leslie Wylie into your life if you don’t mean it. Because she WILL show up on your doorstep.
Whether it’s a fox-chasing party princess in Great Britain or an action hero endurance star in Texas, I never turn down an invitation to take notes from ladies of the bada$$ variety. So when, three minutes into our first phone conversation, 2013 Mongol Derby runner-up Devan Horn invited me to come spend a day training with her in Humble, Texas, I hung up and bought a plane ticket.
Devan is a special human being, or perhaps “superhuman” is more like it. At the tender age of 24, Devan has thrice completed the Tevis Cup, the most prestigious endurance riding event in North America, and in her spare time runs ultramarathons and participates in roller derby, a sport wherein tatted-up girls with nicknames like Nasty Pelosi, Susan B. Agony and Nancy Raygun don roller skates and try to break your knees whilst racing you around a track.
Of particular interest to me, of course, is the fact that she’s a two-time Mongol Derby veteran, nearly winning it in 2013 and nearly killing herself during a 2015 rematch. In the former, chronicled on this ABC Nightline special, she crossed the finish line first but was issued a time penalty when her horse’s heart rate didn’t come down fast enough, leaving the window open for a rival to win. The second time around, she was urinating blood before the race even began but it wasn’t until day six, when her kidneys were literally shutting down, that she allowed the medics to pull her off course. Third time’s a charm, though, and in 2018 she has her sights set on finally getting the win she came for.
The night before our ride I met my new Derby sensei and her boyfriend Scott at a local Tex-Mex restaurant for dinner. She was everything and nothing I imagined: hair dyed an icy blue with eyes to match, a glacier-sized presence belying her petite 5’2″ stature, and a laugh so warm it could melt Antarctica. (Which is one of few continents she hasn’t attempted to ride across, yet.)
There was no smalltalk, only strategy. Even our chips and salsa became visual aids for Devan’s coaching.
- When your horse spooks at something in the brush, DON’T look back; it’s a wolf.
- When you’re being hunted by a pack of wild dogs, DON’T fall off, because you WILL get ripped to shreds.
- Run TOWARD attackers instead of away from them, screaming obscenities, so they’ll deem you too psycho to mess with.
- Understand that the fastest horses are also going to be the wildest, so if you want to win you better be good at sitting a buck.
- Know the difference between family gers, which are safe, and bachelor gers, which you want to avoid at all costs.
- Hobbles will NOT prevent your horse from ditching you overnight.
- Accept that no matter how repulsive you imagine steppe cuisine will be, it’s going to be even worse in reality.
- And, most importantly, try to get prescription-grade antispasmodics for your kit. Because when you get giardia, and it feels like you’re being stabbed in the gut each time your horse takes a step, you’re going to want them.
We made plans to ride out at 6 a.m. the next day, along with Liv Wood, a 2017 Derby competitor from Canada who has been training in Texas for the past month. Like Devan, Liv is a honeybadger of the first degree: 25-years-old, bulletproof and fiercely independent, with a velcro seat from galloping racehorses at the track in New York.
We tore out of Cypress Trails Ranch at two minutes past the hour, just as the sun was rising. Chasing Devan and Liv through the labyrinth woods, I felt like a little kid playing “Chutes and Ladders,” never sure what lay around the next bend.
Dieseletta, the first of my mounts for the day, was a dark bay Egyptian Arabian-cross. Arabians are funny creatures, bred for centuries to go and go and go, yet always reserving the right to spook sideways at lightning speed on account of threats both real and imagined, or slam on the breaks from a full gallop to stop and stare at a puddle.
Dieseletta’s antics made me giggle, but she was brave when it counted. Our route was threaded with creeks and Dieseletta, being the bravest horse of the three, was always appointed first to cross. I felt proud at the first canal we encountered: While the other horses balked, Dieseletta leapt willingly off the bank into the water, trotted across, pinged up the bank out, then turned right to pop across a runoff ditch. Eventer skillz on point!
Mile after mile we pushed further from home, undeterred and perhaps even heartened by a thunderstorm we rode straight into. The downpour was a welcome relief from the scorching Texas summer temps, and I relished the wetness on my bare arms and flushed face.
The first leg of our ride was only supposed to be around 25 or 30 miles. But at some point, horses on autopilot and conversation in high gear, we got sidetracked, adding another dozen or so miles to our planned route. Once back on course and just about three miles from home, we found ourselves at an impasse. The trail crossed a creek, normally about knee deep, but now looking a bit swollen and rushed due to the storm. Flash floods are common in the area, and the rain had been coming down steadily for a good long while now.
Should we turn back, which would mean a miles-long backtrack on already spent horses? (We’d been trotting or cantering most of the way.) Or forge ahead through the creek, which Devan and Liv had crossed so many times? The barn was so close!
I kept my mouth shut as Liv and Devan debated pros and cons. In the end the decision was made to cross. Dieselette and I headed in first, aiming for patches of grass that indicated shallowness. Then — splash! — we suddenly stepped off some sort of underwater ledge and found ourselves swimming. The breathtakingly strong current sent us swiftly downstream. I grabbed mane, kicked my feet free of my stirrups and let my legs float behind me, just like my sisters and I used to when swimming ponies across the farm pond as kids.
But this time, something was wrong. Dieselette kept going underwater, sinking until her feet touched the bottom then rearing up, thrashing for air, only to sink again. Liv later said it looked like I was riding the Loch Ness Monster.
Devan immediately recognized what was happening: I hadn’t unsnapped Dieselette’s running martingale, and every time she raised her head she was hitting the top of it and panicking. Devan, who insists she would sink like a stone if dropped into an Olympic swimming pool, dove off her own horse and swam toward us in the hope of getting Dieselette free.
I let go of the mare, figuring she’d have a better chance of righting herself without a human on her back. For a few terrifying seconds that seemed like hours, Dieselette and I were both floating downstream, me just ahead of her, unable to fight the aggressive current. I tried to swim against it, even cut sideways across it, but couldn’t. A premonition of Dieselette pummeling into me, and all the worst case scenarios that might follow, flashed through my mind. Just in time her hooves found solid ground, and my fists latched onto a clump of brush attached to the shore.
Meanwhile Devan’s horse was gone, well on its way back to the stable, with Liv tailing behind. Devan, Dieselette and I started our slow march home along the waterlogged trail, dripping wet and silent.
I spent a very short moment shrugging off guilt. Devan had tacked Dieselette up that morning for me while I fiddled with a leaky camelback, so how was I supposed to know she was even wearing a martingale? And it wasn’t my decision to cross the creek, so that should absolve me of some responsibility, right?
Wrong. I’m an adult. I’m responsible for myself, and the moment I swing my leg over the back of a horse I assume responsibility for that animal as well. Tack included. If someone else saddles up my horse for me during the Derby, I’m still responsible for checking it. Decisions, and their consequences, included. When it comes to safety, groupthink has no redemptive value after the fact. No excuses, not here in Texas and for damn sure not in Mongolia.
When the trail intersected a road Devan caught a ride with someone from the barn who’d come to fetch her, leaving Dieselette and I to our own devices. “But I don’t know how to get back to the barn!” I shouted after her, remembering the maze of forest paths we’d taken to get here.
“Just give Dieselette her head,” Devan said. “She knows her way home.”
I reluctantly chucked her the reins. The mare picked up an easy canter and set off into the dark woods, veering left or right at each split in trail without hesitation. My own self-confidence, on the other hand, was in tatters and we weren’t even halfway through the ride. Was I in over my head?
To be continued …
Keep up with my adventures in the lead-up to the 2017 Mongol Derby each week on Horse Nation, Eventing Nation and Jumper Nation, and tune into Horses in the Morning each Monday at 10 a.m. EST as I interview Derby crew and previous competitors.
Each Derby competitor’s $12,995 entry helps benefit the Mongolian families whose generosity with their horses and their homes makes the race possible, as well as Cool Earth, a charity that works alongside indigenous villages to halt rainforest destruction.
Can you help? Please visit the Wylie vs. Mongol Derby GoFundMe page — all donations are deeply and eternally appreciated! Corporate sponsorships are also available and include ad space on EN, HN and JN, product reviews and usage during the Derby and much more. Email [email protected] for details.
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Just gonna go ahead and venture a prediction that I’m going to need a grab strap out there — my pony can be “semi feral” every now and again, but it sounds like the horses I’m going to be riding are a whole new level of wild. And here’s hoping I never have to repurpose my belt as a tourniquet. Thanks in advance, C4, for the lifeline!
And a big thank you to all my sponsors: