(first appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Equiery)

Foxhunter and racehorse breeder Barbara Smith decided she wanted to do something special, something different, for her 60th Birthday. And while most horsewomen might choose a trip out west moving cattle or a ride through the mountain tops of Provence–not Barbara! Maybe a stag hunt in France or foxhunt in Ireland? Nah, been there, done that. Instead, Barbara decides to rocket on a bolting pony 620 miles across the Mongolian steppes! Barbara shares here just a few of her many memories with Equiery readers.

by Barbara Smith

The start of the Mongol Derby 2014

I am bent over at the waist, hands on knees, gulping air as the vet checks my pony. His heart rate is 72 and will come down to the required 64 in about 5 minutes. Mine is about 200 beats per minute and no one cares. I am exhausted and have about 20 minutes to recover before leaving on the next jet-fueled pony! This is Day Six of the Mongol Derby and the urtuus (horse stations) are starting to blend into one.

I had thought I was going to romantically name each pony and remember every little thing about the rides between stations. However, not only did I forget to name them (as much of the time I was hanging on for dear life as they rocketed out of the stations and bolted for the next 10-15 kilometers), but I don’t remember the individual stations. I remember moments of complete panic as I thought I was going to die or moments when I feared my comrades-in-saddle were going to die. Interspersed are memories of lovely meadows and fragrant pine forests, incredible views across mountains and long, long rides when we wondered if we would ever finish!

The Mongol Derby was conceived seven years ago by The Adventurists, a British expedition company that looks for really extreme ways to challenge oneself. The adventure recreates Genghis Khan’s empire-building postal system (like the U.S. Pony Express). Genghis Khan devised this system to pass information to his generals by sending riders with messages. They changed mounts every 40 kilometers and could carry messages literally hundreds of miles in a day. Supposedly some galloped 250 miles, changing ponies, before stopping.

The Mongol Derby is a 1000-kilometer (or about 620-mile) adventure, billed as the world’s longest, toughest horse race. It is everything they say and more, absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done and yet one of the highlights of my life so far. (Childbirth hurt more, but did not last as long.)

I finished the race in eight days, riding about 80 miles a day. I finished 9th out of 38 riders. Eleven had to retire. One of my sons said it was as if I had galloped from Baltimore to Chicago in eight days. I had no concept of the distance, as I had just concentrated on each day, riding the 25-mile legs between horse stations (urtuus). I was trying to ride four legs every day.

Genghis Khan’s riders rode the same marmot-hole strewn, dusty plains, crossed the same swollen rivers and looked for the same mountain passes that we did. And they did it without GPS help. I read somewhere that the messages were written in verse and the riders sang the song to the next messenger so the instructions would remain the same. Even today the Mongolian herders sing to their horses while riding. I tried it and it did pass the time on a slow pony. On the fast ones you had no breath to spare and you just hoped they did not step in a hole.

An urtuus

I don’t think anything really prepares you for being turned loose on a bolting pony in a strange country. My first pony was great, biddable, relatively fast and I started the race in front, heading down a valley in a straight line. I had met two lovely New Zealand ladies who were about the closest to me in age (every one else was younger by decades), and I looked to ride the next leg with them.

Barbara enjoys a camel ride; she and another rider came across two young girls and their camels out in the middle of nowhere, no adult to be seen, hoping to peddle camel rides to the tourists. Barbara and her fellow race rider were happy to oblige!

While waiting for them, I picked my second pony simply by asking for a strong, fast horse (I soon learned to add a few more qualifiers to those criteria). The herder threw me up on this second pony and he bolted at a dead run for the next 15 miles. I never saw my New Zealand friends again until the last day! This pony ran and jumped and careened across a plain that was full of marmot holes, sagebrush-like bushes, and gravelly dry streambeds. It all went by in a blur. I could only aim for the one rider in front I could see and once we passed him I was just hoping that the distant peak I had lined up in my sights was the right one. I could not pull out my GPS until this pony had slowed after about an hour an a half of galloping. Luckily, I remembered to keep sipping water from my hydration pack, as that was all I could do. I just kept the sipping end in my mouth. Riders who did not do this quickly succumbed to dehydration and dropped out the second and third day completely exhausted and sick.

So, I was all alone, about second in the race, wondering where I was and if this pony would stop when another rider galloped up beside me. I remember saying, “Thank God, someone else!” It was Mary Lee, a fashion designer from Miami who had seemed a little distant in pre-race training, but looks are deceiving, and she and I became great friends and rode most of the race together. She had a long. black braid affixed to her helmet and with her own exotic dark looks, the Mongol herders loved her. She and I shared a similar riding style and outlook on life. No patience for the whiners and we rode like bats out of hell for the next eight days.

Genghis Khan reportedly had 10 devoted generals, who were with him for 30 years or more, and this communication system helped them conquer the second largest empire ever known.

My foxhunting background definitely gave me an edge on many riders. The front runners all had either foxhunting experience or were race riders or racehorse trainers in their respective countries. Mary had been galloping polo ponies for a year to prepare and Catherine Scott was just as fit as could be. We were used to galloping long distances over rough ground and we had clearly separated into the hardest riding group by the third day.

I did a face-plant on Day Three when my pony stepped in a hole at a full gallop. It happened so fast that all I remember is popping back up and cursing. My companions waited to make sure I wasn’t dead, then said, “Try to catch up!” and were gone. Luckily it was close to a herd of ponies and a nearby herder returned my escaping horse. To my companions’ surprise, I did manage to rejoin them, and I earned a little respect as being the “tough old bird” on the ride!

My second fall occurred on Day Six as I tried to read my helpful notes. Pulling that piece of white paper out of my pocket scared the bejesus out of my pony and he disappeared at a dead run before I even hit the ground. Charles, the South African guardian angel of the riders, did rescue me after I called for assistance. A welcome sight indeed, he brought another herder who returned my spooky pony, and I continued. That was the leg I did alone. My son, who was watching my spot tracker, later told me that I seemed to meander erratically. That was because I could not pull my GPS out without the pony starting to buck! I finally hooked up with Bonnie Hutton, a fellow American, but our “no-good, very bad day” continued. Bonnie got bucked off again, breaking a finger. Eventually, we arrived at station 22 with time penalties.

The finish and the riders’ reward: warm beer!

The next day was a long one, fraught with attacking guard dogs, marmot holes, and never-ending dusty plains. We had left the beautiful Orkhorn River after two legs and seemed to ride forever. Coming into station 25, Cozy Campbell, the young Australian vet, was a welcome sight. He had a jar of olives and peanuts out and I think I ate the whole thing, thinking it was the best food I ever had.

There were wolves, lightning storms, rain, hail, never-ending bogs, long mountain passes and yet, what I really remember are the wonderful days in the saddle with great people. The friendships I made were, for me, the best part of the adventure. I proved to myself that I could take on an extremely hard physical challenge and that alone was a personal best. The biggest reward was hearing my kids and family tell me how proud of me they were.