Surviving The Mongol Derby

Many of us have heard of the Mongol Derby, an incredible horseback endurance race, where riders get assigned local Mongol horses and swap horses at stops along the way.  I first heard about it when talking to the family of Justin Nelzen for a blog article a few years ago.  It sounds like fun when you hear the overview, but in reality, it's a grueling, dangerous race for riders.  So, what really goes into it, and what's it like to ride the Mongol Derby?

I had the opportunity to talk with Maine equestrian Jessie Dowling, who rode in the Derby last year (2023).  I found her story riveting and she gave me permission to share it with you here.  What follows is our conversation, with her story in her own words.  Enjoy... from the comfort of your home!


E:  Hi, Jessie, it's great to talk with you. How did you get started working with horses?

J:Hi Eleda, I grew up in Virginia, just outside Washington DC. I remember when I was five I learned what a horse was and I knew I needed them in my life.  I took trail riding lessons when I was 6 and at 7 I started taking lessons in dressage and jumping at Great Falls Horse Center in Great Falls Virginia. I eventually got my own horse, a Palomino named Sun Gold. I struggled with making friends in school, and eventually I ended up going to boarding school in Maine.  I always gravitated back to horses throughout my young adulthood.


E:  And you have horses now, right?  What are their names, breeds, and personalities? 

J:  I became interested in farming and local food in college and after getting my masters in England I worked on several farms and ended up becoming a cheesemaker and a farmer.  I ended up being paired with a mentor in Winterport named Betty Hauger and she taught me about driving horses.  I worked alongside her training a young Halflinger to drive. A few years later Betty mentioned that she was going in for knee surgery and needed to find a home for 2 fillies. I told her I didn’t have any money, but I had just moved onto a farm with lots of pasture, and Betty dropped them off at my farm a few weeks later.  That was 12 years ago.  Maggie (dark bay) and Sadie (light chestnut) are 3 weeks apart in age, their dad is a Spotted Draft. Maggie’s mom is an Andalusian and Sadie’s mom is a Halflinger.  They are the loves of my life.  I’ve slowly trained them over the past 12 years and now they are so much fun to ride.  I’ve ridden Maggie in two 30-mile Limited Distance AERC endurance rides and I trail ride both of them on average 8-15 miles several times a week all over the state. Next year I’m hoping to get Sadie to complete a Limited Distance ride alongside her sister.  Sadie is a love bug and like a giant puppy.  Maggie is convinced that she is my (only) horse and I should only ride her.  She is very expressive about how she feels all of the time.  They are both so fun to ride and spend time with.


While training for the Mongol Derby I spent time out in Oregon riding Arabians and realized that I love them.  I bought Jelly Bean, a 10 year old very red Chestnut Arabian in August of 2022.  He was sold to me as a “crazy race-brained Arabian” and that was exactly what I was looking for.  While being a bit of a nutter, he is an absolute sweet heart and proved to be exactly what I needed to train for the Mongol Derby.  And interestingly enough, Jelly was a very good teacher because I didn’t encounter a single horse in Mongolia as difficult to ride as Mr. Jelly Bean.


E:  What made you decide to apply for a grueling horse race on the opposite side of the globe?

J: So many reasons. During the pandemic I started spending more and more time with my horses.  I started listening to the Warwick Schiller, “Journey On” podcast -- If you haven’t listened to it yet I highly recommend it. It’s completely changed my life. One of his podcast guests in spring of 2022 was Stevie Delahunt. She was talking about the Mongol Derby and how her job was training people to ride in it. So I signed up for one of her boot camps and applied for the Mongol Derby. I started slowly increasing the miles I was riding on my own horses, got Maggie conditioned for a 30 mile race in July, and got accepted to ride in the derby the day after my first race. In August 2022, I found myself at Stevie’s booty camp alongside Warwick Schiller (he’s training for the Gaucho Derby), and I knew I was on the right track.


E:  For readers who haven't heard of the Mongol Derby, can you give them an overview of how it's set up? 

J: It’s the longest horse race in the world:  1,000 kilometers [621.3 miles], self-navigated with a hand held GPS. There’s 29 horse stations, which means that you ride 29 horses about 30-40 kilometers [18-25 miles] to the next station, then go through a vet check where the horse has to pulse down to below 56 bpm within half and hour before you can draw a number for your next horse.  You can either stay at horse stations for the night or find a family out on the steppe and ask if you can stay the night in their ger (Mongolian style yurt).


E:  That's an amazing event.  How did you train for this crazy race?

J: Honestly the training was the best year of my life. I spent November 2022 riding with Martin Black in Idaho working on my horsemanship, learning to navigate wide open rocky terrain, and riding young horses.  I ended up doing 3 boot camps with Stevie and 2 AERC races on one of Stevie’s horses, Alexander Hamilton (Arabian/Standardbred cross).  In April 2023, I completed a 75-mile AERC endurance ride in Oregon, and in May I attempted a 100 mile ride on Alexander Hamilton... We made it to the last vet check at mile 90 and Alex didn’t pulse down in time so we were pulled, but hey, we still went 90 miles in a day so it was totally worth it!  I worked out regularly and ran several times a week. I rode my own horses as much as I could and competed in four 30-mile limited distance races on Jelly and Maggie.  I went to a rider position clinic in Ohio with the same trainer that trained Stevie when she was training for the Mongol Derby. I also arrived in Mongolia early to attend the Mongol Derby Academy which took place two weeks before the Derby, near the start line of the race out on the steppe.


E:  So, paint us a picture...  You get off a plane in Mongolia...  What are your first impressions of the country, people and horses?

J: As soon as we left the airport there were herds of horses everywhere!  Even in the median strip on the road heading into the capital city Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians are super friendly and hospitable. And the steppe looks like no place I have even been, its immense wide open spaces, lots of varied topography with mountains of all shapes and sizes, rivers, bogs, sandy deserts and rocky outcroppings, its hard to whittle it all into words, you’ll just have to go there.


E:  Tell us about the start of the race:  What horse were you riding?  What was it like being in such a huge field of riders when the race began?

J: the start line was definitely the most terrifying part of the derby and the part that I rehearsed in my head every day leading up to it.  The Mongolians don’t name their horses like we do, they describe them very precisely by their markings and color.  On start day, the final weigh in seemed to take forever (riders are permitted to bring no more that 5 kg of gear with them and weigh less than 85 kgs) The horse I drew was a light chestnut gelding with a white blaze. Mongolians don’t ride mares so all the horses we rode were geldings and few stallions. There were 43 riders competing, so they had us tack up in groups and the ones that were ready were milling about the start line nervously while the rest of the riders tacked up. The wait seemed like an eternity but at the same time it felt too soon when Shatra (the Mongolian woman who manages the derby) starting counting down from 10 and we were off, galloping downhill at full speed.  I sat way back and tried my best to breathe and stay calm and settle in for the ride of my life.


E:  Each night, you would pull into a checkpoint, manned by a Mongol family, right?  What was that like?  What happened in the evenings?

J: I stayed with random families that I met out on the steppe about half of the time and the other half stayed at designated horse stations.  The food was boiled mutton, mutton dumplings, called Khuushuur if they were fried, and Buutz if they were steamed. Tsuivan, fried noodles made of flour with mutton, or mutton noodle soup.  Sometime breakfast was rice porridge but often was bland fried dough and a few hard candies.  The families were generous and welcoming and kind. Hospitality is embedded in Steppe culture and it is the custom that all travelers are welcomed into one’s home to stay for the night and fed. We always had to graze our horses and find water for them at the end of the day and the veterinarians would always come and check the horse wherever we were staying for the night.


E:  Did you learn any of the Mongolian language while you were there?

J: Yes! I took weekly zoom classes with a teacher in Ulaanbaatar every week for a year before the race.


E:  How many people started the race this year?  How many finished? 

J: 43 started... 25 finished


E:  This race is no easy event.  How many riders ended up in the hospital out of the starting field?

J: Tthere were over 11 hospitalizations over the duration of the race.


E:  And this is unlike endurance races in the US, where much of the race is spent at a walk or trot.  Tell us about these magnificent, sturdy little horses and how they approach this race.

J: there was a lot of walking and trotting actually but there was also a lot of cantering and galloping. Because we drew horses out of a basket, you never knew if you would get and trotter or a Naadam racehorse. Some horses you had to trot the whole time and others could literally gallop 25 k until about 5 k out when I would start trotting and then walking so the horse would pulse down in time.


E:  What is Mongolian tack like?

J: The bridle and lead rope were made out of goat hide with nylon reins and the saddle used for the Mongol Derby is actually made by Franco C., a South African saddle company. It’s an endurance saddle designed specifically for Mongolian horses and I actually really liked it. Mongolians use traditional wooden saddles and sometimes Russian-style saddles which look like a pillow with some rebar over a couple 2 x 4s. I spent a week riding in the Russian-style saddle in the far north of Mongolia after the race and found after I got used to them that they’re not that bad!  I haven’t had a chance yet to ride in a Mongolian style saddle but I hope to someday!


E:  Which horse was your favorite, and why?

J: Usually I say the horse I’m riding at the moment is my favorite because I truly love every horse I ride, even the slow ones because they are all so unique and amazing... but the one that sticks in my mind the most was the one I rode out of Station 14.  He is owned by Erdene-Ochir Uuganbayar,  the Mongolian herder who actually won the August 2022 Mongol Derby. And the greyish grulla horse I drew from his station was the only horse I encountered on the derby that had a GPS collar attached to his neck.  I’m not sure if that was because he was precious or really easy to lose or both. I rode him out of HS14 with high hopes that I’d make it to HS 15 before the riding cut off time. At first I trailed the 4 Pakistani riders but lost them in the mountains and found myself alone out on the grass steppe with this sturdy horse, full of power, stamina and spunk. We alternated between a swift ground-covering trot and a steady canter with about two hours left before 7 pm (riding cut-off time). 

In the distance I saw dark gray rain clouds rushing in and I felt that with the possibility of being stuck out in the rain, I should try to put on my rain jacket.  But I could feel that the horse I was riding would be too spicy for me to remount If I dismounted, so I thought since he was pretty calm I could sneakily put my rain coat on while riding.  I could not -- He started dancing and bucking a bit as my raincoat flapped in the wind.  I came off him gracefully, while still having hold of the lead rope, but I couldn’t get him to stand still enough to remount him safely.  Considering we were miles and miles away from anything or anyone, I didn’t want to risk getting insured or losing my horse, so we started walking and I messaged HQ on my Garmin In-reach that I might not make it to a ger before 7. 

We kept walking, and for as far as the eye could see there was grass and hills and nothing else. At 6:50 I decided to hobble my horse and set up camp, I easily hobbled this guy, took off the saddle and he was instantly happily grazing. The vet came about an hour later to check on us and she said we couldn’t camp in that spot. It wasn’t safe and there wasn’t water for the horse, so she helped me remount that fiery, beautiful grulla and helped me find a ger for the night. I had to sit a two hour penalty in the morning when I arrived at the next horse station for the vet’s assistance but riding that grulla was worth all of it!


E:  What's the climate like there?  Was it similar to Maine?

J: I did not find the weather similar to Maine in the least.  The altitude is around 4,000 feet and it is basically an arid desert grassland.  They do have unbelievable cold, like -40 cold winters, but I was there in summer and some days were wicked hot.


E:  What challenges did you face along the way?   Did anything come up that you weren't prepared for?  What was your roughest day?

J: Day 8 was my roughest day.  I flew through the first horse station of the day, and at horse station 21 I drew a very small dark grey stallion with a long flowing black mane and tail.  I was a little nervous because I had never ridden a stallion before, but the herder’s kids assured me he was docile.  Unfortunately, he was way too docile. 

I left the horse station ahead or Emmelia and Erin but they quickly left me in the dust because after several attempts at getting this guy to canter, I quickly realized that he was so heavy on the forehand with absolutely no propulsion and probably had rarely if ever carried a rider at the canter before. So we were doing a slow trot of a whopping 8-10 kilometers per hour [5-6mph] which is way too slow for this race.  A group of riders overtook me and I tried my best to keep up with them, but alas, I couldn’t get this guy to pick up speed.

He whinnied and nickered at the countless herds of horses we passed.  Another group of riders overtook me and then Dom, also on a painfully slow horse, agreed to pony me for a while, but after a few kilometers it was apparent that I was slowing him down and we parted ways.  I was now in the very back of the race, dead last. The "blood wagon" even sped past me -- this is the van full of fallen riders who have retired from the race and are being shuttled from station to station in a white party van where they get to eat lots of snacks and I think even pizza!   About 20 kilometers out from the next horse station I got off and started walking alongside the stallion and as we came upon a sandy area he decided to get down and roll.

This was the only leg of the entire race that requires us to pass directly through a town and cross a large bridge. I could see the town looming in the distance even 8 kilometers out; it seemed to never get bigger and I felt like it would take me all day to get there.  I started fantasizing about how maybe I could find a place to buy beer and snacks there, or maybe there was a restaurant when I could tie my horse and sit and have lunch. Maybe there’d be other riders there that had also stopped for lunch that I could meet up with... but after what felt like an eternity, I approached the town and there were very few people, and certainly no other riders, out on the streets to greet me. 

I had to half-drag the stallion through the dusty streets of the town, and as I looked around for shops, I realized that as bad as it was, being late to get to the next horse station, it would be worse to lose my horse while tying it up to go into a shop to get beer and snacks, so I resisted the urge and continued to trudge through town.  At one point a Mongolian on horseback tried to help me move more quickly through the town but nothing would encourage this stallion to pick up the pace. 

We finally reached the other end of town after what felt like a humiliating walk of shame and I was at the long white bridge.  My horse was terrified of the bridge and had no desire to step out onto it.  So there I was, stuck at one end of the bridge, less than 5 kilometers from the next horse station, where I could draw another horse and put this most miserable leg of the race behind me and hopefully make up some lost time.  On the other edge of the bridge I could see a Mongol Derby crew Member.  I assumed he was making sure we all got across safely. He eventually came up and offered to help after taking some very embarrassing photos of my unsuccessful attempts to get this stallion to cross the bridge. I eventually got back on him and the crew member took a hold of my lead rope and coaxed my little stallion across the bridge. I stayed on for another couple kilometers, but I think he was moving slower than when I was walking alongside him, at one point a van pulled up behind me and tried to chase my horse into moving faster towards the horse station, to no avail.  After five and half hours, I finally made it to horse station 22, it took the stallion longer that I would have liked for him to pulse down, which was crazy because we had walked so much of the day.

There were no other active riders there but it was a hot day and the blood wagon riders were strewn about under a tarp in the shade.  One of them gave me a hug and I as went into the ger to find food, I began to cry... I felt so overwhelmed and embarrassed by the last leg and after 8 days of such hard riding, I lost it emotionally and the tears streamed down. And interpreter wanted to know if I wanted the host family to make me some food and I said I didn’t have time. I just ate a few pieces of stale fried dough and went out to pick another horse.

I went out to the horse line and it was just the vet Angus, his interpreter and one herder.  Angus had just switched places with the head vet Anna who had vetted my stallion in. I was thankful because he was a little less strict and seemed very compassionate to my desolate position in the race. The herder wanted me to take his finest Naadam race horse, number 5, but we weren’t allowed to pick horses in this race, so I drew a number as usual, but the herder didn’t like the one I chose. He said he wasn’t good and so I drew another number.   It certainly wasn’t 5, but Angus said that number sounds a lot like five and the herder was very happy to tack up his race horse for me. I guess Angus felt sorry for me. 

I left for station 23 at a dead gallop. It was the most desert-like portion of the race and the terrain was dead flat with mountains far in the distance on either side of me and there was absolutely nothing in the valley ahead of me. Only scrubby grass and marmot holes and my strong and agile steed expertly leaped around the holes as I desperately tried to keep him galloping straight in the direction of the next horse station, for some reason he really wanted to head towards the right especially if we past a ger.  We slowed to a trot once or twice and then he was back at a gallop all the way to the next horse station, It was definitely the fasted leg of my race and we came in just under 2 hours!


E:  And through all of this, you FINISHED the race!  That's such an amazing accomplishment.  Congratulations!  What place did you come in, and how long was your ride in total?

J: I lucked out at station 28 and drew a very fast horse, another gorgeous chestnut, as I left the horse station the herders signaled for me to go around the bog and once we were through it the little moguls of the outskirts of the bogs we were flying to the finish line. 22 kilometers later, we were still galloping towards the end and I meet up with Reid Albano who I had ridden with off and one over the course of the race... We had previously agreed that if it worked out we’d be happy to cross the finished line together.  After walking in for a few kilometers to cool off our horses we saw the finish line flags and cantered in together placing tied for 13th.



 E:  Wow, that's so inspiring.  What is your favorite memory from the event?

J: Galloping full-out on these sturdy, amazing horses.  I cannot even begin to describe the pure joy it is to have your only task for the day be to ride horses and to wake up and do it again the next day, and the next….


E:  I understand you've fallen in love with this extreme sport, and have already signed up for another extreme race!  Tell us about the Gaucho Derby!

J: Yeah, when I got back to the hotel in Ulaanbaatar I woke up in the morning and immediately applied for the Gaucho Derby -- I mean, how could I not!  I think my favorite part of the entire experience besides actually riding in the derby was the year I spent training.  I like the focus and having a clear goal.  The Gaucho Derby is set in Patagonia, it’s a shorter race, only 500 kilometers but the terrain is more mountainous, so there’s less galloping and more survival and navigational skills needed. I’ll be riding Criollo horses, the native horse of the South American Pampas.  [Jessie is planning to participate in the 2025 Gaucho Derby.  If you'd like to support her by helping with some of the expenses involved in such an undertaking, she has a GoFundMe started here.]



[Jessie (front on the grey with yellow tack) training for the Gaucho Derby]


E:  We'll all be cheering you on, for sure!   Meanwhile, back home in Maine, you run a sheep dairy (Is that the right term?).  I adore the name of your business... Can you tell us about Fuzzy Udder Creamery?  

J:  Fuzzy Udder Creamery is located in Whitefield, Maine. We make a wide variety of fresh, soft ripened and aged cheeses, and sell at three farmers markets and over 75 wholesale locations throughout the state of Maine.  In addition to making cheese, I also run a small cheese wholesale distribution business, partnering with over a dozen local creameries.  I still have a small herd of sheep and goats, but my sights are set on transitioning to an equine centered career.


[E:  When we first spoke, I told Jessie that what little I knew about the Mongol Derby I had learned while writing about Justin Nelzen, a horseman who save the lives of many horses, but then died by suicide.  (That blog article can be found here if you want to read it.)  It turns out, Jessie has a happy addition to his story:]

 J:  Justin Nelzen’s daughter Trinity was another one of the riders in this year’s derby.  I feel like suicide is a topic that no one wants to talk about, but one of the reasons that let me to seek the Mongol Derby was several farmer suicides in my community. I believe that horses can play a huge role in alleviating mental health issues, and that’s why I chose BraveHearts Therapeutic riding for the charity to fundraise for as part of doing the Mongol Derby.  They do 20 mile trail rides around the country, drawing attention to ending veteran suicide. Here’s a link to learn more about BraveHearts and my fundraiser:


Anytime the subject of suicide comes up, I always want to say that no matter what you’re going through, there are still good times waiting on beyond that dark place, so face it, fight it, get through it, and you’ll come out stronger… and perhaps be able to help someone else through it someday. 

If you’re struggling and don’t have a safe friend or family member to talk with, most countries have a Mental Health hotline, answered by people who volunteer because they care and want to help. 

In the U.S., it’s: 988   (just like 911, it only requires three numbers)  

Or text HOME to 741741 for any mental health crisis, including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts.

In Canada, it’s:  1-800-668-6868 or text 686868


Thank you so much to Jessie for taking the time to share her experience!  What an incredible race.  We'll be cheering you on as you prepare for the 2025 Gaucho Derby!

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