Road To The Mongol Derby: Go Big Or Go Home


Margaux Farm’s all-weather track

By Kelsey Riley

Do you really dislike me? Would you like to see me thrown off, trampled, and bolted on by 25 horses, or suffer chafing in unmentionable locations from 14-hour days in a saddle? Perhaps be chased by wild dogs?

If you really dislike me and want to help ensure all these things happen to me, you should donate to my Mongol Derby effort, more details of which are on my Go Fund Me page.

The good news is, if you really LIKE me, this is also the cause for you! That is because I’m riding to benefit what I think is a really fantastic charity in Lexington, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances program at the Blackburn Correctional Complex. ‘Blackburn’ is a mutually beneficial program for retired racehorses and the inmates who are responsible for their care. The Thoroughbreds learn how to adapt to life off the track and are prepared for second careers, while the inmates gain new skill sets through hands-on work with the horses and classes in horse care. The inmates also experience the invaluable psychological benefits (that we all know about) of simply being around horses.

You can learn more about the Mongol Derby on my Go Fund Me page, but the nuts and bolts are that from Aug. 8 to 17 I’ll be riding 25 half-broke Mongolian horses across a 1000-kilometre (620-mile) unmarked course, carrying just 11 pounds of kit for the 10 day adventure, subsisting on the local diet of chiefly goat and mare’s milk and at times camping out with the area’s nomads.

I’ve been asked a lot over the last few months, how did I decide to do something like this? The answer is pretty logical. I have a strong background in riding, having grown up on the backs of horses and having barrel raced, broken yearlings, etc. But having let professional life get the better of me I hadn’t ridden much in the past three years. Now, it’s important to note that I take the ‘go big or go home’ mentality with most things in life, so when I decided it was time to get back into riding, it only made sense to make my maiden voyage a 1000-kilometre trek across Outer Mongolia. Finding somewhere local to go for the odd ride in the evenings just made way too much sense.

You will likely not be surprised to learn that the Mongol Derby will take some preparation. Not just hours in the saddle, but also gathering all the right kit to get me through the ride with as little physical and mental damage as possible (reconstructive thigh surgery having already been booked).

But mostly, honestly, hours in the saddle. Which is why, over the last two weeks while Lexington was in a deep freeze, I spent my Christmas holiday not on a tropical getaway, sipping a colorful drink with a teeny umbrella, but out in the subzero temperatures in the saddle, sipping hot coffee to keep my circulatory system from shutting down. The folks at Margaux Farm were kind enough to let me join their team of riders at their excellent training facility-either that or they are among those who dislike me and saw the opportunity to torture me. If that was their intention, joke’s on you guys because it was an excellent experience, with the exception of some cold fingers. The horses were all very well prepared and the track was kept in great condition to allow them to get out and stretch their legs when it was safe.

Having gotten on everything from babies to older horses over the last couple weeks, I was reminded of my strengths, and definitely made aware of my weaknesses. It turns out that after three years away I haven’t forgotten how to ride, thank goodness (one point me, zero Mongolia-ha!). It also dawned on me, however–as I attempted with numb fingers to rein in one particularly recalcitrant individual keen on going for a little romp after a few days off for Christmas-that I have some work to do (one point me, zero Mongolia, 10 recalcitrant individual-oops). So this is where I fall back on the “go big or go home” attitude, and I’m determined with a bit more practice to even up the scoreboard*. In the end, I walked away-oh who are we kidding, I limped away with thighs and knees on fire–knowing that this will be the best training for the physical and mental rigors of Mongolia. (*Editor’s note: I am under no illusions that Mongolia and the recalcitrant individuals won’t win by 31 lengths come August-I am simply hoping to finish the race, which half of the 40 participants each year don’t do).

I couldn’t wrap up this latest blog installment without mentioning the completely amazing outpouring of support, especially from the Thoroughbred community, in the first two months that the fundraiser has been active. In that time we have raised $5,700 towards the Mongol Derby effort and Blackburn, and therefore I’m confident we’ll smash the $20,000 goal I set out with.

The TRF has put out some awesome media on its Second Chances programs over the last few weeks. Click here for a video detailing the specific benefits for the program’s participants both human and equine, and here for a story about a graduate who has gone to be a lauded groom at Laurel Park. For my next installment I’ll be visiting Blackburn, so stayed tuned for some stories on the program’s participants.

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