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Devan Horn, 1st American to Cross the Finish Line in
1000 km Mongol Derby.
Devan Horn, 1st American to Cross the Finish Line in
1000 km Mongol Derby.
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Devan Horn, a 24 year old from Houston rode roughly 621 miles in 7 days on semi-wild horses across the Mongolian Steppes, braving the elements and some bad luck to be the 1st American across the finish line. Fifteen Americans started the race, 12 completed. Two were injured and could not continue - the first with a dislocated shoulder and the second with a broken collarbone, and one was overtime. Michael Graham, a yoga teacher, completed despite a whiplash and damaged ribs. The American finishers included: an Alaskan Female Fishing Captain, a Safari Guide, a Writer for a Horse Magazine, a 64 year old Veterinarian, an Engaged Couple, a Professional Paso Fino Trainer, and a Lawyer.
The modern Mongol Derby was inspired by pony express riders who delivered dispatches for Genghis Khan across the Continent in 1224 AD. The unmarked course traverses verdant valleys pocked with hidden marmot holes, rocky mountain passes, fields of wildflowers, forested hills, sandy dunes, rivers, marshes complete with bogs, goats, wild horse herds and the occasional ferocious dog. It is acknowledged as the longest toughest horse race in the world. The course consisted of 29 horse stations at approximately 21.4 mile intervals, where the riders vet in their horse, rest and eat if they choose before picking up a fresh horse for the next leg, sitting out penalty, or perhaps bedding down for the night. Riders could ride from 6:30 AM until 8:00 PM, but if they rode after 8:00 they incurred a 2 minute penalty for the first 30 minutes and further late riding risked disqualification.
The horses chosen for the race are provided by local families of herdsman. Some are fast racers that win local races for their owners, and some are slow. Some are very well trained that compete in local horsemanship skill and agility contests. Some are the personal horses that are used to gather the herds that run free on the steppe, and some are ornery, spooking, bucking, bolting and half wild freedom seekers. All live on the steppe and none get fed extra grain, surviving on the native grasses, and even the best trained are a tad wild as they typically run loose on the step when not being worked with by the owner. The Mongolian horse has changed little in 800 years. They are typically about 13 hands, and stocky. Some are affectionately dubbed "pocket rockets." They are not allowed out of Mongolia and are considered a National Treasure. They come in just about every color and pattern, including appaloosa's and paints. Genghis Khan said "It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse," and with his horses, he established the largest land empire in history. It is traditionally said that a Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings. The contestants in the modern Mongol Derby must ride in specially designed saddles to fit the horse, and must weigh less than 187.39lbs, and are limited to 11 lbs. of gear. The first rider into the Horse Station gets the pick of the horses that have been gathered to that station. Some of the handlers will get on and "get the buck out" and oftentimes several men are needed to assist in getting the horse saddled and held so that the rider can get on. Approximately 1400 horses in total were gathered and picketed at the horse stations as each rider would need 29 horses over the event. Horse selection is key to surviving much less winning the Derby.
This year the race start was delayed a day by hail, downpours and flooding.
Day 1, 44 riders set out on the steppe. Devan rode brilliantly taking the early lead and keeping it, covering around 100 miles before bedding down with a local family just shy of the 5th horse station, about 17km ahead of the next riders. All her horses passed their vet checks in fine form.
Day 2, saw the sun deliver scorching temperatures, and saw Devan's lead evaporate when her hustle to beat the station 8 time cut off to depart for station 9 resulted in her being detained so that 6 riders were able to catch up. Under the Rules, no rider could leave 8 with only 2 hours remaining before the darkness cut off because there was no grazing and no water on that stretch. Race organizers feared for the horses should a rider be caught overnight in between those stations, and rumors abounded of brigands on that stretch as well. Devan had arrived in station 8 with almost 4 hours of ride time left, but due to the heat, her horse did not pulse down to 56 heart beats per minute within 30 minutes, although it did shortly thereafter and was sound. Thus, she incurred a 2 hour penalty which held her past the 1800 ride out time and effectively penalized her almost 3.5 riding hours.
Day 3, treated the riders to another blistering heat wave with Devan finishing the day, penalty free, 15 km ahead, having ridden over 100 miles into the 13th station.
Day 4, saw Devan lead from start to finish but run out of ride time approximately 1.5 km short of station 18 - another 100 miles in a day. She rode an extra 4 minutes incurring an 8 minute penalty in order to get to a family where she could sleep in a Ger. Vets may check a horse at any time whether in the station or out on the steppe and are supposed to check the horse at the end of the day. The Vet from station 18 came out to check her horse whose pulse again hovered just above 56 at the 30 minute mark, costing her another 2 hour penalty which would be served when she got into 18 the next day.
Day 5, greeted Devan with the need to chase down her horse who had managed despite hobbles to distance itself from Devan's location. After capturing the horse, saddling up, and riding to 18, passing the vet check at 18 and serving a 2 hr. penalty, Devan still held the lead for the rest of the day by the slimmest of margins, until a swarm of vicious flies and hot muggy conditions aggravated her horse just enough to keep the heart rate fluttering above 56 bpm at station 21. The horse met criteria 9 minutes too late. Another 2 hour penalty grounded her for the night at 21 and she watched the Australian professional team riders from Maher Racing of Adrian Corboy and Annabel Neasham ride out toward station 22 taking the lead. That night Devan did not sleep. She tossed and turned, agonizing over whether she should just walk the rest of the way to insure a completion. Another vet penalty would mean disqualification and realistically there was no way she could catch them without extreme speed and extreme speed risked an elevated heart rate. She studied her GPS to map alternate routes that might make up some time by shaving a few miles off the recommended route.
Day 6, saw Devan grimly determined to avoid any vet penalties and avoid falling behind any other riders. She tried alternate routes, but was unable to gain time because although they were shorter, they were harder climbs. She managed to escape injury despite a horse she had selected flipping over backwards and smashing her stirrup. Herders helped bend the stirrup back into usable form, but this cost time she didn't have. She spent the night out on the Steppe between station 25 and 26 behind the leaders in 26 who were treated to showers and a bed for the night.
Day 7, saw the Australian team across the finish first, with Devan just two hours and five minutes behind-- finishing 3rd overall despite 6 hours and 8 minutes of penalties and an additional hold of almost 2 hours at station 8.
Of the 44 starters 9 retired due to injuries/illness and 2 were over time. The last rider finished a full two days after the winners. Heather "Flash" Accardo of Louisiana said she loved every minute of her Mongolian experience despite her broken collarbone on Day 3, and despite one of her Day 2 horses going lame and having to hand walk it a substantial distance. She is determined to return to Mongolia and give the Derby another go in the future.
Some riders wax poetically about riding in Mongolia and braving the hardships and risks for those special moments when they got to ride a truly great horse, galloping across a green expanse, with a vibrant blue sky and majestic mountains in the distance. Your soul expands and you feel at one with the horse, the sky and the Earth. Maybe you make a new friend who loves racing by your side across the steppes as much as you do. You feel warmth of the sun and the breeze on your face, and so alive that if you died in the next minute the journey would have been worth it.
Devan reports that the Mongolian Derby always comes with a personal lesson, and is "never anything less than a life changing, challenging adventure." She rode alone with honor and with all her heart. She struggled with her competitive nature. Her hardest night was when she realized she had ridden herself into "checkmate." She wrestled emotionally with the feelings of "Dishonor and Failure" with half the world seeming to scream for her to push on recklessly 'going big or going home disqualified' and the other half begging her to basically surrender and just go for a completion. Devan has always admired those "people who didn't give up in the face of defeat and walked bravely into the fray even when the odds were despairingly against them." She knew that "finishing was essential to her well being", so she struck a balance between the "white flag and no quarter". She resolved not to chase the leaders, but not to give ground to the pack chasing her either. It took all her strength and horsemanship to do it, but she successfully hung on to 3rd place. We admire your courage, grit and perseverance. Congratulations to the Texas Temujin, Devan Horn. For more information on the Mongol Derby go to www.mongolderby.com or watch "All the Wild Horses" documentary available on Amazon Prime Video or Hulu.