Clay County woman saddles up for world’s longest horse race in Mongolia | Lauren Fox
Abbi Bell will ride around 620 miles through the Mongolian wilderness on the backs of semi-wild horses in August as a competitor in the world’s longest horse race.
“It’s raw, it’s untouched and it makes you feel so small,” the Clay County resident recounted after crossing the Mongolian steppe in 2019. “You will come around the corner, and there will be a herd of camels just sitting there eating grass, taking a siesta… You will gallop and a herd of wild horses will come towards you.
Bell traveled to Mongolia for the first time in 2019 to compete in the 620 mile mongolian derby. Inspired by the postal routes laid out by Genghis Khan, the race takes runners through the remote grasslands of Mongolia, riding semi-wild horses.
Bell, 31, grew up around horses in Clay County and started taking riding lessons when she was 5. Initially riding Western, she craved a challenge and started practicing jumping at around 8 years old. As she grew, her thirst for challenge did not diminish. When she heard about the Mongolian Derby, she knew she had to compete.
“I was like, I have to do this one day. Like I absolutely have to go out there and do that,” Bell said.
Bell’s determination to compete in the derby was not all it took for her to be cleared to run. The Mongolian Derby only allows around 40 runners to compete, and each potential contestant must undergo an interview process to ensure they are ready for the effort.
“A girl, her horse rolled over and she broke her ribs, broke her face; this happened within the first three and a half miles of the start line. The second day we were hypothermic… Another lady, she almost died from heatstroke,” Bell explained. “Not for the backyard jumper.”
Once competitors are selected, they have a maximum of 10 days to cover an area of approximately 620 miles. The exact route is being kept secret until the start of the race, and competitors have only a few moments to choose each horse they will ride over a distance of about 25 miles, Bell said.
“So there’ll be 30, 40 horses standing there, and you walk up and say, ‘I like that one,'” Bell described. “That’s one of the biggest challenges in racing is being able to look at a horse and say, ‘Am I going to match you?’ And, I mean, those are split-second decisions.
Competitors will ride between 20 and 25 horses during the race, never riding the same horse twice. Every 20-25 miles or so, the rider will arrive at a riding station, where they will swap horses so that no horse is passed.
Through the largely unexplored wilderness, competitors follow topographic maps to lead them to each riding station. Each runner wears a GPS tracking device with an SOS function in case of emergency.
“I actually hit my SOS,” Bell said, recounting her 2019 run. it is ? And it’s a few miles ahead of me, screaming. And I finally got into it, and it’s a little kid, maybe about three years old, totally alone.
Bell remembered the child, crying and leading a lamb, miles from the nearest equestrian station, with no one or building in sight.
“So I jumped [off the horse] and just crouched down, and she ran towards me,” Bell recalled. “So I’m like, oh Lord, OK, I have a kid. What do I do?”
Bell pressed his SOS button and walked with the child, the child’s lamb and Bell’s horse for about 30 minutes before the “cavalry came down”, coming to his aid. The girl lived a few miles from where Bell found her and reunited with her family, Bell said.
A challenge of the derby is that competitors don’t know what to expect. Riding unknown horses through an unfamiliar land requires both skill and luck.
Bell is training in the gym for this summer’s race and plans to start running 50 to 100 miles a week on his horses to build up his endurance. Even with training and preparation, not all competitors finish the race.
“All you can do is just prepare your body,” Bell said. “I went there last time extremely fit, physical, ready to go, like, thinking I could take on the world, and by day three I was like, oh my God, I’m dying. It hurts.”
Bell was unable to complete her 2019 race due to a pinched nerve and a herniated disc which she attributes to one particular horse struggling repetitively over a long period of time. Her goal for this year’s Mongol Derby is to finish the race, although she would love to win.
“I will do everything to finish and complete this race. I know I will learn more about myself this time than I did last time,” Bell said.
Another Bell goal is to maintain a clean veterinary card. Each riding station in the derby has a veterinarian who examines the horses on which riders arrive, checking that the horses are uninjured. Competitors are penalized if their horse arrives injured. Bell said she was proud to have completed her last race without injuring any of her horses.
“Horse health comes first,” Bell said. “Sometimes accidents happen, you know, the horse can trip and start limping, and there’s nothing I can do. But having a clean veterinary card is extremely effective.
The treatment of animals in the derby is something that drew Bell into the race. Free from fences and stables, the semi-wild horses of the Mongolian Derby have a “wild spirit”, Bell said.
The territory covered by the race is also wild. Bell described the Mongolian steppe as vast and largely uninhabited, with vast grasslands, rocky mountains, streams, and occasionally trees. Many inhabitants of the Steppe are nomads, living off the land and braving harsh winters.
“They are very kind and generous, and the Mongolian people, when I say they depend on nature, they should be one with nature. It’s one of the most difficult environments on Earth to live in during the winter,” Bell explained.
Derby competitors are given a translation card which they can show to locals, asking them to spend the night at home if they are not going to sleep at a riding station or decide to camp.
“They have these Gurs, round tents that they can move around,” Bell said. “Well, I can go to any family’s house and knock on their door and say, can I stay with you?”
The Derby tests a rider’s endurance while providing a cultural experience. Bell said the company that organizes the race raises funds for the natives to preserve their way of life.
Bell also hopes to donate money to the Mongolian nonprofit, steppe and hoofwho supports the Shepherds, but first she must fund her journey to the race.
“I always repay the loans from my first [race]…the entry fee alone is $14,500,” Bell said.
As she prepares for her upcoming derby, Bell is raising funds through her new soap company and with a GoFundMe page.
His race will begin on August 10. Before she leaves, Clay County residents can find her training with her horses, preparing for the longest horse race in the world.