DURHAM — “Mongolia is a place where you can see how successful the species of the horse actually is,” said Amanda Charlton Herbert after completing the longest horse race in the world.
Herbert, 26, of Poland was among 42 riders who had up to 10 days to ride 1,020 kilometers, about 633 miles, on 28 horses in the Mongol Derby — a test of stamina and horsemanship — and a chance to learn about hospitality, friendship and fermented mare’s milk.
Mongolian horses see little of their nomadic herdsmen and never see the inside of a stall or corral — or the outside of Mongolia. These horses are the closest to how nature designed them, “and they aren’t changed or bred to be what (humans) want,” Herbert said.
It was midway into her nine days of racing that Herbert found her eye to select the most rugged of these pre-selected small horses.
One horse, which Herbert nicknamed Arnold Schwarzen-neigh-ger, was cut out of muscle and tenacity, and he took two hands to ride. Khan, or “King,” the name Herbert gave her 28th horse, was reliable and careful, blazing through her last stretch.
“These horses are like machines,” she said. “I had to learn to let them set the pace.”
But in the beginning, Herbert wasn’t sure she was up to the challenge she took on. She was only able to ride two horses in her first day — her goal was to ride three or four daily — and one of the two horses had thumps, an irregular spasm of the diaphragm caused by electrolyte deficiency. The Mongolian steppe was in a drought and grazing conditions were poor.
“I hand-walked (that horse) 12 miles, and I cried,” she said.
When they arrived at the horse station, vets gave the horse IVs and monitored its condition closely.
“That horse had the same treatment I would have given my own horse,” Herbert said, speaking of Chyna, her thoroughbred-Percheron mare grazing in a nearby paddock at Safe Haven Farm in Durham.
The well-being of a horse in Herbert’s care is one of the most important things to her — not winning the race — and being penalized for metabolic conditions was devastating.
Following her slow beginning, Herbert, traveling alone, tried to make up ground by riding directly to the next horse station, not on the recommended route. The mountain ridges were beautiful, but the terrain and hypothermic conditions were rugged.
“I considered dropping out,” she said. “I didn’t think I belonged there.”
Then her courage lifted when she saw Taylor Dolak, 25, of Colorado, riding toward her in the distance. “Getting up side by side, I asked, ‘Can we start riding together?’ And from that moment on, we rode together,” she said.
On the sixth day, Herbert and Dolak were joined by Leslie Wylie, 35, of Tennessee. The three became a team and were known by derby officials as “the Yanks.”
“(We decided) let’s just enjoy the experience — we’re together,” she said. “I am so grateful for those two women.”
Companionship made the miles go faster, but it didn’t take away from the dangers.
Marmot holes tripped Herbert’s horse, sending her to the ground. Fortunately, this was Herbert’s only fall.
Horses kicked (and Herbert’s blow hurt much more than her fall).
“The interpreter was like, ‘Amanda, you don’t go back there!’” she said.
Horses ran away in full gear, stealing stirrups and leathers, as Wylie experienced.
Feral dogs chased them daily, even as they tried to tend to their horses.
And the saddlebags.
“The horses aren’t used to having packs bounce on their backs.”
Eventually, Herbert, Dolak and Wylie felt like they knew what they were doing, but none of their combined horse knowledge prepared them for what Herbert felt was the scariest experience on the ride.
Dolak’s horse screamed in distress. When Herbert looked back, the horse was on top of her friend, lying stiffly on its back.
Herbert was able to help Dolak get out from underneath the horse. Dolak wasn’t injured, but the horse wouldn’t wake up.
“Taylor hit her distress call on her GPS, and we really thought we were losing him,” Herbert said. “The life was just draining from his eyes.”
But after they pulled off his bridle, the horse jumped up and started grazing. “At the next horse station, the vet gave him a whole overview. He was 1,000 percent fine.”
Herbert could only speculate what happened to the horse: Did it fall in a marmot hole and have the wind knocked out of it? Paralyzed by fear? Symptom of a medical condition?
Horses, she realized, have an ability to amaze — especially the rugged ponies on the Mongolian steppe.
This year’s race was the longest course in the derby’s history, and it saw Mother Nature’s extremes: “Biblical” monsoons, sleet and hail pulled one rider for hypothermia, while squelching heat and dehydrating drought weighed on horses and riders.
Herbert feels humbled and grateful for the experience — and still a little dirty.
“I smelled like rotting bacteria,” she said.
But Herbert doesn’t consider showering to be the luxury — it was opportunity to race and be welcomed by families of nomadic Mongolian herdsmen.
During training in the days before the race, Herbert befriended a young girl who spent much of the day riding with her.
“We even sang — although I couldn’t understand what we were singing,” she said. “I just hummed.”
Herbert spent all of her nights at the horse stations where she directly felt the hospitality of the local herdsmen. They fed her their own food, including mutton and dumplings.
“It could have been from a restaurant,” she said. “It was delicious.”
And after she completed the derby, Herbert gave that mare’s milk a try — fermented mare’s milk, that is.
“It was like warm, creamy mead,” she said. It may be a taste she’d have to acquire.
But they didn’t just feed her. They offered inspiration and found a place in her heart with their ponies.
When Herbert’s spirits were low and fatigue consumed her, a local woman encouraged her, helping put on her gloves.
“You’re like my mama,” Herbert had told the woman. “Mama” was the only word that translated, and through it, she was able to express her gratitude.
Would Herbert ride again?
“Absolutely,” she said.
“The (Mongol) derby was the ride of my life,” she said. “I want to continue doing more stupid, crazy, beautiful horsey stuff like this.”