Everyone gets a little ring sour now and again, and 28-year-old Madison Smith is no exception. As a joke, a friend of the lifelong rider and self-declared “hunter princess” emailed her a link to the application for the 2016 Mongol Derby, a 1,000-kilometer endurance race across the Mongolian Steppe. On a whim, Smith filled it out.
A few weeks later she had completely forgotten about it when she got a call that the event organizers wanted to interview her.
“It looked interesting and super different from what I’d done before,” she said. “The more I researched and learned, I became hooked.”
Many of us, even those who hadn’t spent the majority of our horseback hours comfortably confined to an arena, might balk at the idea of seriously preparing for a seven-day trek aboard “semi-broke” native Mongolian horses. Not Smith.
“I love doing big adventures,” she said. “Outside of riding I’ve done some climbing and some cool travel adventures. This was the perfect combination of the two for me. I figured why not?”
The Mongol Derby retraces the route of Chinggis Khaan’s postal system and takes about 40 riders across wide open grassland without fences or property lines. At 28, Smith was on the younger end of the age spectrum for Derby riders, as many are in their 50s or 60s.
The race also requires some bravery, as the scrappy, stocky horses (they are technically ponies by their height, but the Mongolians prefer to call them horses) are not the quiet hunters Smith grew up riding. They’re skittish to get on (a quick Google Image search for the race shows lots of riders struggling to come to terms with their mounts), and once you outlast the first few bucks, they have two speeds: stopped and speed fiend.
“The horses are not pets there; they’re treated like cars because where we’re riding there are not a lot of cars,” Smith said. “Their job is: human gets on, and it’s time to go.”
Smith’s first trip to the Derby didn’t go as she had hoped. After 10 months’ preparation, she had a nasty fall on the second day of the race. She’s still not sure exactly what happened, but she suspected her horse may have tripped, causing her to fall and hit her head. She was able to push her SOS beacon to call for help but remembers only a few minutes after the incident, when she woke up and found her semi-broke horse standing beside her.
“My horse was so sweet. He stayed next to me and didn’t run away,” she remembered.
After a five-hour ambulance ride, she reached a hospital and was diagnosed with a severe concussion, bruises and broken ribs. More than anything, she was disappointed not to have made it farther into the race. But having tasted the feeling of galloping across the Steppe, Smith knew she had to try it again.
Smith has applied to be a participant in the 2018 Mongol Derby and has resumed her training regimen, which includes Soulcycle, resistance training and hiking.
“If I had fallen on Day 7 or Day 6 I wouldn’t be going back, but I feel like it was so soon into the race, and I really was having such a great time,” she said. “I think it was just a fluke. A horse could trip just walking to the barn. But it’s not to say I’m not nervous. I’m nervous of being so excited and doing so much preparation and the same thing happens. But I’d rather go back and give it one more try.”
Smith grew up riding hunters and showing regularly before riding took a backseat during college. She now works for the nonprofit Homeless Prenatal Program running their media and social channels, as well as helping with event planning and fundraising in San Francisco. She admits it’s a tricky balance as a city-dweller to juggle work with training time, especially when many endurance riders take their horses over several miles daily.
“My greatest challenge I would say is saddle time and getting in as much time and as many weekends as I can,” she said. “Two years ago when I showed up at the race I did feel really confident with where I was in my training, and I felt like I was on par with everyone else.”
Smith rides at Kenilworth Stables in Oakland, Calif., during the week, where she puts in six to eight hours of saddle time riding with fellow adult amateurs, most of whom are hunter/jumper riders. She leases a warmblood named Olympic, who she said is patient with her. They still jump but are not showing this year, as she will instead focus on six or seven endurance races at home before heading back to Mongolia in August.
On the weekends, she trains with Christoph Schork, who has logged more than 32,500 miles on horseback, at his endurance training center in Moab, Utah. On training weekends, she puts in 10 or 12 hours in the tack.
She’s already tweaking her gear for the next race; a rider’s equipment can make or break their ability to survive a long ride (and yes, they do find ways to pad their saddle seats). Smith has found a few useful tricks for the long hauls, including compression tights and the right pair of tall boots. She admits she’s one of the only endurance riders she’s seen who can’t get used to paddock boots and half chaps.
“It’s very difficult, but I like it,” she said. “It is kind of meditative. I think growing up riding on the circuit I did get a little burnt out. This sounds cheesy, but I think this has brought me the real joy of riding again. Just galloping with friends is very freeing—it feels like nothing else. That’s part of why I’m going back to Mongolia, that feeling of riding across the Steppe. I’ve been craving it ever since.”
Smith still cherishes the friends she made in those few days in Mongolia. The Derby attracts riders from all walks of life, and there is considerable camaraderie between competitors. Smith remembers riders trading lip balm and anti-inflammatories to help each other through the race, and she said there have been joint winners of the Derby several years. Not unlike eventing, many riders consider the experience a victory if they just complete the course.
“The conversations were amazing,” she said. “I was riding with these two great girls; we were laughing and joking the whole day. They say about this race that no one really wins this alone.”
Although Smith expects her five-year plan will take her back to the in-gate, she has no regrets about her foray into endurance riding and wouldn’t be surprised if she kept entering races after the 2018 Derby.
“If anyone needs something new in their riding, I love endurance riding,” she said. “I think there are a couple spots left if anyone wants to join me in the Derby!”