2024 Gaucho Derby: Trio Claims Victory in the Greatest Test of Horsemanship and Survival Skill on Earth

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Imagine yourself thundering deep into the wilds of Patagonia on horseback. Atop an incredible Argentine steed, you’re navigating across some of the wildest terrain on Earth attempting to win the toughest and most unique equine challenge in history… this is the Gaucho Derby.

Gaucho Derby winners at the finish line with a Patagonia mountain backdrop
Gaucho Derby winners at the finish line. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

An eight-day-plus, 500km multi-horse adventure race, The Gaucho Derby travels through the mountains and pampas of Patagonia and is unlike any other horse race on the planet, a test of much more than simply ‘who can go fastest’.

Part of the Equestrianists Series, which also includes The Mongol Derby (the longest horse race in existence), The Gaucho Derby is based on the landscape, culture, history and horses of Patagonia and, or course, the Gauchos themselves. Crossing through high mountains, riders have to contend with both tricky terrain and unpredictable weather, ensuring the event is more than just a test of riders’ skills on a horse, pushing navigational skills, physical stamina and an ability to handle the wilderness (with riders camping out most nights) to the limit.

Gauchos working during the Gaucho Derby in a beautiful Patagonia landscape
Gauchos at work. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

Riding endurance horses for the first few days of the race, when the land levels, riders must swap horses for faster riding, but still remain mindful of not pushing their horses too hard, for fear of penalties.

“We would rather nobody wins than someone wins by pushing too hard. Riders seen making bad decisions, riding too fast across difficult terrain or not presenting horses in great condition will get penalties or be disqualified,” said Tom Morgan, The Equestrianists founder.

The end result: ‘the greatest test of horsemanship and wilderness skills on Earth’.

This was the third time the Gaucho Derby’s run, with Covid causing a break in proceedings, and 39 riders, from nine different nations, lined up at this year’s start line.

The race began on February 8 and from the off, riders learned that the environment in Patagonia can be a cruel mistress, as they faced the prospect of riding through a sandstorm. This slowed things down and no one was able to break away from the pack during the first day’s riding, with riders split between vet stations two and three as night fell. The end of the day’s riding was far from the end of the riders’ day however, as they took on the crucial responsibility of tending to their horses, ensuring they were well-fed, hydrated, and comfortably settled for the night, before setting up camp (riders carry their own tents, food and equipment) and preparing a ‘delightful’ dehydrated meal. This self-sufficiency is a hallmark of the journey, with riders managing their daily activities independently, without reliance on others or the support crew.

Endurance riders endure a sandstorm
A sandstorm rolls in. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

Day two saw six riders finally make headway on the rest of the pack, but their lead was short lived, as scorching temperatures and a complete lack of wind, made the going tough the following day. 16 riders spent the night together between vet stations seven and eight at the end of day three.

A rider setting up camp with her horse nearby
With the horse settled, it’s time to set up camp. Featuring Josephine Jammaers from Belgium. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

It wasn’t until day five that another breakaway occurred, with Gaucho Derby veteran Daniel Van Eden (Netherlands), endurance athlete Holly Masson (United Kingdom) and Mongol Derby veteran Rendel Rieckmann (Germany) breaking away from the pack. The trio carried the lead forward over the following three days, although at one point it looked like Daniel and Rendel would be able to get a lead over Holly, after she received a two hour riding penalty, but the pair decided to wait for her.

“Honestly, it was exhausting to constantly look over your shoulder every 10 minutes and see them chasing you,” said Rendel. “Eventually, at one of the stations, we collectively made the decision to ride together and finish as a team. It has truly been a massive relief and a much more enjoyable race since we decided to work together.”

Gaucho Derby riders leading their horses through some tricky ground against a stunning Patagonia backdrop
Rendel Rieckmann leading the way through some tricky ground. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

It was these three riders who went on to claim the joint title of Gaucho Derby winners, on day eight, but only after a very tense wait at the finish line…

Midway through the race, at the Meseta de la Muerte (Plateau of Death), a fierce storm rolled in and, in consideration of the well-being of the horses and riders, the race directors opted to pause the race until it was deemed safe to proceed. At the time, Daniel, Holly and Rendel were in the lead and were given a two-hour ‘credit’ once the race had restarted.

Hot on the heels of the three riders, through the latter stages of the race, were French men Nathanael Bienvenu and Olivier Picard (who rode together throughout). They actually managed to cross the finish line first, but had to wait to see whether there was more than two hours between them and Daniel, Holly and Rendel. Unfortunately, for the French riders, there wasn’t and the trio were crowned champions of a race that will forever be etched in their minds for the scenery they rode through, the people they met, the weather and challenges they faced and, of course, the horses they rode.

Not only was the race an incredible success for all those involved, but it also helped raise thousands of dollars for various charities across the world.

For more details on the race visit www.equestrianists.com.

Gaucho Derby riders extend their lead
The winners taking a chance to extend their lead. Photo by Kathy Gabriel

Gaucho Derby Winners’ Q&A

Rendel Rieckmann (Germany)

What was the most exciting part of this whole event?
There were so many exciting moments, like flying over the bushes with these amazing horses or the small things like realizing that the navigation plan, which was done the night before, really worked out well. However, the most exciting part was for sure to ride as a team and scream and shout together, whether it’s because of highs or lows.

How was it riding as a team? Did you have different roles i.e. navigator, campsite selector, etc.?
Riding as a team was essential. You hear it often, but it’s simply true: I could not have finished alone and it would be a hell lot less fun. Dan always kept his cool to keep going and had great experience from the last Derby, Holly’s drive, cheer up capability and major path finding skills and my technical and nav contribution made an amazing team. In the end it all blended a bit together as we learned a lot from each other.

How were the horses?
We were lucky with the full range of Patagonia’s beauties: from the rather relaxed and calm friends, which were easy to camp with, to the spicy rodeo ones where you wanted to take watches at night to make sure everything is OK. Every one of them became kind of a friend along the way.

What was your emotional roller coaster like during the race?
I’m not sure if this roller coaster would pass German regulatories. This much of up and down was hard to handle. There were parts when every hour basically we thought completely different from winning to not even being able to make it to the finish line. I literally wanted to quit 30km before the finish line and call it a day after we rode 10km in the national park, which was the wrong way. An hour later we saw we can still make it and the spark was back on.

It’s billed as the Toughest Horse Race. Was it really?
The first two thirds were hard but still manageable with treating yourself well with food, water and sleep. After that, it became mentally and physically very exhausting. I remember a scene when after hitting almost nine hours of mountain climbing, impassable forest, searching for gates in the labyrinths of fences and running through never ending bog fields we were partly falling on the ground begging it to end. So I guess it was quite hard!

What kept you going when you were your most exhausted?
Holly’s enthusiasm and just being a wonderful friend.

Daniel Van Eden (Netherlands)

What was the most exciting part of this whole event?
Hard to name one specific moment. Riding into the vet check where my accident happened last time and leading the race was special. The scenic terrain after Sierra Nevada was beautiful. Going over the finish and putting a checkmark to what started about four years ago felt great. I’m also proud to have finished without vet penalties.

How was it riding as a team? Did you have different roles i.e. navigator, campsite selector etc.?
Working as a team can be intense, especially with the pressure of the race and issues with the horses Holly was riding. I think in the end the team worked great because we all added different things to the team.

How were the horses?
Big, small. Some calm, some wild. Better in climbing up mountains than us. They all were beautiful. Because of how they are held, they are more social than the horses back home.

What was your emotional roller coaster like during the race?
I wasn’t expecting it to be such an emotional roller coaster — especially the part where we had crossed into the national park and had to backtrack.

It’s billed as the Toughest Horse Race. Was it really?
Yes. Especially because it needs so many different skills, physically and mentally. Horse riding, navigation, team work, finding fences, camping out, hot weather (while all of us were prepared for cold weather).

What kept you going when you were your most exhausted?
Teammates. Also other riders. And the vets, medics and other people manning the vet checks and horse stations.

— Edited Press Release

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