Mongolia Trek on Horseback for Charity

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Seventeen intrepid riders from five foreign countries gathered in Ulaanbataar for the ultimate horse riding trek: 3,600 kilometers (just over 2,200 miles) across Mongolia in 84 days. The idea, developed by Julie Veloo, combined ultimate adventure with fundraising for the Veloo Foundation, serving underprivileged people in Mongolia. The trek for horse and riders across Mongolia began at the end of April, 2022.

A long ride on horses in Mongolia for charity
Photo courtesy Julie Veloo

Gobi Gallop

Just 12 years ago, however, Veloo had never been astride a horse. She tried it for the first time at age 50 when she and her husband, Chelvan Veloo, first moved to Mongolia.

“I was already learning the language,” says Julie. “I realized if I was going to understand this culture and history, I was going to have to sit on a horse. I thought, ‘If these kids can do it, how hard can it be?’ Twenty-however-many times of falling off later—it can be hard! But I was determined to ride.”

A Mongolian ride on horses for charity
Seventeen riders, aged 27 to 70, spent 84 days on an ultimate riding excursion across Mongolia, raising money for the underprivileged local population. Photo courtesy Julie Veloo

Her persistence paid off, and by 2013, she and a group of six friends rode 707 kilometers for fun across the Gobi Desert over nine days, in what officially became known as the inaugural Gobi Gallop.

The idea of a making it a fundraiser in subsequent years added purpose to it, with international riders participating and raising extra money for the Veloo Foundation, averaging roughly $75,000 each year.

Specifically, the Veloos’ Children of the Peak recipient charity aims to stop survival garbage dump-scavenging before it becomes generational. Partnering with M. Batsaikhan (Baagii) and B. Sarantuya (Saraa) of Horse Trek Mongolia, they created and implemented it together.

Blue Wolf Totem Expedition

The 10 years of success with the Gobi Gallop developed into a more ambitious adventure: the cross-Mongolia, three-month Blue Wolf Totem Expedition ride.

A Mongolian ride on horses for charity
After nearly three months on horseback together, riders on the Blue Wolf Totem Expedition were bonded for life through the amazing experience. Photo by Heidi Telstad

“I tried to get everything in: the pre-history, the Silk Road, Genghis Khan, the eagle hunters, the reindeer people, deer stones, and burial sites,” says Julie. “Archaeology lives on the land here. And you can still go out and see it. Anywhere else on the planet [that] would be fenced off.”

The 17 riders, ranging in age from 27 to 70, were accompanied by some 20 support crew and a herd of around 40 horses, which were often contracted from local herdsmen. Riders averaged 50 km per day (31 miles) with a day off every 10 days, and rode through the Gobi desert, the steppes, the Altai mountains, glaciers and enormous valleys, visiting with all five Mongolian tribes.

Full of Surprises

For Australian endurance and dressage rider Duncan McLaughlin, everything fell into place as though the ride was meant to be.

“I was intrigued by the long ride in pretty country,” he says. “I was always interested in different aspects of horsemanship, so I thought it would be really interesting to go to the home of horsemanship to learn more about the horse culture there.

“Once the Mongolian horses get going down the trail, they’re really steady, so sensible, and hyper-aware of their surroundings, even though they seem super quiet.”

Bayan Ulgii Province, one of the largest petroglyph sites in the world
Bayan Ulgii Province is one of the largest petroglyph sites in the world, and is close to the 3,600-km mark at the finish of the ride. Photo courtesy Julie Veloo

As for the people, McLaughlin was surprised.

“It’s a very showy culture,” he says. “You think they’re going to be subdued because you think of Genghis Khan and that stern, very self-contained face. But they’re very flamboyant people. And that big blue sky. It’s phenomenal.”

Self-Discovery

Endurance and trail rider and horse trainer Jill McKenzie of Georgia (USA) felt the pull to visit Mongolia when she saw a fellow endurance rider astride a reindeer in Mongolia. Her research revealed the Veloo Foundation and the Gobi Gallop.

Sitting aboard a reindeer
Julie Veloo astride a reindeer; visiting the reindeer herdsmen was a highlight for many of the riders. Photo courtesy Julie Veloo

She applied and qualified to ride in that event, but when the Blue Wolf Totem Expedition was announced, she knew she had to participate.

“I wanted to grow and stretch myself, both in my riding and personally,” says McKenzie.

Visiting with the reindeer people was one of her most spectacular memories.

“Riding up to the reindeer people was magical,” she recalls. “We felt like we were on top of the world because it was so high up. You’d see this beautiful, colorful tepee surrounded by holly bushes and wild oak, and then all around you were these beautiful white reindeer. I did get to ride one. It was amazing!

“I learned a lot about myself,” McKenzie continues. “In times of trials, I have a lot of discipline.”

For many riders, one big challenging issue was chafing from riding in the traditional Mongolian saddles.

“We came up with ‘Chafe for Charity,’” she laughs. “I’ve done hard things, but I’m tougher than I thought. And the camaraderie was amazing. I felt a kinship at different times with different people. The 17 of us are bonded for life because of what we went through together.”

McKenzie gained great respect for the Mongolian horse.

“I would consider this the capstone to my horse career,” she says.

Escape to Mongolia

Endurance rider Heidi Telstad of British Columbia, Canada, had yearned to get back to Mongolia ever since winning the Mongol Derby in 2016.

Tents set up for camp
After winning the Mongol Derby in 2016, Heidi Telstad decided she wanted to slow down and see the country in richer detail. Photo by Heidi Telstad

“The Mongol Derby is such an exciting event, but definitely fast-paced, so I felt like I missed out on the Mongolian culture and beauty,” she says. At 1,000 km (621 miles), that race is deemed the longest in the world. “This three-month trek sounded like an opportunity to finally fulfill that dream.”

With an excess of stress at home, Telstad was looking for an escape. She found it in this epic adventure.

“Highlights were getting to see every inch of Mongolia,” she says. “If you ever want to really see a country, ride horses across it. The most magical [sight] was coming upon this huge sand dune in northwest Mongolia. There was a river running underneath it!”

Mongolia landscape from the back of horses during a ride for charity
With almost three months to ride through the country, participants could get a much more thorough sampling of the culture and landscape. Photo courtesy Julie Veloo

The Last Day of the Mongolian Trek

Even for Julie—who figures she has now ridden more than 50,000 career miles—the wonderment of this long expedition never wore off, even though she knew exactly what was coming up ahead of the group.

“Every day, it would get better and better,” she says. “The route was so spectacular. The last full day of riding, we were heading up to the highest peak in Mongolia. You start in this big open valley along the Milk River, which flows from the glacier at the end point, surrounded by towering mountains. You can feel the echoes of history, and that humanity has used this valley for these amazing spiritual purposes since forever.

“I was out of my mind with how incredible it was,” she continues. “It is magic beyond comprehension.”

On this final day, the group crossed the 3,600-km mark.

“I was riding by myself, because you know it’s coming to an end, but it’s such an incredible crescendo,” Julie says. “And I didn’t really expect that it was going to be such a big thing to cross 3,600 kilometers, but when it actually happened—when this random number ticked over on the GPS, and you know you pulled it off—it’s indescribable. Everybody’s had this unimaginable, spiritual, completely mind-altering time. You’re in this pristine wilderness, and everyone started crying and hooting and hollering at the fact that we had done it.”

Crowning the event was the charity aspect of helping people in need.

“We raised just under $150,000,” Julie says. “It’s an amazing thing to go do something like this and to help kids at the same time. Now we have two kindergartens, a summer camp, community library, and a sewing center. We provide employment for [approximately] 40 people, and this money will help continue these projects.”

A Mongolian ride on horses for charity
Funds raised by the expedition go toward local causes in Mongolia: two kindergartens, a summer camp, community library, and a sewing center. Photo by Heidi Telstad

You Can Ride It

Horsetrekmongolia.com offers many riding options, some in partnership with the Veloo Foundation. The three-month Blue Wolf Totem Expedition was a one-time experience, but the Gobi Gallop continues every year, and the 11-day Blue Wolf Totem Experience will cover some of the highlights of the Blue Wolf Totem Expedition.

This article about a Mongolian horse riding trek for charity appeared in the May 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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