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Equestrian Events

American Wins World’s Toughest Horse Race

Riders in full race mode. Photo by Shari Thompson.

After a two-year absence, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, The Mongol Derby, thundered across Mongolia’s steppe for eight days. In one of the closest races ever, an American became the co-winner, with her home state of Wyoming claiming its second winner.



Based on the ancient horse messenger system used by Genghis Khan, in a country where the horse is king, the 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) Derby is the toughest test on the planet for equestrian endurance riders. While horses are changed roughly every 21 miles at checkpoints strung out throughout the country, riders must endure being in the saddle for up to 100 miles a day and face the challenges of riding over 28 different semi-wild horses, with varying temperaments and bucking abilities, the inevitable falls and mishaps that happen along the way and navigating through challenging terrain, from giant sand dunes to freezing mountain passes.

After the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 editions, the twelfth Mongol Derby kicked off on July 23rd and looked set to be one of the most fiercely contested races to date, with 46 riders from 10 different nations competing for the prestigious win.

Chris Walker of the UK with one of the Mongolian host families. Photo by Shari Thompson

Day 1

Day one saw young Kiwi pair Sam Edney and Annie Hackett take an early lead, as other racers suffered navigational errors and falls.

Day 2

By the end of day two, riders had found their groove and four had caught the Kiwis, as six riders bunked down together at station six (the race is made up of 28 stations strung out along the route). Riders aim to be at one by the end of the riding day, but can opt to, or unintentionally, “wild camp” or try and find a friendly Mongolian family with space in a ger (traditional hut home).

Day 3

By day three, riders were pulling out of the race with bruised and battered bodies, while others served time penalties for riding past cut-off times the night before. The names changed, but the end of the day still saw six riders neck and neck, among them Irishman Patrick Heffron and Brit Chris Walker.

Day 4

The pair’s navigational knowledge saw them take a slender lead on day four as the race hit some serious mountainous terrain and the weather deteriorated to “cold, wet and miserable”—a sudden change for a field up until now more concerned with getting enough water on board than shaking it off.

Day 5

Day five, the pair kept their lead as they chose to wild camp only 18 minutes ahead of a chasing pack of seven, including American Deirdre Griffith (who was at the very back of the pack at the end of day one!) and South African Willemein Jooste.

Days 6, 7, and 8

Patrick and Chris rode out front through days six and seven, but never with enough of a lead to relax and—with just a few hours riding left—on the final day (day eight, the morning of the 30th), Deirdre and Willemein passed them. It was a perfect example of how tackling the Derby as a team can carry you a long way. Teams can share navigation, help each other out of scrapes, and generally keep up morale.

They crossed the finish line together to win the toughest horse race on the planet, leaving Chris and Patrick to finish just behind to take joint third.

Willemien Jooste, left in white hat, and Deirdre Griffith cross the finish line together. Photo by Shari Thompson.

Deirdre, 34 from Jackson Hole, became the second person in a row from Wyoming to win the race after Bob Long in 2019, whom she spoke to before the race.

At the finish line, she commented on being at the back of the race on day one:

“That was demoralizing. I decided with fellow rider Lena Haug at start camp that we would head the straightest route. We underestimated the elevation and so it took us a long time to reach station 1. That was one of my best horses of the Derby and it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t get to race him against the front of the pack. Overall though, I think it was a blessing as I wasn’t running with the front runners and pushing my horses out of competitiveness. My strategy never changed throughout the whole race: Race my race and ride the horse I’m on.”

Highlights of the race included overtaking the leaders right at the end of the race:

“The high was the last day where we made a great [navigational] choice and had an opening to overtake the front runners we’d been chasing for so many days.”

New Zealander Annie Hackett, who took an early lead, is all smiles. Photo by Shari Thompson

And experiencing the local culture:

“We had many experiences staying with families. They all stick out in my memory for different reasons. What really struck me was their generosity to take in complete strangers and give us food off their tables and space in their gers.”

Her motivations for taking part in the world’s toughest horse race included inspiring her children:

“This race has always piqued my interest as an epic challenge both mentally and physically. Traveling on horseback is the best way to see a new country, and getting to interact with the locals in such a horse-oriented culture was really special. One of my main reasons for competing in this race is to show my girls (5 and 6 years old) that they should dream big, and they can achieve anything they set their minds to with hard work and determination.”

The winning pair embrace. Photo by Shari Thompson

As well as raising funds for treating post-partum depression:

“I raised over $100,000 for the St. John’s foundation. We created a parental mental wellness program that helps new parents get access to mental healthcare after they have their children. I struggled with post-partum depression after both of my kids, and it was really important to me to help put systems in place that made accessing mental healthcare much easier and more affordable.”

To learn more or to donate, visit Deirdre’s website, and for more details on the world’s toughest horse race, which is run by British company The Adventurists, visit www.equestrianists.com.

Horse Illustrated

Horse Illustrated is the magazine for people who are passionate about horses. Each issue offers advice on horse health and care, plus user-friendly training tips for both English and western riders and engaging lifestyle features for horse lovers.

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