The Mongol Derby, the world’s longest and toughest horse race, has been thundering across Mongolia’s steppe for the last ten days. In one of the closest-ever races, a Swedish woman, Linda Hermann, took home the win.

A woman holding up a bridle.

Derby winner Linda Hermann.

Based on the ancient horse messenger system used by Genghis Khan in a country where the horse is king, at 1000 km the Derby is the toughest test on the planet for equestrian endurance riders. While horses are changed roughly every 35 km at checkpoints strung out throughout the country, riders must endure being in the saddle for up to 200 km a day and face the challenges of riding over 28 different semi-wild horses – from the animals’ varying temperaments and bucking abilities and the inevitable falls and mishaps that happen along the way to navigating through challenging terrain, including giant sand dunes and freezing mountain passes.

The 13th edition of the Mongol Derby kicked off on August 2nd and looked set to be a firecracker from the start, with 42 riders from eleven different nations competing for the prestigious win. Canada was represented by 28-year-old Alexandra (Lexi) Perry, who grew up in British Columbia and had “ridden on multi-day pack horse trips into the mountains of BC since I was big enough to ride a horse.” She competed in showjumping up to grand prix level and competed throughout BC, Alberta, Ontario and the United States. Lexi was riding for Second Chance Cheekye Ranch, which provides a second chance for horses bound for slaughter in western Canada by rescuing, rehabbing, and rehoming them. She was also supporting the race’s official charity partner Steppe and Hoof, whose objective is to support the herders and their animals and work to save the unique traditions that are part of the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle as it comes under fire from climate change and urbanization.

Day one saw Spanish rider Xavier Ferrer riding at the front of the pack for most of the day, but he wasn’t in the lead as evening fell, having had a reversal of fortune when he abruptly parted ways with his horse enroute to HS3 (horse station 3) – resulting in him having to hitch a ride back to HS2. This left German rider Judith Jaeckle at the front of the race as night fell.

Over the next eight days, Judith was never far from the front of the race and showed true horsemanship skills by never having to redraw a horse. New to the race this year, every horse station was a ‘lotto’, meaning riders had to ride the horse they were given, rather than picking a horse themselves, testing their horsemanship all the more. You could, however, choose to ‘redraw’ a maximum of three times in the race if you didn’t like the look of the horse you were first given.

A woman sitting on a horse.

Lexi en route. She and others in “The Horde” interrupted their race to help a fallen rider until aid could arrive. (Shari Thompson photo)

The real battle of the race would come during its final stretch as Swedish rider Linda Hermann, who’d been in a game of cat-and-mouse with Judith over the previous days, finally managed to overtake the German rider to take the lead … but only just, and it certainly wasn’t a two-horse race. Hot on the ladies’ tails was American marine Matthew Perrella, who’s navigation prowess and luck-of-the-draw, with some seriously fast race horses, now put him in contention for the win.

As it came down to the last two horse stations, Linda would find herself deep in a bog. Luckily, she and her horse were fine, but it was a very tense moment and a vet team was dispatched before her horse was cleared to continue. This slowed the Swedish rider down and allowed Judith and Matt to both gain ground, riding on very fast horses. It was down to the wire, but Linda was able to make it to the final horse station before the finish line in the lead clear, the vet check (these checks happen at every check-point to ensure all horses are okay and haven’t been ridden too hard) and remount on a seriously fit race horse.

The win seemed hers, as long as her horse passed the final vet check at the finish line. But Judith and Matt had other ideas and had reached the final horse station almost within eyesight of Linda. They both changed horses swiftly. With Matt on one of the most feral and fastest horses on the course, he crossed the finish line shortly after Linda, with Judith a mere few minutes behind him.

With bated breath, everyone waited for Linda’s vet check to clear (a penalty would lead to her losing the win), but finally the news came that her horse’s heart rate was below the 56 bmp required and the win was hers. Matt and Judith cleared their vet checks shortly after crossing, with Matt claiming second place and Judith third.

Lexi Perry rode much of the way in a large group affectionately dubbed “The Horde”, which rocked up to the finish line on Day 10 shortly after lunch. That group ended their odyssey on a fine note, with cheers all round and smiles as wide as the Mongolian sky. Lexi was 24th of the 25 finishers – a testament to her grit in a race where to finish at all is remarkable.

Not only was the race an incredible success for all those involved, but it also helped raise a huge amount of money for charity. The Mongol Derby to date has raised over $1 million for charities, with each rider asked to raise funds for good causes, including the race’s official charity partner Steppe and Hoof.

Comments from the finish line

Linda on being stuck in the bog enroute to the last horse station: “I had a lot of pressure today…but he (the horse) just got up and nothing was wrong with him, the vet cleared him and we continued to the final station.”

On her favourite part of the race: “Riding alone.”

On expectation vs reality: “The rodeos at the horse station, I expected that, and I got it. Most notably being kicked in the stomach.”

On the horses she raced on: “The thing is, when you’re going so fast on some of these horses, there’s a feeling that if my horse trips, I am dead, but they didn’t trip. The risk and the feeling was just incredible.”

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~ with files from New Chapter Marketing