Story by Kerry Phelps Dale

“It wasn’t fun,” says Katie Hasse of the grueling 10-day, 1000 km., Mongul Derby across the huge open plains, around the hills and mountains, and bogs and rivers of the Mongolian landscape. “But, I feel like my ability to endure a terrible situation, that my survivalist level went way up.” 

For 10 days in August, the 29-year-old Uppervillian spent nearly 12 hours a day, walking, trotting and cantering a different semi-feral horse across the beautiful landscape and parts unknown. The riders had GPS and target points, but the roads were dirt and unmarked. “We were supposed to stay on the roads,” says Hasse, “but we didn’t all the time.” 

There were 28 horse stations, two to four hours apart, where a mount exchange was made. “You went up to a line of horses to choose one,” says Hasse, who learned very quickly how best to make that choice in a hurry. “We called it the scratch test—If I could walk up and touch them without them jerking away. I took the first one that let me touch it.” 

Hasse rode most of the race with a group of two men and one other woman and says they helped each other get through the tough times by both encouraging each other and complaining together. When it came time, 8 p.m. or penalties were given, to check into an overnight station, a ger (like a yurt), was where a crowd of 42, dwindling to 25 by race end, rolled out their sleeping bags and slept nearly on top of each other. 

“We were only allowed 11 pounds for our saddlebags,” says Hasse. So when she weighed all of her gear before leaving, for Mongolia, she found herself over the limit and exchanged her nice thick sleeping bag for a lighter, more compact one. “The first one definitely would have been more comfortable,” she says. 

The gers were located on family properties who hosted the group for meals. “The food was terrible, I’m one of the few who didn’t get sick,” Hasse says. 

The food was awful, they weren’t able to bathe (“It smelled terrible in the ger.”) and the changing weather, a variance of a feels-like temperature in the 30s to the hot 80s, made the time in the saddle that much more challenging, and adaptability was key. 

That’s what Hasse was looking for when she applied for the Mongul Derby: A challenge. “I wanted a challenge and I had the necessary skill set.” 

Hasse is an accomplished eventer and did a few endurance events to prepare herself for this monster derby. “Nothing can prepare you,” Hasse quips. Her experience with green horses, however, certainly did help her with the Mongul horses she rode, who to Hasse were more untrained than feral. 

“It feels amazing to finish it.” 

Katie Hasse

What started as approximately 1,000 applicants, 45 acceptances, and 42 starters, ended with 25 weary riders all, even the winner, receiving the same non-trophy of a Del, a beautiful Mongolian robe. Hasse also took home boots worn to the bone and duct taped together, and enough confidence in her resilience and adaptability to last a lifetime. “It wasn’t fun,” she repeats, in case we missed that part. ML

This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Middeburg Life.