Sebastopol rider finishes 14th in world’s longest horse race
Lena Haug was close to finishing the longest and most punishing horse race in the world — 640 miles across the Mongolian steppe on half-wild horses, roughly tracing the route of 12th-century emperor Genghis Khan. Fellow competitors already had fallen out, one with a broken back, another a broken neck.
It was the final night of the race for the 31-year-old equestrian, who grew up in Sebastopol and attended Summerfield Waldorf School. She was just 4 miles from the finish line. But riders must stop for the night at 7 p.m. Haug stopped 10 minutes late, which meant another 20-minute penalty when she took off for the finish line the next morning. What weighed heavily on her mind that night was not the triumph of finishing the race, but her desperate desire to change her shirt.
“At this point, I could not stand the way my shirt smelled. It was greasy with sweat and stress and having been riding in it for 10 days straight,” she said. “In my mind, this is the reason to get to the finish line — to not have to wear this shirt again.”
But the young rider found an unexpected gift in that final setback, and in all the setbacks that occurred during the notorious Mongol Derby — including the horse that took off with her gear. Everything that happened conspired to bring her to a sublime spot at that precise moment.
Riders who don’t make it to one of 25 stations spread 40 kilometers apart along the route must either find a nomadic family to take them into their yurt for the night or sleep outside.
“It ended up being an amazing experience,” said Haug, a professional horse trainer and pilot with a zeal for extreme sport and adventure. “I saw this family up the hill, and they were so welcoming. I ended up seeing rainbow after rainbow after rainbow because a storm came through. Everything that went wrong in the race resulted in this extraordinary opportunity.”
For Haug, competing in the race was more than a physical challenge. She felt a spiritual awakening as she flew across the emerald prairie of outer Mongolia, pockmarked with vole holes and many other dangers. Her attention was so focused in the moment it was meditative.
“There is a saying that we were amongst people with the same screw loose,” she conceded. “I’m a petty active adventurer. I’m a pilot. I race mountain bikes. I’m a back-country skier. I love all these pushing-the-limits type of sports. With this race, I met new edges I never knew I had.”
Preparation over time
Haug fell in love with horses at the age of 5, when a friend whose father was a large animal veterinarian invited her to ride ponies at their ranch off Olivet Road.
“I was just so enthralled, wanting to be around animals. But the horse itself was just a majestic creature,” she recalled.
She got her first lessons at a horse-boarding farm in rural Sebastopol, where, between age 7 and 13, she swapped chores for riding lessons. The place and the work lacked discipline but fed her craving for a wild ride.
“There were 15 of us kids that ruled the ranch. It was uninhibited, with no rules or boundaries and a lot of danger. I never wore a helmet and rode bareback,” Haug said. “We were absolute heathens out there. But when you’re confronted with a situation where you don’t have a lot of rules, you learn through experience. Within the lack of boundaries and rules, I became the horsewoman I am today.”
The owner of the ranch, she said, taught her how to read a horse, which makes her a good trainer now, and which helped her handle the bucking, largely untamed horses used in the Mongol Derby.
“I learned how to connect with a horse and get results without forcing it. A horse is big and, when you’re small, you have to work with their minds and their hearts. It really opened my eyes at the time to a new wave of horsemanship, which took into consideration the psychology of the horses (the ranch owner) trained. It is now relatively normal.”
Haug was talking by phone from a horse barn at Midland School, a prep school set on a 2,860-acre cattle and horse ranch in rural Santa Barbara County. Haug lives full-time in Idaho. But she travels constantly as a trainer and comes twice a year to this bucolic spot to work in their natural horsemanship program.
This would have been heaven to a teenage Haug, who further trained at Sebastopol’s Windhorse Ranch. There she worked with wild mustangs adopted by owner Kathy Sparkling, who also adheres to a gentle form of horse training. During school breaks, Haug interned with professional trainers.
“Each movement of communication with these wild horses has to be coated in genuine trust and love from the heart, flowing from both horse and human,” Haug writes on her website. “In the early stages, the horse is scared for their life, and I essentially should be, too. We are both in the space where nature would tell us not to be. It’s dangerous, and the horse is extremely vulnerable. However, we are both willing to build trust and begin showing one another our different worlds.”
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