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Sebastopol rider finishes 14th in world’s longest horse race

Sebastopol native Lena Haug endured a dog attack, got kicked in the face and lost her gear, yet lived to tell the tale of the Mongol Derby.|

Hear Haug’s story with photos

What: Reception, talk and slideshow with Mongol Derby competitor Lena Haug

When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday

Cost: Free; nonprofit donations accepted for “Steppe and Hoof” or Sebastopol Grange

Where: Sebastool Grange, 6000 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol

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.”

That proved to be the right mindset for the Mongol Derby, where the horses used are small, fearless and tough, adapted to the harsh landscape of the steppe.

Other experiences propelled Haug toward the world’s toughest horse race. After high school, she helped guide back-country horse treks in Chile over uncharted paths. She supported herself by training horses while studying political science at UC Santa Cruz and developed a reputation for working with difficult horses. After college, she came back to Sonoma County and continued equine training and teaching.

But three years ago, Haug realized working with horses was her art, and relying on it for a living would diminish her energy for it. So in 2019 she moved to northern Idaho and got her pilot’s license.

A brutal challenge

When the idea was first broached to her about applying for the brutal Mongol Derby in 2020, Haug feared not having enough time to get ready and raise the $15,000 entry fee.

“It sounded incredibly and absolutely insane and right up my alley,” she said of the race considered the ultimate test of human and equine endurance. It requires what she calls “a blend of insanity, skill and grit.”

Key support came from a friend in Idaho who convinced her “money should be no reason why people don’t pursue something outrageous and wild and creative.”

Nearly $15,000 in donations poured into a Go Fund Me account from supporters who knew she had the right stuff.

Some 400 riders apply each year to compete in the derby, and Haug was thunderstruck to be one of 47 accepted for the 2021 race. When it was canceled because of COVID-19, she set her sights on 2022 and trained by intensively riding as much as possible.

“At no point, and luckily even during the race, did I feel I could not do it,” she said. “My drive to try and feel confident in my abilities is always pretty strong.”

Ready for 10-day race

She showed up in Mongolia in July mentally and physically ready for the ride of her life.

Competitors ride with minimal emergency gear, enough to make it through the night if they don’t reach a station by the 7 p.m. deadline and there is no nearby family to appeal to for lodging. Riders are allowed only 5 kilograms. Haug had only a sleeping bag, a micromat, a down jacket and rain gear.

“You’re very reliant on nomadic families. They help you get fed and they’re providing horses and shelters,” she said. The people of the steppe make up a quarter of the country’s population and are nomadic.

The route is kept secret from riders until the day before the 10-day race, when they’re issued a GPS programmed with the waypoints.

Although it’s touted as 1,000 kilometers, it is actually more than that, said Haug, once the rivers, mountains, marshes and other obstacles riders must navigate around are factored in.

“The hardest part, which makes the whole race such a struggle, is the horses are absolutely fickle. You cannot touch these horse or handle them like any domestic animal. They’re totally feral,” she said of the 50 pre-vetted horses, many which had to be restrained just to saddle them. In the steppe they must forage, surviving on grit. To tame them would leave them too vulnerable.

At each way station, the horses are checked by veterinarians. If their heart rates don’t drop to a resting rate within a set time, the rider is penalized, demanding constant calculation on how fast to run and when to slow down.

Haug was kicked in the face by one mount. After medics said she was OK to continue, the horse took off like a bullet, with Haug hanging on, just trying to survive the ride. He made the next station in an hour and 38 minutes.

“There was no controlling this horse. In fact, I couldn’t even pull my GPS out the whole way. I passed 10 riders on that leg and just screamed what direction I should I be going. Every time I would pull back on the reins, he would bolt all over again.”

Many riders fell out early on, one with a broken back, one with a broken neck, another with a punctured lung, another with a broken knee. Haug was one of 32 who finished, coming in 14th. The effort to ride the grueling 75 to 90 miles a day needed to finish in 10 days burns an enormous amount of fuel. But Haug had no appetite and survived on candy left by her hosts. She lost 18 pounds in nine days.

“The hardest part of endurance sports is that it is so long. Everything hurts. At the end of the day you feel so stiff you can’t imagine waking up and getting back on a deranged horse. But something magical happened. On Day four or five, I got to this place of bliss, where there is no such thing as good or bad or something going wrong because everything is so unexpected. ... The biggest thing about this race is to expect the unexpected.”

The riders can be confronted with peril at any point as they barrel through the Mongolian wilderness. One danger is the Mongolian Pyrenees sheepherding dogs.

“They would bear down on you and chase you in packs. You’d see them coming, drooling and slobbering and mad to protect their herds. So you had to make a choice,’” she said.

Running around them might lead to a treacherous vole hole. Going full speed ahead risks being flung by the horse and “demolished by these dogs.”

Haug was exhilarated just to finish the race.

“I was really grateful I finished in one piece. I was happy and healthy and had an amazing experience. I came to a feeling of serenity, and in that serenity I felt completely at ease with whatever was going to be. Because everything is so out of control, I could just relax into knowing whatever was going to happen is just as it should be.”

And that, she said, “made the whole experience perfect.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

Hear Haug’s story with photos

What: Reception, talk and slideshow with Mongol Derby competitor Lena Haug

When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday

Cost: Free; nonprofit donations accepted for “Steppe and Hoof” or Sebastopol Grange

Where: Sebastool Grange, 6000 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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