Holidays on Horseback: The Lure of Horseback Adventure Races
The winners don’t receive medals or cash. But for some riders, horseback adventure races are highly appealing.
By Tania Millen
Adventure racing — navigating over an unmarked wilderness course where the fastest person wins — has been a recognized sport for about 30 years. But horseback adventure racing is still evolving, with international race organizers determining their own rules.
The best-known horseback adventure race is the Mongol Derby, where riders gallop across 1,000 kilometres of Mongolian Steppe riding feisty half-wild horses for ten days. Race the Wild Coast in South Africa traverses almost 400 kilometres of beaches and headlands in five days, with the unusual challenge of riders swimming their mounts across a number of rivers. The Gaucho Derby in Patagonia is the most recent addition to the international horseback adventure racing calendar. It includes leading a pack horse for part of a ten-day, 500-kilometre adventure while navigating and camping in the mountains.
For all these races, a limited number of riders pay to participate in a staged race across rough country, which has a set route but no specific track. Horses are provided by the organizers, along with maps, vet checks, emergency assistance, meals, and some accommodations. Each race is different, with rules created by the organizers and challenges typical of the region and culture. Riders must apply to participate, with selection dependent upon applicants’ skills.
Contestants in the Gaucho Derby lead a pack horse for sections of the 500-kilometre, ten-day journey, and riders look after both horses. Photo: Richard Dunwoody Photography
Sarah Cuthbertson, Nichole Murray, Chris Peterson, and Heidi Telstad are four Canadian riders who have participated in adventure races, and were keen to share why they race and what they’ve learned.
Finding a Way
Cuthbertson is an Ontario-based endurance rider who has ridden in two races. She says, “I heard about the 2014 Mongol Derby and decided I needed to do it. I had a lot of expectations going into it, but didn’t quite get the full experience that I’d hoped to. I didn’t complete it and had self-confidence issues afterwards. But then the inaugural 2016 Race the Wild Coast ride in South Africa came up, and that was my chance to do it again.
“For Race the Wild Coast there was very little communication beforehand, so we had very little idea what we were getting into,” she says. “We didn’t really know anything. Then we got there and things went really smoothly.”
She finished the race in the lead with two other riders, and says, “It was a really positive, challenging race.”
Endurance rider Sarah Cuthbertson competing in the 2016 Race the Wild Coast. “A lot of people think they’ll do it when they have more time and money. When you commit to something like this, you’re going to find ways to make money and find ways to train — so just do it!” Photos:
When asked why she races, Cuthbertson says, “I can’t really say what one particular moment I was hooked [on adventure racing], but I enjoy going after these big goals. There are so many things I learn each time. I think the more you do, the more your confidence builds.
“A lot of people think they’ll do it when they have more time and money. But we never have more time or money. The amazing thing is that when you commit to something like this, you’re going to find ways to make money and find ways to train — so just do it!”
Race the Wild Coast is a 370-kilometre race with several river crossings, including six requiring deep-water swims. Photos: RockethorseRacing
Once in a Lifetime
Nichole Murray is an equine assisted learning instructor in British Columbia. “I don’t have the ‘ridden my whole life’ story like lots of people do,” she says. “I ride for pleasure and take my horses camping.”
When Murray saw information about the inaugural 2020 Gaucho Derby in Patagonia, she was intrigued. “It combined all the things I like to do — travelling, camping, survival, navigating, fending for yourself, and being alone in the wilderness. And it had horses! I thought, that’s perfect — and signed up.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I really wanted to be part of the first year so that it wasn’t really organized, so it had more adventure.
Nichole Murray entered the inaugural Gaucho Derby keen for adventure and describes it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Photo: Richard Dunwoody Photography
“The horses were amazing, and the scenery was really just out of this world. But there were so many things that went really not in an ideal way,” she adds. “And yet, I still had a great time.
“I think people hold onto expectations too tightly,” she explains. “But if we take a moment to look at the other things that are sometimes the side benefits, then you don’t end up missing the adventure you’re having because you’re upset about not having the adventure you thought you were going to have.”
She adds, “For people who are a bit hesitant [about adventure racing], there is a huge number of people out there who are willing to give as much information and help as somebody cares to ask for.”
Chris Peterson is a veterinarian in Alberta who grew up riding in the East Kootenays and does pack trips in the Rocky Mountains. In 2020, Peterson rode in his first adventure race — the inaugural Gaucho Derby in Patagonia — and placed third.
“I always wanted to go to Argentina, and this was a good way to do it,” he explains. “I’d like to say it was just about the experience, but I’m pretty competitive. Having to find your way around with a Global Positioning System was completely new to me, too, so it was a learning experience and a challenge.
Chris Peterson placed third in the Gaucho Derby, his first adventure race. Photos: Richard Dunwoody Photography; Anya Campbell Photography (inset)
“The organizers were pretty transparent about this being the first race, so we went into it knowing full well that there might be hiccups. It’s extreme country, so it was not easy. But it was beautiful. The horses were anywhere from reasonably quiet to pretty spooky, which was part of the challenge.”
Reflecting on the race, Peterson says, “By the end of the race, the placings started to matter less and less to me. It was more about the experience — and I’m glad that I did it.”
Heidi Telstad is a British Columbian-based Pilates coach who was a horse-crazy kid until she headed off to university and took a 20-year hiatus from horses. Once back in the saddle, she dabbled in fox-hunting before finding endurance riding.
In 2016, Telstad entered the Mongol Derby and won it with two friends. She considers it the highlight of her life so far, saying, “I really don’t know if I’ll ever get the same adrenaline-filled adventure again. There is something thrilling about the unknown — the speed of bolting horses; danger of bodily injury; being chased and lunged at by Mongol mastiffs with the understanding that they will rip you apart if you fall off your horse; the constant fear of losing your horse at any moment; and finding your way across a completely foreign landscape.”
Above: Shane Kelly Photography
The 1,000-kilometre Mongol Derby through the Mongolian Steppe is described as the longest and toughest horse race on earth. “I really don’t know if I’ll ever get the same adrenaline-filled adventure again,” says Heidi Telstad of her adventure.
Below: Gore/Baylor Photography
Although the race more than met her expectations, Telstad says, “There was this element of danger that wore me out mentally. When I returned to Canada, I felt myself getting tense before riding, and feeling competitive. It took me a few months to settle down and enjoy riding again.”
So Telstad advises, “Don’t get too competitive. Expect the unexpected, look at the scenery, and enjoy getting to know the locals and their culture. Think of how lucky you are to be there, and your heart will be full.”
Great advice for riders who are lured by the excitement of horseback adventure racing.