Barbara Smith, whipper-in with the Marlborough Hunt in Maryland, finished in the top 10 of the Mongol Derby, placing ninth in a field that started with 41 riders and ended with 37. Not only was she one of only three U.S. riders to finish in the top 10, she was also the oldest rider in the race—starting at the age of 60 and finishing at the age of 61. (Her birthday was the final day of the race, August 16…quite a birthday present!)
We caught up with Barbara shortly after her return to the States to ask her a few questions.
What was the hardest part of the race?
It is incredibly physically demanding. It’s now a week later and my body is just starting to feel normal again. It was really hard, really tough. On the ride itself, the scariest thing were the wild Mongolian dogs. The herders use them as guard dogs and they’re incredibly fierce. They come after you snarling and biting. I had one wild dog literally swinging from the tail of my horse. Luckily, one of the support vehicles just happened to be driving up behind us at that point and the driver swung the car at the dog to get it off my horse. My biggest fear was falling and being bitten by the dogs.
And I did fall. I faceplanted early on, right out of station 7. We went rocketing out. Those horses have one gear: a flat-out gallop. We hit a marmot hole and I fell hard, right on my face. I was bucked off, too, and lost horses. But they have a good system for calling for help when you need it.
How did foxhunting factor in?
Foxhunting was definitely an advantage. The lead group [which Barbara was in for much of the race] were all race riders or had a foxhunting background. All of us were used to galloping very fast over rough ground. The race organizers were really surprised how fast the front group separated themselves from the pack—and I think that’s why. We were all used to galloping for long periods of time.
For me, I trained by galloping my hunt horses 25 miles a day every other day. I think that made all the difference. If I hadn’t been doing that, I couldn’t have withstood the physical demands. I was in the saddle for 12 hours a day for 10 days straight. My son laid out my course and figured out that I rode from my home near Washington, D.C., to beyond Chicago.
How did you pick your horses?
Those of us in the front of the pack got first pick of the horses, and I’d pick the tall, skinny ones. They’re all small horses, but the ones who were a little taller and looked fitter tended to have a bigger stride and could cover more ground. I’d look for the healthy looking ones without a belly. It wasn’t necessarily foolproof. Sometimes there’d be a small, fat pony that ended up being really fast. The herders in the stations would often point you to their fast ponies, because they wanted their ponies to win, too. But some of those were a little too fast—they would just be out of control, bolting for 10 km straight and you’d be holding on for dear life. That was pretty terrifying. I started to avoid those.
Would you do it again?
No. I’m really glad I did it—it was on my bucket list—but I don’t want to do it again. I’m really lucky that I didn’t get hurt. There were some really horrendous falls and injuries. It’s only by the grace of God that I didn’t get hurt, too. But it was an amazing experience. I got to meet some really great people from all over the world. I think that’s something that really surprised me: we weren’t out there competing with each other and trying to win at all costs. We all helped each other and looked out for each other. It was a great experience.
Foxhunters Rose Sandler and Stevie Murray finished 15th and 31st, respectively.