Forty-six semi-feral horses blasted across the starting line, their hooves hitting Mongolian ground on the same path Genghis Khan blazed in the 13th century on the way to ultimately creating the largest contiguous empire in world history.
But the only thing their riders sought to win was an epic test of endurance.
Thirty-two-year-old Callie King, who grew up on a fourth-generation farm on the Lancaster-Chester County line, was among them.
The Mongol Derby is the world’s longest and toughest horse race. King spent nine days and nights in August racing 30 of those horses – of varying compliance – across 1,270 kilometers, or about 789 miles, of vast, treeless steppe, foreboding rock mountains and sand dunes. After grueling days that left her muscles aching, she slept on the ground in goat shelters or canvas tents of nomadic herders where, as a vegetarian, she was fed a steady diet of goat pie and fermented, alcoholic horse milk.
King didn’t just survive the grueling test of endurance, run August 10 through August 20. She excelled, earning a bronze medal as the fourth of 46 riders to cross the finish line. (There was a tie for second place.) She’d been in the running to win until the last day.
“I loved it,” King said. “As soon as I was out there. Me alone with a horse is a very natural place for me.”
Those riders, handpicked from around the world, each had to pay a $15,500 entrance fee to The Equestrianists, a British company that stages endurance equine races. It takes more than 500 support staff to make sure the native horses and riders are safe. Mongolian herders are paid for rounding up the horses.
About half did not finish the whole race. Some got lost and had to be rescued, and four were sent to a hospital for illness, such as heat stroke, hypothermia and gastrointestinal distress.
Temperatures varied from 80 degrees on days when the sun beat down to the 40s at night. Rainy conditions also tested contestants.
Few riders were not thrown from their barely broken horses at least once. King was thrown when her horse for the day stepped in a marmot hole and tumbled on top of her.
“The best way that I can describe it is I know that it has changed me, but it’s the kind of experience you can’t formulate the words for,” King said last month from her parents’ farm in Honey Brook Township.
King operates Honey Brook Stables, the hands-on campus of her HorseClass business, a mostly online, international learning platform for horse riders, equestrians, horse owners and horse lovers. Her teaching focuses on connections between horses and humans and has had more than 86,000 students in 41 countries since 2012.
Since 2021, King has lived on a ranch in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she trains endurance horses and rides her Azteca stallion, Canelo.
The race was a perfect meld for her love of riding horses, thirst for adventure, riding in wide open spaces and experiencing new cultures. She has loved roaming since she was 9 and an aging farmer in Colorado gave her a horse called Scotch, named after his favorite drink.
Her love affair with horses never wavered despite being attacked by a stallion when she was 13, causing severe injuries, knocking her unconscious and quite possibly resulting in death if a neighbor driving by hadn’t run over and stopped the assault.
From that moment, she has embraced a sense that life is precious and to act on passions. Still at the core of her training is the attainment of the special bond that can be forged between horse and rider. She vowed not to lose sight of that when she was one of the 45 riders accepted among more than 250 aspirants to run this year’s Mongol Derby.
“I was definitely riding to be competitive, but not at the expense of not enjoying it,” she says. “I really wanted to do right by the horse. I could have pushed the horses, but if it was past the point of being fun for me or my horse, it wasn’t worth pushing hard.”
King learned about the Mongol Derby from a family friend, who years ago sent a newspaper clipping to her mother with a note: “This reminds me of Callie.” King pinned the clipping to the board in her office.
King first applied for the race in 2019, at a time when her life was in upheaval. She had ended a long-term relationship, been involved in a motorcycle crash and was looking for the next phase in her horse-training business. Then the race was suspended in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19.
King credits her strong start to her first horse, a fast performer who proved to be a “lucky” choice.
“I was on a really fast horse, so we were in the front for like the first 10K [6.2 miles]. He just ran and ran,” King said. “So it was a good start. It was an exciting start for me.”
Semi wild, the small but incredibly rugged Mongolian horses have changed little from the time of Khan, when they were the steeds of conquering Mongol warriors. They are considered the oldest horse species on earth.
“One of the things, when I first saw the Mongol Derby that made me really want to do it, was just to experience the horses themselves,” King said. “The horses are closer to horse ancestors. They haven’t been overbred by humans, and they’re an older genetic variety of horse. And seeing that and seeing that old culture, the way they work with horses, was pretty cool.”
Modern-day Mongolians continue a sacred relationship with the horses. King noticed horse iconography everywhere, from the city to the countryside.
“It’s a source of individual pride, as well,” King said. “For example, when we picked horses, one owner was so excited that he rode alongside me on his motorcycle just to see the horse run.”
Mongolians use the horses for transportation, herding livestock, racing, drawing the milk of mares to make into a fermented drink called airag, as well as occasionally meat.
“I certainly don’t romanticize it,” King said. “They still use horses for meat. They eat a lot of horses. They use them for milk. It’s very different than how we have horses here for pets and companions. But at the same time, those horses get to live very free lives.”
There are more than 3 million of them wandering the unfenced steppe, far outnumbering humans. They survive on their own amid extreme heat, cold, hunger, thirst, flies, floods and deserts.
Each year, herders round up about 1,500 working horses for use in the race. “You should think of them as equine gladiators: grass fueled, air cooled, saddled and bridled after some serious negotiation,” reads the guide to applicants for the race. Some horses balked at crossing the finish line because of flapping flags, and one rider reported that her noisy plastic water bladder terrified her horse.
At each station, King had to quickly choose her next mount from up to 50 rounded-up horses. She looked for lean and fit ones and ended up having to make use of each’s strengths. She had slow horses, for example, that were sure-footed and good navigators. In fact, the last day of the race, she nearly overtook two of the three riders ahead of her by taking a different cross-country route.
A simple bridle made of rough, barely cured leather and hand-forged pieces attached to leather reins provide rudimentary steering of the horse. There also is an extra 10-foot piece of leather as a lifeline to avoid losing your steed when you fall off.
Horse welfare is paramount, with all horses pre-checked by international vets. After each 25-mile leg, the horses are checked again and riders are given time penalties if they fail vet checks. King got a two-hour delayed start once when her horse had an end-of-day resting heart rate just over the limit.
Most nights, after a draining 11-hour ride covering 65 miles or so, King would bunk with multi-generational families of herders in their round tents, called gers. One night she slept on the floor with a family of 15.
She ate a lot of goat and sheep meat cooked with fat and noodles, which, despite being a vegetarian, she accepted gratefully and consumed.
“I wanted the full experience of a different culture,” she said.
One family gave King a goat leg.
“I was told it’s a great honor there to be offered the meat on the bone,” she said.
Other families shared their vodka, which is very popular in the backcountry of Mongolia.
“One rainy day, the families at the horse stations along the way brought out vodka, so every horse station we could have a shot of vodka to keep our spirits high as we were riding in the rain," King said.
Riding ability, attention to her horses, endurance and outdoors skills all played a role in King’s impressive showing.
So did her love of wandering the backcountry. Some riders found the vast steppe with few signs of human habitation disconcerting.
King vividly remembers a night sleeping on the ground with a female Australian rider, staring at a night sky crowded with stars from no light pollution. A herd of wild horses came up and joined them. Earlier, an eagle had speared a small bird in mid-air in front of her.
“Being on a horse, you just felt like you were part of it — not intruding on nature at all,” she recalled.
If there’s one takeaway of the journey to pass on, she said, it’s this: “I want people to get out and do the things they dream of.”