When Bob Long signed up for the world’s toughest horse race, his top priority was just proving he could do it. Less than a year later, he proved just that — and set a record doing it.
On Aug. 14, Long completed the Mongol Derby, a 620-mile trek across the Mongolian Steppe. At 70 years old, he not only became the oldest person to win the derby, he’s also the oldest person to ever complete the race, something he attributes to meticulous planning and years of experience on horseback.
“Preparation trumps youth,” said Long. “I was able to stay ahead of riders half my age because I didn’t have to scramble to get my gear or my plans together.”
It also doesn’t hurt that he grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he rode, trained and sold horses. Now a retired public health executive living in Boise, Idaho, Long still rides every day. But the quarter horses he favors for trail and ranch work competitions are a far cry from the compact, semi-feral Mongolian horses he rode in the derby.
Each of the race’s 42 competitors switched horses at multiple checkpoints along the race. Long rode 28 different horses, not an easy task considering the animals are essentially “green broke.” For Long, it called on skills he used as a bronc trainer in Wyoming.
“Once you get past the bucking phase, you have to establish that you’re the leader early on,” Long said. “All that is condensed down into a few quick minutes on the race.”
From there, Long said, it was a matter of “figuring out how to make the horse work for you.” He paid attention to the horse’s strengths — whether it excelled at galloping in short bursts or trotting endlessly across the steppe — and adjusted his riding plan accordingly.
Having never been to Mongolia prior to the race, Long was apprehensive about the horses and navigating the steppe, as the derby took place on an unmarked course that riders needed to navigate via GPS. He said he was fortunate to get a spot in a pre-derby training that quieted many of his fears. By the time the actual race commenced, Long was more prepared than ever.
Each night, he would stay with Mongolian herdsmen and offer gifts of cigarettes or adorn his horse’s tail with a blue ribbon won in a U.S. riding competition. The presents helped curry favor with the herdsmen, many of whom offered Long a place to stay and their best racehorses for the next leg of the journey.
“I would tell the herdsmen I’d be honored if they’d pick my next horse,” Long said. “All the herdsmen identified with me as a commoner who can ride horses.”
He had an ideal mount in mind: tall, slender horses, preferably buckskins like the horses he and his partner, Stephanie Nelson, ride at home.
As he neared each checkpoint, Long would stop to water the horse before slowing to a trot and allow it to graze. Because of the horses’ short stature and choppy gaits, Long struggled to get comfortable in the saddle.
“I spent most of the ride in a two-point stand, so I was exhausted at the end of every day,” Long said.
The grueling race left him so tired he “couldn’t hardly walk for two days afterward.” Long crossed the finish line on a stocky sorrel-colored horse after more than seven days of riding.
Later on, the family that owned long’s final mount offered him the horse as a gift.
“What an honor,” he said. “I left them some money for care and feeding of the horse and asked (the herdsman) if he would take care of the horse for a year.”
“It’s not out of the question that I’d bring him to America,” Long added.
In the decade since the Mongol Derby started, no other rider has ever been gifted a horse, Long said.
It was just one of the many ways in which the experience far exceeded Long’s expectations.
“(Before the race) I would tell my close friends, ‘Somebody’s got to win this. It might as well be me,’” he said.