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Mongolian Race Winner Bob Long Credits Preparation for Historic Victory

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Wyoming native Bob Long wins worlds longest horse race
Wyoming native Bob Long popping champagne on the podium after winning the Mongol Derby, the world's longest horse race. (Photo credit: Sara Farnsworth)

By Nichole Blanchard, Cowboy State Daily

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.

Wyoming native Bob Long wins worlds longest horse race on the back of local Mongolian horses
Wyoming native Bob Long wins world’s longest horse race on the back of local Mongolian horses (Credit: Sara Farnsworth)

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.

Mongol Derby champion Bob Long
Local herders came from miles around to greet Bob; the horse is an integral part of Mongolian culture, and they recognized another truly instinctive horseman in Bob. (Photo credit: Sara Farnsworth)

“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.

Hometown boy makes good: Wyoming native wins world’s longest horse race

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Mongol Derby Robert Long on Day 7
Cheyenne native Robert Long gives a thumbs up on Day 7 of the Mongol Derby. (photo courtesy of Mongol Derby)

Nicole Blanchard, special to Cowboy State Daily

It’s only fitting that a man dubbed “the most badass cowboy you will ever meet” hails from the Cowboy State.

Robert Long, a native of Cheyenne, Wyoming, earned the title after winning the Mongol Derby, a 620-mile race across the Mongolian Steppe, earlier this week. At 70 years old, Long is not only the oldest person to win the race but the oldest person to even finish the grueling trek, designed to replicate the route of Genghis Khan’s 13th century postal system.

“I’ve never in my life seen anybody as intense, as skilled, as intelligent, as driven as Bob,”said Gary Schaeffer, former Cheyenne mayor and one of Long’s closest friends. Both men now live in Boise, Idaho.

Long crossed the finish line on Wednesday, Aug. 14, the eighth day of the race. He and 41 other competitors had ridden upwards of 12 hours a day on “semi-wild” Mongolian horses, switching out mounts at checkpoints to ensure the horses didn’t become fatigued. 

“Those horses aren’t ridden every day like ours,” said Cheyenne rancher Doug Samuelson, who has spent time hunting in Mongolia. “They’re not our highly trained quarter horses.”

By the end of the race, Long had ridden 28 different horses.

Schaeffer, who first met Long in 1968, said his friend’s upbringing in Cheyenne no doubt came in handy in the race.

“He was born and raised on horses, used to break them, train them for people,” Schaeffer said. “Besides being a confident horseman and cowboy, he always takes care of his animals, and that shows in the race.”

Samuelson, who doesn’t know Long, joked that Long must be something of a horse whisperer.

“I’d love to shake his hand,” Samuelson said. “Maybe it’ll rub off on me.”

At each checkpoint, veterinarians inspected the small, hardy Mongolian horses to see that they hadn’t been overworked. 

“They’re small horses, but they’re tough,” Samuelson said. “They’re incredibly agile and surefooted.”

Riders received penalties if their horses weren’t in top condition, but by the end of the derby, Long earned a perfect record from the race vets.

“At one point they said he veered off-course to go get his horse water,” Schaeffer added. “I’m sure it cost him some time, but he was more worried about taking care of his horse. And he’s always been that way.”

Schaeffer said Long was matter-of-fact when he first shared his plans to ride in the Mongol Derby, which holds the Guinness World Record for longest horse race.

“He came over to the house and told us ‘I’ve entered the Mongol Derby,’” Schaeffer said. “We said, ‘What? Why?'”

“He said, ‘Because people told me I couldn’t. It’s there, it’s a challenge. I don’t like people to say because of my age I won’t be able to make it. It’s the toughest, most grueling thing a horseman can do, and I want to prove I can do it,’” Schaeffer recalled.

From day one, Schaeffer said, Long’s loved ones had no doubt he could complete the race, in part thanks to his impeccable research, planning and preparation.

Because Mongolian horses tend to be under 14 hands, there’s a weight limit for riders and gear to keep the horses safe. Long lost 30 pounds and practiced packing and repacking his bag to be sure he could make weight. He consulted with previous Mongol Derby riders and spent months building his riding endurance.

“He had this planned down to the inch,” Schaeffer said.

And while Long already had impeccable navigation skills (Schaeffer recalled how Long could always find his way back to the horse trailer during hunting trips in the Snowy Mountains), he honed those skills even more to prepare for the unmarked Mongol Derby route.

“He would try to get himself lost and work with the GPS to get himself back on course,” Schaeffer said. “Though I doubt if he ever got lost. He just doesn’t do that.”

According to a Mongol Derby news release, the riders faced arctic winds and downpours at the start of the race. They also had to watch out for rodent holes and marshy areas as they trekked across the steppe. 

“(The terrain there) is a lot like Wyoming,” Samuelson said. “You’ll see really flat plains areas and kind of high mountains on the side. The grasses are also similar.”

As the weather cleared up later in the race, Long took a lead that he maintained until the end.

Schaeffer wasn’t surprised when Long galloped across the finish line in a live video broadcast on Facebook by the Mongol Derby –but he was emotional.

“I was crying, tears were streaming down my face. We knew he could do it,” Schaeffer said.

“I’ve never seen anything he can’t do,” he added. “If he says he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it.”

Long, on the other hand, was cracking jokes the moment he dismounted.

“My horse just won the Mongol Derby,” he said. “It’s nothing, you just ride 650 miles on a death march. There’s nothing to it.”

Find out more about the Mongol Derby here. And for a great read on the Mongols and Genghis Khan’s 13th century postal system check out Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford.

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