Clay County woman saddling up for world’s longest horse race in Mongolia

Lauren Fox

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Abbi Bell races through the Mongolian SteppePhoto courtesy of Abbi Bell

Abbi Bell will ride roughly 620 miles through the Mongolian wilderness on the backs of semi-feral horses this August as a contestant in the world’s longest horse race.

“It's raw, it's untouched and it makes you feel so small,” the Clay County resident recounted from her time riding through the Mongolian Steppe in 2019. “You’ll come around a corner, and there’ll be a herd of camels just sitting there eating grass, taking naps… You’ll be galloping and a band of wild horses will come up to you.”

Bell went to Mongolia for the first time in 2019 to participate in the 620 mile Mongol Derby. Inspired by the postal routes made by Genghis Khan, the race takes riders through the remote grasslands of Mongolia, riding semi-feral horses.

Bell, 31, grew up around horses in Clay County and started taking riding lessons when she was 5. Initially riding Western, she craved a challenge and began practicing jumps at about 8-years-old. As she grew, her thirst for a challenge did not diminish. When she learned about the Mongol Derby, she knew she had to compete.

“I was like, I have to do that one day. Like I absolutely have to go and do that,” said Bell.

Bell’s determination to compete in the derby was not all it took for her to be allowed to race. The Mongol Derby only allows about 40 racers to compete, and each potential contestant must undergo an interview process to verify that they are prepared for the endeavor.

“One girl, her horse flipped and she cracked her ribs, busted her face; that happened in the first three and a half miles off the start line. On Day Two, we were hypothermic… Another lady, she almost died because of a heat stroke,” Bell explained. “It’s not for the backyard rider.”

Once the competitors are selected, they have a maximum of 10 days to cover an approximately 620 mile stretch of land. The exact route is kept secret until the race begins, and the contestants only have a few moments to pick each horse they will ride for an approximately 25 mile stretch, said Bell.

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Abbie Bell at a horse stationPhoto courtesy of Abbi Bell

“So there’ll be 30, 40 horses standing there, and you walk up and go, ‘I like that one,’” Bell described. “That’s one of the biggest challenges of the race is being able to look at a horse and go, ‘Am I going to match with you?’ And, I mean, these are split-second decisions.”

Contestants will ride between 20 to 25 horses during the race, never riding the same horse twice. About every 20 to 25 miles, the rider will arrive at a horse station, where they exchange horses so that no horse is overridden.

Through the largely uncharted wilderness, the contestants follow topographical maps to lead them to each horse station. Each rider wears a GPS tracking device with an SOS feature in case of an emergency.

“I actually did hit my SOS,” said Bell, recounting her 2019 race. “I was going down a stretch of road… And I see this, like, pink thing in the distance, and I’m like, what is that? And it’s a couple miles ahead of me, screaming. And I finally get up to it, and it is a small child, maybe about three years old, totally by herself.”

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The child Bell foundPhoto courtesy of Abbi Bell

Bell remembered the child, crying and leading a lamb, miles away from the nearest horse station with no people or buildings in sight.

“So I jumped [off the horse] and just squatted down, and she ran to me,” recalled Bell. “So I’m like, oh Lord, OK, I have a kid. What do I do?”

Bell hit her SOS button and walked with the child, the child’s lamb and Bell’s horse for about 30 minutes before the “Cavalry descended,” coming to her aid. The girl lived a few miles from where Bell found her and was reunited with her family, said Bell.

A challenge of the derby is that contestants don’t know what to expect. Riding unfamiliar horses through an unfamiliar land requires both skill and luck.

Bell is training at the gym for this summer’s race and plans to start riding 50 to 100 miles a week on her horses to build her endurance. Even with training and preparation, not all contestants finish the race.

“All you can do is just prepare your body,” Bell said. “I went into it last time extremely fit, physical, ready to go, like, thinking I could conquer the world, and by Day Three I was like, oh my God, I’m dying. It hurts.”

Bell was unable to finish her 2019 race due to a pinched nerve and herniated disk that she attributes to a particular horse that was repetitively bucking over a long stretch. Her goal for this year’s Mongol Derby is to finish the race, although she would be glad to win.

“I’m going to do everything that I can to finish and complete this race. I know that I’ll learn more about myself this time than I did last time,” said Bell.

Another goal of Bell’s is to maintain a clean vet card. Each horse station in the derby has a veterinarian that examines the horses that riders arrive on, checking to ensure the horses are free from injuries. Contestants are penalized if their horse arrives hurt. Bell said she is proud to have made it through her last race without injuring any of her horses.

“Horse health comes first,” said Bell. “Sometimes accidents happen, you know, the horse could trip and start limping, and there’s just nothing I can do. But, having a clean vet card is extremely successful.”

The treatment of the animals in the derby is something that drew Bell to the race. Free from fences and stables, the semi-feral horses of the Mongol Derby have a “wild spirit,” Bell said.

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The landscape of a section of the derbyPhoto courtesy of Abbi Bell

The land the race covers is also wild. Bell described the Mongolian Steppe as vast and largely uninhabited, with expansive grasslands, rocky mountains, streams, and the occasional tree. Many of the people native to the Steppe are nomadic, living off the land and braving harsh winters.

“They’re very kind and giving, and the Mongolian people, when I say they depend on nature, they have to be one with nature. It's one of the harshest environments on Earth to live during the winter,” Bell explained.

Contestants in the Derby are given a translation card they can show to locals, asking to stay the night in their home if they don’t go to sleep at a horse station or decide to camp.

“They have these Gurs, round tents they can move,” said Bell. “Well, I can go up to any family’s house and knock on their door and be like, can I stay with you?”

The Derby tests a rider's endurance while giving them a cultural experience. Bell said the company that puts on the race raises money for the native people to preserve their way of life.

Bell also hopes to donate some money to the Mongolian non-profit, Steppe and Hoof, which supports herders, but first, she needs to fund her journey to the race.

“I’m still paying off loans from my first [race]... the entry fee alone is $14,500,” said Bell.

As she prepares for her upcoming derby, Bell is fundraising through her new soap company and with a GoFundMe page.

Her race will begin Aug. 10. Before she leaves, Clay County locals can find her training with her horses, preparing for the longest horse race in the world.

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Lauren Fox is a communication major at the University of North Florida, focusing on journalism. Lauren has years of international work experience, working jobs in countries such as Australia, New Caledonia, Vietnam and Morocco.

Jacksonville, FL
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