As the excitement of summer starts to wind down in early August, 45 starry-eyed adventurers will load into planes around the world to embark on a once in a lifetime equestrian journey. With backpacks packed with just enough to sustain life for the time it takes to gallop across 1000km on half-feral horses: zip-ties, anti-chafe cream, some nut butter and a few lucky charms from home should do the trick. After three years of research, filling out applications (and then getting nervous and deleting them), and hours of YouTube videos in a language I couldn’t understand, I finally pulled the trigger and have been rewarded with the opportunity of a lifetime—I will be a competitor in the 2021 Mongol Derby!
My name is Kayleigh Davenport and I currently live in Plymouth, Massachusetts and work at SmartPak in the merchandising department. Both my work and play are completely focused around horses and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
I am a self-proclaimed discipline hopper and am always looking for a new adventure. I come from a family of equestrians, so some would say it’s in my blood. I started out doing open shows and 4H along with local barrel racing and gymkhanas. As a teen I started showing competitively on the AQHA circuit, with the trail and English events being my favorite! I studied at Stonehill College where I joined the IHSA team. During my time in IHSA I fell in love with the hunter jumper/equitation world and began riding and leasing horses in this realm. These days, I can be found swapping between ranch events and the trails with my 10-year-old Quarter Horse, Spare.
What is the Derby?
I have been selected as one of 45 international riders to compete in the longest and toughest horse race in the world— the Mongol Derby. In August, I will race over 1000km across the Mongolian steppe with just me, a horse and a few GPS points guiding me along the way. This route traces the route of Genghis Khann’s 1224 postal system and is a true celebration and appreciation of the Mongolian Culture and the amazing creature that is the Mongolian Horse. If that doesn’t sound crazy enough for you, I only have 10 days to complete the race on 25 different Mongolian horses.
How did I hear about this?
Like all good things, my Mongol Derby journey started in the SmartPak kitchen. I was heating up my lunch in the microwave and was glancing over the bulletin board. I noticed a new thank you card with a collage of a woman on small ponies against gorgeous landscape. I took the push pin out to get a closer look. This was Practical Horseman's own Jocelyn Pierce's thank you note from her 2018 Mongol Derby. I quickly returned to my desk and proceeded to read every single word on the Equestrianist about this foreign race.
Why am I doing this?
From the first time I read about this race and the many unique experiences of competitors throughout the years, a fire was lit inside me. Still thinking about it now, I have excited butterflies in my stomach. I just kept getting drawn back to this potential opportunity I could not possibly get anywhere else. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel abroad much in my life, so I am especially excited to not only go to the other side of the world, but to a country where the horse is such a key factor in the culture. And, at the end of the day—why not?! You only live once! Some may call it a quarter-life crisis, but I call it the opportunity of a lifetime!
It has been a life-changing experience already, just getting prepared for the race. I got accepted to the Derby in May of 2020 and quickly strategized my training regimen for the next 14+ months. In terms of riding time, I have certainly increased my hours in the saddle by dedicating more time out of the arena on longer treks with my personal horses. I am lucky to have some great friends with some quirky horses that I have been able to borrow for more of a challenge; I never turn down an extra ride! I have also traveled a few times out to the West Coast to ride with Stevie and Dylan Delahunt (Derby veterans and adventurer extraordinaires) and their amazing string of endurance horses for multiple long and challenging days in the tack.
I have drastically increased my physical fitness routine as well. I have partnered with Dr. Alison Hartman and her equestrian focused fitness coaching, EQFit. In addition to being a physical therapist, Dr. Hartman is also an accomplished equestrian, so she has created workouts specifically tailored to the bodies of riders. I am dedicating at least five days per week to these workouts with a combination of strength training and cardio.
Something interesting that I have also been consciously trying to prepare for is my mental fitness. Before this, I have never been the type of person to take the time for meditation or getting into a deeper head space in terms of my riding, or even day-to-day life. I have started to meditate over the last year and have been trying to become more aware of the process and the opportunity I have been given and turning doubts and anxiety into excitement that is fueling my fire. I believe at the end of the day, through all the physical training, mental toughness is what separates a good athlete from a great one.
Practical Horseman has teamed up with SmartPak to follow along with Kayleigh as she takes on the 2021 Mongol Derby. Stay tuned for more articles and future podcast episodes with Kayleigh!