A Race To Remember

Grass Valley friends compete in world’s longest horse race

By Drew Myron

Amy McNamee, left, and Shandie Johnson, of Grass Valley, recently competed in the Mongol Derby, a 620-mile race across Mongolia. Photo by Drew Myron

Amy McNamee and Shandie Johnson this summer competed in the toughest horse race in the world: the Mongol Derby, a 620-mile ride on semi-wild horses across the rugged and remote terrain of Mongolia.

Created in 2009, the grueling adventure ranks as the world’s longest horse race, according to the “Guinness World Records” book. The course recreates the horse messenger system developed by Genghis Khan in 1224. Riders follow a general path, though there is no marked course and riders rely on their own wits, skills and GPS as they self-navigate the vast landscape.

The Grass Valley women were two of 48 riders chosen from a pool of 400 international applicants, most of whom were jockeys and professional equestrians in their 20s and 30s.

The cost is $15,500, and the vetting process entails phone calls, photos, videos and online interviews.

Amy, 45, grew up near Antelope as a “very rural ranch girl.” She works for a Madras auction yard and runs cattle.

“I have been horseback since before I can remember,” she says. “My life revolves around my cows, my horses and my border collies.”

Shandie, 49, was raised in Condon and grew up in the rodeo arena. The mother of 2 adult children, Shandie lives on a cattle ranch and has worked as a parole deputy for Wasco County Community Corrections. She recently was appointed by Governor Kate Brown to serve as justice of the peace for Sherman County.

Inspired by Bob Long, of Idaho, who at 70 is the oldest to win the Mongol Derby, Amy talked her friend into joining her in the race. It didn’t take much convincing. Shandie likes a challenge.

“I definitely like adrenaline,” she says with a wide smile. “My thing is to have fun, take chances.”

The competition takes place over 10 days, with great emphasis on equine care.

Mongolian horses stand between 12 to 14 hands. Although small, they are semi-feral and considered gladiators of the Mongolian wilderness.

Riders average 60 miles per day in 12 hours, with strict start and stop times to ensure rider and equine safety. Riders change horses every 25 miles, and horses are closely examined by race vets at checkpoints. Horses must have a resting heart rate of no more than 56 beats per minutes within 30 minutes of arriving.

Riding across the steppes of Mongolia, Shandie Johnson experienced moments of trial and triumph. Photo courtesy of the Equestrianists

At each checkpoint, riders are penalized with time deductions if their horses have been overworked or mistreated. To ensure the health of each horse, riders cannot exceed 180 pounds with gear.

Prior to the race, Shandie lost 20 pounds to qualify for competition.

The horses usually fare better than the riders. In this endurance race, rider injuries are common and have included broken collarbones, punctured lungs, sprains, and broken ribs and other bones.

2 weeks after the race, Shandie and Amy still felt minor effects: numb feet, peeling hands, aching ankles.

Amy says due to the size of the animals, they had to ride standing up. The women aimed to lope or trot the entire race, which requires leg strength and stamina.

The riders chose their horses— which were semi-wild and “belonged” to Mongolian families—but the riders were never sure how each horse would perform. Yet choosing the right horse for every leg of the journey was critical. A slow horse meant a long slog. A quick horse might be more than a rider can handle.

“The biggest gamble was determining the horse’s ability and pacing,” Amy says, “and watching out for marmot holes.”

Amy landed some slow equines.

“Mentally and emotionally, it takes everything you have,” she says.

Weather was another challenge, from searing sun to lashing storm.

“It’s like biblical rain and wind,” Amy says. “It was pelting. I don’t know if you can ever prepare enough for these conditions.”

For both women, weather conditions led to sickness. Five days into the race, Amy was leveled with the flu and was unable to continue. Shandie, nearing the end of the race, got hypothermia. After months of planning and preparation, the abrupt end was a blow.

“It was devastating,” Shandie says.

As much as the physical challenge drew them to the race, the beauty of the people and place was the real highlight.

The Mongolian landscape is a sweeping terrain of wide valleys, high passes, wooded hills, river crossings, wetlands and rocky outcrops.

“It is so vast,” Amy says. “It just never ends. The whole time we never saw a fence. It’s just so beautiful, so peaceful and open.”

Amy McNamee has been riding horses most of her life. She says she would try the derby again. Photo by Shari Thompson

After a long day in the remote landscape, riders spent evenings with Mongolian herders and their families, who would feed them and allow them to sleep in their small yurt-like structures called gers. Sometimes an interpreter would be on hand but often not. Even with the language barrier, bonds were made.

“It was just amazing, the kindness,” Shandie says. “It really made me rethink humanity and not judging a book by its cover. It opens your eyes.”

“The Mongolian horse culture is just amazing, and their horsemanship is phenomenal,” Amy adds.

As Amy acknowledges it was a difficult horse race, she is careful to acknowledge many people face more difficult challenges on a daily basis.

“We viewed this as a vacation that was challenging,” she says. “This is something we signed up for. We were privileged to go. We looked at it as an experience to learn.”

Despite—or perhaps because of—the physical, mental and emotional toll, the women say they would do it all over again.

“In a heartbeat!” Shandie says. “I have 2 kids, and I want them to know that if you have a chance or opportunity, take it. We’re from a small town, and I want people to see that no matter where you’re at, no matter what you do, have the courage to try something new.”