SWEETWATER COUNTY – If a 1000+ km race where you ride semi-wild horses across the Mongolian steppe sounds like a good time, then you might be Sweetwater County Public Defender Rick Helson.
Helson, a 59-year-old attorney by day, devotes himself to horsemanship in his free time and is training hard for a rugged overland race known as the Mongol Derby. He was not raised on a horse though.
When asked to describe his history in horsemanship, Helson’s reply was, “That won’t take long.”
Helson got involved with riding only seven years ago. Back then, he took a very basic BOCES class about riding and began helping a friend gather cows at a ranch in Utah. They spent a couple days gathering the cows to brand and vaccinate them.
“It was very exciting,” said Helson. “I went down the following day and they were surprised I came back.”
After that, Helson continued to go back regularly to ride and help on his friend’s ranch. Now, a few short years later, he’s a horse owner and competes in ranching events for sorting and penning.
The Mongol Derby
Word of the the Mongol Derby first reached Helson via a friend who sent him a link to a National Geographic article.
This derby, which changes route every year across the Mongolian steppe, recreates Chinggis Khaan’s legendary postal system.
Riders change horses every 40 km and they may stay with the local herders or camp under the stars.
The horses they ride are Mongolian horses, revered in Mongolian culture. They date back to the 13th century when Mongol warriors rode them to deliver mail and messages across a vast empire. They are small horses, but are described as sturdy, fearless, wild, and unbelievably tough.
They assign the first horse to you, but then when you get into the next horse changing station, the first person there gets the first choice of the horses. If you can tell which one bucks and which one doesn’t [it’s helpful], because these are not finished horses like we see.”
Each year, 40 riders compete for the derby crown. According to the race marketing materials, “To stand a chance of finishing, riders must balance survival skills and horsemanship. They must endure the elements, semi-wild horses, as well as unfamiliar food and terrain.”
Preparation and Training
For training, Helson’s first order of business was to get a personal trainer. He needed to lean up because the horses are so small.
He also got help from a local riding coach, Laura Halbert.
“She’s got a very long history of teaching equine activities. She has been teaching me different skills that you need, different postures, [and] different ways to ride,” said Helson.
Halbert taught him ways to ride that are easier on the horse, since one solid strategy to win this race is to have the least impact on each animal over the 25 miles.
Another major obstacle is the rugged terrain, through which Helson will have to negotiate a route using a set of GPS waypoints.
I’ve looked at the terrain, which in some regards is not that dramatically different from Wyoming. We’re used to wide open spaces and the steppe is wide open spaces.”
The landscape will be “a lot of undulating hills, a lot of grass. There will be some forests, some steep hills, lots of valleys to go through.”
The race begins August 9. And at least for some of what Helson is expecting, “I will find out when I get there.”