As soon as Jocelyn Pierce finished her first pony ride at the age of 2, she got back in line for another turn. She started riding lessons when she was 4 and had her own horse by the time she was 10. Pierce competed in jumping and dressage events while growing up in Massachusetts and was on the riding team at Otterbein University in Ohio, where she minored in equine science and got a degree in international studies.
After moving to Rockville in 2015, Pierce continued to ride as a hobby. An associate editor at Practical Horseman magazine in Frederick, she is immersed in the horse world professionally. This past August, she saddled up for a new challenge: the Mongol Derby, dubbed the longest and toughest horse race in the world. From a pool of about 200 hopefuls, she was one of 44 riders selected for the endurance event, in which riders trek across about 600 miles of rugged terrain in Mongolia over the span of about a week to 10 days.
Pierce, 31, followed the Mongol Derby for years but had never participated in an endurance race and didn’t even consider applying until August 2017, after one of her colleagues competed in it. “I was hooked by the adventure, the competition, and was intrigued with how the Mongolian people have a huge history and connection to the horse,” says Pierce, who got sponsors to help cover most of the cost, about $21,000. The race is inspired by Genghis Khan’s messaging system, which was similar to the Pony Express mail service in the United States. Riders map their own course and change horses—semiwild equines provided by local herders—about every 25 miles. The riders rely on the hospitality of locals to feed and house them in portable round tents, or yurts, known as gers.
To prepare for the journey, Pierce spoke to past participants, researched clothing and gear, and ramped up her fitness training. About six days a week she did an early-morning cardio workout followed by a 5-mile hike or run at Sugarloaf Mountain. Then she’d go to Bennett’s Creek Farm in Frederick and ride her horse, Treya, for an hour before heading to her job.
Pierce worked with an endurance trainer in Utah for three days in June, and spent time with local riding trainer Rose Agard at Bennett’s Creek. In anticipation of long hours of riding, Agard worked with Pierce on different ways to sit on the horse. “She got a lot stronger in overall position, strength and balance up out of the saddle,” Agard says. “And her grit increased. If she fell off, she’d get back up and say, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
At the start of the derby on Aug. 9, Pierce felt ready. Some riders traveled alone; others went in groups. (Two riders from Takoma Park, friends Carol Federighi and Matthew Graham, both 58, rode together the entire race.) The woman Pierce planned to ride with was injured on the second day and dropped out, so she joined a group of five men for the rest of the event. “I was really lucky to have a team of riders that was helping each other out,” Pierce says. “A lot of the derby has to do with luck. And I got lucky.”
Riding started at 6:30 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m., and her team covered about 85 to 90 miles a day, with temperatures reaching the 90s. “The race was pretty punishing physically and mentally,” says Pierce, who rode 29 different horses over eight days. After each leg of the race, veterinarians checked the health of the horses to make sure they’d been cared for properly. (Pierce passed all of her vet checks.) “It’s something where you have to be absolutely in the moment all the time because you have to be feeling your horse,” she says.
Riders trekked across flat open land, mountains, hills and sand dunes, with marmot holes posing a constant hazard. Each night, Pierce’s group looked for food and lodging wherever they stopped, doing their best to overcome the language barrier. They often had to mime or hand the locals prewritten notes in Mongolian to explain their situation. “We don’t look like them. We don’t speak their language. We’d just waltz up to their door looking for a place to stay,” Pierce says. “The people are just incredible.”
A vegetarian for 10 years, Pierce was ravenous after riding and says she ate almost anything that was put in front of her, including meat pies and mutton with noodles. She was limited to 11 pounds of gear, including one change of clothes, a sleeping bag, a knife, a first-aid kit and peanut butter snacks.
On the fifth day, Pierce hurt her back when her horse stumbled on a hole. “The thought of quitting never crossed my mind,” she says. A few days later, as most of Pierce’s team neared the end in the pouring rain, they held back and waited for their teammates in order to cross the finish line together in a six-way tie for ninth place. “There was so much joy and happiness,” she says. “It was sort of surreal.” When Pierce landed at JFK International Airport in New York around midnight, her family and friends greeted her with posters and champagne. Many had followed her online each day; the tracker she wore for safety provided updates on her progress.
Back in Rockville, Pierce says it took time to unwind. “I’ve been obsessing about this race for a year. Every spare moment I’ve been training or reading gear reviews,” she says. She’s been writing about her journey for Practical Horseman, and she relives the adventure by watching video from the camera that was mounted on the brim of her helmet. What’s next? She has her eye on another endurance race—this time in Patagonia.