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Ep. 067: The Longest & Toughest Horse Race in the World – Racing the Mongol Derby

Co-host Katy Starr chats with Lena Haug, horse trainer and back country pilot about growing up with horses and her equine adventures, including competing in the toughest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby.

Episode Notes

On this episode, co-host Katy Starr chats with horse trainer and back country pilot, Lena Haug, about her multi-worldly equine adventures, mainly surrounding her time competing in the longest and toughest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby. 


She shares about being completely immersed in the honorable Mongolian culture, self-navigating horses who are racing at top speed - all the while dodging military fields and wild dogs - getting kicked in the face from an unintentional dismount, only to get immediately back on for what felt like a rocket headed to space.


With adventure in her veins, Lena’s ambitious pursuits are not for the faint of heart. Live vicariously through her trials and exhilarations in this captivating episode.


Have a topic idea or feedback to share? We want to connect with you! Email


Connect with Lena - 


Lena Haug's Website


Learn more about the Mongol Derby – 

Mongol Derby Website






  • *Views and opinions expressed by guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Standlee Premium Products, LLC.*

Katy Starr  (00:00:01):

Hi, I'm Katy.


Dr. Tania Cubitt (00:00:02):

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Welcome back to another episode of Beyond the Barn. Our next guest is a horse trainer with experience working with BLM Mustangs, a licensed pilot and has a healthy appetite for the outdoors and backcountry, which inspired her pursuit to compete in the longest and toughest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby. I'd like to welcome Lena Haug to the Beyond the Barn podcast. Thanks for joining us, Lena.


Lena Haug (00:00:53):

Hi! Thanks for having me.


Katy Starr  (00:00:55):

So just to kind of get us started, can you tell us a little more about where you grew up and how horses became a part of your life? Yeah,


Lena Haug (00:01:03):

So I grew up in Sebastopol, California. It was kind of known as a little apple town north of San Francisco. My best friend in kindergarten, her dad was a large animal vet and they had a few ponies in the back that she and I were obsessed with and played with on the daily. And that obsession grew quickly to where I was searching for somewhere to get more lessons and education on it. And I found a stables that was a little bit wild. The woman was a horse collector and she had about 60 horses on probably 15 acres . Oh wow. Yeah, it was a little wild. And she needed a lot of help with these horses. And so even at a very young age, she had kind of a gaggle of girls and I was one of them that did quite a bit of physical labor in order to exchange a little bit of work for a lesson.


Lena Haug (00:01:49):

And I'm trying to think back now as like a 6, 7, 8 year old, you know, how much work I could have actually done . But she was very generous in making opportunities for us young people to get time with her horses. So I began getting lessons and I was lucky enough to begin getting lessons and you know, engagement in the horse world that kind of came from this kind of second phase of natural horsemanship, like the Parelli days. This alternative idea of really playing with your horse and building a relationship with your horse was really my foundation of horsemanship from a very young age. And cultivated a deep love and desire for understanding how these creatures thought and operated and what inspired them. Yeah, simultaneously, I fell in love with this big gray gelding. He was like 18 years old and he was a big grouch.


Lena Haug (00:02:39):

And when I was 11 I had asked my mom, I begged her if I could somehow own him. And she told me, well, if you can pay for it all you can, you can have a horse. And of course I think in her mind she was like, that's impossible. Horses are expensive. This kid's not gonna do this. And I've always been very stubborn and not letting a lot of roadblocks get in my way. And I figured out a way to raise enough money to where, not raise I earned it, to actually buy my own horse. And so that just continued and fueled my dream and my obsession that then became my career.


Katy Starr  (00:03:12):

I bet that felt so good as an 11 year old to work so hard to get something you love so much.


Lena Haug (00:03:17):

Yeah, and it's actually, it's kind of a big part of who I am is I've, I like to strive for things that push me to that limit. You know, like, oh, is it possible? Can I do it? I'd like to try. And I think that was kind of innately inmy makeup as a kid even at that point.


Katy Starr  (00:03:33):

So do you have a heart horse? Would that gelding, would that have been it or did you have another one?


Lena Haug (00:03:39):

He was definitely a heart horse. He was like a young woman's spirit guide. He taught me a lot about boundaries and myself as a person, I mentioned I was stubborn and I think in my human world I needed a lot more structure and boundaries than was offered to me. And this horse gave me, his name was Jerome and he offered me a lot of feedback to how I showed up in the world and allowed me to bond with this creature who had a choice, you know, to be there or not in some ways. And I had a choice to show up authentically and in a accepting relationship way. And so, in so many ways he was such a huge heart horse. I had a horse later on who, she was a Mustang and I had started her for someone else and they ended up giving her to me.


Lena Haug (00:04:24):

She's a kiger mustang, just exquisite. And this mare was another one of those special creatures. She was wild through and through. And that's part of the reason why she was given to me by this owner. Her name was actually Heart Corazón and I call her Cor. She was like my legs and my wings for many years. We traveled all over the US together and explored many parts of this beautiful country from her back. She did die suddenly about four years ago. I don't know exactly what happened. I think it was an aneurysm, but it was also a pivotal point. She, in her death is when I began flying. And she was kind of perhaps in some way a guide to that next chapter of my life as well.


Katy Starr  (00:05:04):

Horses are such a gift. That's amazing.


Lena Haug (00:05:07):

They really are. Yeah, she definitely has a special part in my heart. I think about all the things that these big, beautiful, majestic creatures offer us that sometimes we don't notice until later.


Katy Starr  (00:05:17):

Right, right. So Lena, what would you say is a standout memory for you as a kid with horses? Like a moment that you'll never forget?


Lena Haug (00:05:27):

Oh my god. Thousands . They're monumental. I actually started, I was a very good writer as a young person, I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of journal entries just on horse training and behavior and stuff. And so I've been looking back into it because I've been doing a lot more writing as an adult now too. And I have this moment that stood out to me. I was doing, I was an intern, I would go to David Ellis is a trainer in Central Southern California in the Foothills. And he had a big ranch with client horses that would come in and he trained them and was a clinician and he took me on as his intern. So I would go every summer and winter break out of high school and work for him. And on the, I think he has like 700 acres, the horses would be loose including customer horses.


Lena Haug (00:06:09):

And his idea was, you know, I want these horses to really be in as natural as an environment as they can so that when we're working with them, we're working from kind of a baseline of horse. So the horses, we'd call them in every morning and every night for a little bit of grain. And then we'd take the horses that we'd work with for the day and put them in little pens. Those were our string. And then they'd all get turned back out as this giant herd at night. And so in the morning we did this big horse holler. It was this big yip. And the horses would generally come running down. However, in the spring when the grass is green, they were a little less inspired for their tiny little bowl of grain. 


Katy Starr  (00:06:45):

Like, we got better stuff out here. Thank you very much .


Lena Haug (00:06:48):

Oh we'll see you when we see you. You know? So then it was the job, whoever was bringing the horses in to go on a long hike and try and figure out where the horses are, hop on one and then ride them in, was kind of what we would do. So that is a great memory of mine. So what I would do then is it'd be, you know, but crack of dawn, sun's just starting to peek over the hills and I'd have a string in my pocket and I'd go for a hike and keep yipping and hooping and hollering, hoping the horses would crest a hill. And you'd kind of have an idea of where they were out on the land. And when you'd find them, you'd pick the lead mare who you always knew who it was because they always operated in a herd.


Lena Haug (00:07:26):

And we'd observe them constantly and put that string around their neck and try and get some motion going. And the second they'd all start to move as a flock, it was like, you hang on for dear life. You know exactly where they're running. They'd run back to the lot where the horse pens were. And I just remember that thrill of being so out of control and just accepting the situation. You know? And I'd almost hope these horses wouldn't come in when we give them the big holler. Because it was such an exhilarating rush to just hop on and hang on for dear life while they did the, you know, three or four minute fly of your lifetime back down to the lot. But that is definitely a memory that sticks out for me. 


Katy Starr  (00:08:04):

That's so incredible.


Lena Haug (00:08:06):



Katy Starr  (00:08:07):

Yeah, yeah. Wow. And so outdoor adventure and the backcountry are truly where you feel most at home. And aside from the Mongol Derby, which we will talk about, you know, mostly for this episode, after high school you jetted off to South America to guide backcountry horse riding tours. How in the world did that come about for you?


Lena Haug (00:08:29):

Well I had planned after high school to, mind you, throughout school I was very keen on calling in sick and keep sneaking off to the barn. So my real priority was horses all through high school even. When I had been accepted to San Luis Obispo, I wanted to go in for vet school originally and after graduating I just said I need to defer for a year. I just need to be a wild human for a little bit. And I spoke a bit of Spanish, not particularly well. And I kind of just pointed my finger on a part of the world that looked mountainous and exciting and interesting. And I had some airline credits and I flew to Santiago, Chile and I ended up looking up and finding a horse trekking business. And the owner was German and my whole family is German and I speak German fluently.


Lena Haug (00:09:13):

And I thought, here's an opportunity. I will contact this person and see if he needs a hand. And I initial thought was, oh I can, you know, just help him out on the farm or something. But what it turned out was he desperately needed someone that spoke multiple languages to help translate. His guides were Chilean, his customers often came from Europe or the US or Australia. And he needed kind of an interim person to help communicate and do client relations while on these treks. And what his company was is he would do one to 12 day trips into the Andes. And the longest one was through the Andes into Argentina. And people came from all over the world in small groups, slightly bigger groups for these adventures. And I became the translator as well as like would help cook food and be kind of like a grounding point of contact for the clients on these trips. because a lot of these people haven't really ridden much.


Katy Starr  (00:10:08):

Yeah, I'm sure, I'm sure.


Lena Haug (00:10:09):

How many of you, I mean all of us riders are like, that's bananas. You know, you're gonna go spend 12 days on a horse heading over the Andes. But you know, when people see it on paper, it looks quite exciting. So I spent a lot of time kind of talking people off their own emotional ledges and giggling as they would be bouncing off the side of these horses. You know, it was quite an adventure. So that was, I probably spent more time in the back country. I would come back to the farm for like two or three days to kind of restock emotionally, mentally, and then head back out into the mountains. So spent pretty much the whole time just in the back country while I was there.


Katy Starr  (00:10:46):

Wow. So how many languages do you speak then?


Lena Haug (00:10:49):

I speak three now. So I speak German, English, very proficient in English, and some Spanish.


Katy Starr  (00:10:55):

Wow, that is amazing though. It's such a wild experience to like have right out of high school. You definitely were a bit by the adventure bug at a very young age. . That's so cool. So now let's get into the nitty gritty of today's conversation. Let's talk about the Mongol Derby for those that are unfamiliar with it. What is it?


Lena Haug (00:11:19):

This is my laundry list of what this race is, and I'll still miss all of it. . So the Mongol Derby is the longest and toughest horse race in the world, and it spans across Central Mongolia. And the course was inspired by Genghis Khan's postal route. Essentially the empire builder, Genghis Khan, back in the 1200s created kind of a pony express across Central Mongolia. He was a warlord and basically took over huge swaths of land all the way into eastern Europe, basically back in that time. And the reason he could do it was because of the horse. And the Mongolian horse is known as being small and kind of, I don't want to say mangy, but like a little scruffy and tough as nails. And these horses are still some of the only remaining, that is the only remaining breed in Mongolia because the climate is so harsh, any other breed tends to kind of die out, for lack of a better word.


Lena Haug (00:12:18):

And this race, the Mongol Derby is kind of trying to reenact his postal route across Central Mongolia that kind of united the country. And the course is a thousand kilometers through a point-to-point system, we have kind of checkpoints along the way. The course changes every year in order to keep it secret . And for anyone that's ever done any point-to-point with your self navigating and you're riding wild horses and trying to navigate around mountains and rivers and bogs and all sorts of obstacles, I would say a thousand kilometers is a lot less than you actually ride during the entire race. So that's the Mongol Derby, happens once a year, 30, no, I'll say 45 to 50 participants are selected from an application process per year from all over the world. And then the race happens usually late July and August every year.


Katy Starr  (00:13:13):

And so you raced in this last year, right? So, but wasn't there two races last year because there was a delay with Covid? 


Lena Haug (00:13:22):

Yeah, that's correct. So last year was, I feel for the organizers because this race has so many details and organizational hurdles to overcome. And they did do two races. They did our, I did my race was first and then the second race was our course backwards. And the reason they did that, and I know they'll swear to never do that again, was because of Covid. So the race had been postponed for two years already and they had kind of a backlog of racers as well as like the race fee. Most of that all goes to nomadic families who provide the horses and are these checkpoints, those are all nomadic families that provide us with food and horses and care. And so when that race doesn't happen, these families are not being compensated and there's a, there's kind of a trickle down effect of this not coming to fruition. So I do think it was a great idea that they did two in a row, but I know it was very stressful.


Katy Starr  (00:14:16):

Oh wow. Yeah, I mean one in and of itself was, is probably an incredible amount of work. And so to try to do it twice. Yeah. That's crazy.


Lena Haug (00:14:27):

Yeah, so each rider in this course that we did, we had 29 horse stations. And those are all owned, they're nomadic families that, so nomadic families in Mongolia is like the primary living situation of someone outside of a city. And that means that they live in gers, which is the Mongolian word for yurt. And they travel every 30 to 40 days to new pastures with their flocks of goat, sheep, horses, etc. And so in order to kind of anticipate where these herders will be at the time of the race, there's this huge forethought of planning this course based on where the family believes they'll be at that time of the year. To feed their flocks. And then also all of the horses are pre-vetted. So each rider, let's say there's 50 riders, each rider rides a different horse, each leg. So I rode 29 different horses, as did another rider. None of those horses are ridden twice. So there are 1200 plus horses that are pre-vetted for this race. That is an insane amount of horses to have checked over, notes on and made sure that they're fit enough to run this race. 


Katy Starr  (00:15:40):

Right. Yeah, that's a lot of horses, a lot of hands. And how many vets do you guys usually have?


Lena Haug (00:15:47):

So we had eight vets and four medics, human medics. And the veterinarians, they come from all over the world as well. We had two Mongolian vets in our race. And the vets, their job is to check you in and out of a horse station. So one of the big rules for this race is you cannot select your next horse until the horse you rode in on passes the vet check. Vet check primarily is, you know, overview of the horse, checking it out, make sure there's no sores, no lameness, and then also heart rate. And heart rate is a big one because what they want to ensure is that the horse's welfare is the top priority of us riders. Our horses need to come in at, within 30 minutes of coming into the horse station, they needed to be at 56 beats per minute or less.


Lena Haug (00:16:30):

And that's pretty low considering horses' heart rate's around 35, 40. So, and in like U.S. endurance races, that heart rate is 64 beats per minute. Like it's a much higher heart rate in order to pass a vet check. So they were really requesting and requiring us riders to manage the movement of the horses and make sure that we're taking care of them, which I think is brilliant. There's a one little hurdle with that is that these horses are feral so they are not handled very often and most of the time you have absolutely no control of them. So I definitely had a many experiences of just wishing and hoping things were in a different situation than they just weren't. But I think the main intention is to keep the horse's welfare as our top priority. And if you didn't get that heart rate down to 56, within 30 minutes, the rider would be given a heart rate penalty. And that would be a two hour wait time where you'd have to just stay at the horse station, not go further. You can only ride from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM and with a two hour heart rate penalty and a thousand kilometers plus to ride, two hours was quite a big dig in the opportunity to even finish the race. And it, let's say you had three heart rate penalties or veterinarian penalties, you were then asked to leave the race. So there was kind of a hard disqualification on that, at that point as well.


Katy Starr  (00:17:55):

Yeah, well, because sometimes those situations can also be a little bit out of your control, which you personally experienced. right out of the gate. Talk to us about what happened on that first leg.


Lena Haug (00:18:12):

Twice . Oh boy, that is probably my biggest downfall of this whole race was this very first leg. So, you know, we prepped for this for a year plus, and it's a mass start at the start line. And the horses we were, it was not a, could not select your own horse at the start line. It was a lottery. And someone had handed me this delightful red horse, small, chunky, you know, I was excited to hop on him and get going and I got on him and he just kind of stood there, which for, you know, riding race horses and trying to get somewhere quickly, that's not necessarily your ideal situation. So I just was, you know, I'm an ever optimist and thinking, okay, okay, no big deal. This guy's just really mellow. We'll be safe, you know, at least I won't break my collarbone on day one.


Lena Haug (00:18:56):

And you know, start line, he takes off along with the mass pack of 50 riders and they're crazy horses. And I had decided I was going to go as the crow flies based on the topo map I was looking at to the next horse station. So horse station one, it goes zero to one and this horse took off in a nice loop. He's lopity, lopity, lopity... trot, trot, trot, trot. And I was like, oh God, how are we going to get 25 miles on him? And I was like, that's okay, that's okay. It's a beautiful day. And kind of right off the bat, within five or six miles I had my initial wild dog chase. I got chased by a pack of dogs. And the horse luckily picked up a bit, nobody got injured and then he started getting slower and slower and I could feel him getting tight. He actually threw a couple bucks out and I was like, that's really odd. But I also don't know these horses.


Katy Starr  (00:19:43):

Right. You don't know their mannerisms and what their normal is. Yeah.


Lena Haug (00:19:47):

Yeah, his body language was telling me he was very irritated at the fact that we were moving anywhere and that he was irritated at me and I was happy to get out of his way and just kind of talk to him along the way. And my route ended up being kind of a trot, walk, trot, walk, trot walk. And I made it to the next horse station in like three and a half hours, which is a very long leg, I later learned. So the legs are about 20 to 30 miles apart, each one. So this one was a little shorter, I would say it was probably 20 miles apart. And I get in and his heart rate was at like 75 and the vet looked him over and went, you know, he's hardly even sweating, I think you're going to be fine. He's probably just missed his buddies.


Lena Haug (00:20:23):

And at this rate I'm like, how far ahead am I, am I behind? Like I have no relation of where anyone else is on the course at this point. And this is just the first leg, but I haven't really seen anyone. And it's like, you know, pretty much everyone's ahead of you. And I was like, oh god, well I have no idea. Okay, so I need to pick up the pace. And so he gives me 10 minutes, I'm walking the horse around, he's barely sweating, he's kind of nibbling at some grass. And then I start seeing some classic signs of colic. He's like trying to lay down a bit. He was kicking at his belly, kind of a little irritable. So I keep walking him, I keep walking him, I call the vet over and he takes his heart rate again. He's like, it's up to 78 now.


Lena Haug (00:20:58):

And I'm like, I think he's colicking. And the vet was like, yeah, I kind of see, I see what you're talking about. Let's just give him a little bit of a minute and we maybe we'll have to hook him up to an iv. And anyways, long story short, the horse was colicking and the herder who owned these horses had come up on his motorbike from the start camp. And he was very pleased to like see every, you know, the people and loved to see his horses all there. And you know, the vet called him over to chat with him with an interpreter about this horse that was colicking. And he was like, no, no, no, no big deal. No big deal. And he grabbed the bridle and kind of let the horse loose. But at this point the vet was like, I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place here.


Lena Haug (00:21:34):

I technically should give you a penalty. And he did. And I thought it was totally fair. I was like, this horse was sick, I rode it here, it's, it is my fault. This horse did not willingly run over here. Absolutely. But it was pretty devastating as the first leg of this race that I really feel like as much as you study about this race and learn all about it, it is really, you know, a shot in the dark of how each leg is going to go and what happens in it. So right out the gate, I got a heart rate penalty, and I was pretty devastated mainly because horse welfare was my number one priority. I was like, Lena, these horses need to be safe and you need to be safe. And the whole idea of being out here is this experience of riding these incredible, these incredible horses that go back in history and to do them right.


Lena Haug (00:22:23):

So that was a pretty big shock and a wake up call right off the bat. Yeah, I waited a couple hours and the last rider came through so I was dead last and I did, I cried a little bit , I had a little pity party for myself and I was just like, oh man, this is, this is tough. Exactly, how many more horses do I ride? And I also just felt so bizarre because I was like, these horses are so tough and I've watched people come through just like these horses dripping sweat and they came in like, you know, 50 beats per minute. I'm like, how is that possible? I think that was just bad luck and I was glad to get it away out of the, that first day because after that I had an absolutely crushin’ time, just so fun and so wild and so unparalleled .


Lena Haug (00:23:11):

I did wait the two hours and then the organizers, I went outside of the ger to pick a horse to go and there was one little, little gelding. I mean he was just tiny and scrawny and he was the only one tied to the horse line, like highline. And he was losing his mind because all of his buddies had run off. There's no fences in Mongolia so when you turn your horse loose, it's just out onto the country. Like it's just wild out there. There's no fencing. So when you need a horse you want to go catch one, you have to try and haul like, flag down a local Mongolian or someone that can try and lasso it off horseback because you can't just walk up and catch these horses. So little, squirrely guy was on the line, he ended up breaking my bridle and running off into the sunset. And so I didn't even have a horse to ride to the next leg, but the vet sorted out for me. He actually gave me a leg forward in the the van because there was no other horses for me to ride.


Katy Starr  (00:24:00):

Oh man. So that's why you couldn't run that second, that second horse then. Okay, okay. That is so wild. Did you have your stuff on that horse? There was one horse on one of the legs. Didn't you lose your stuff at one point, your supplies? 


Lena Haug (00:24:13):

Yeah, so that first horse no, he had actually kicked the saddle off of him as he broke free from me, which was great thankfully. Yeah. So one of the things that they say with the Mongolian horse is the reason they keep them feral for two reasons. One being that the horse is considered sacred in Mongolia. It is a, as a spirit and a a creature to not change it's perfect in its natural way and that we will as humans, the Mongolians, they honor the horse and they borrow the horse but they do not want to change the horse for what it is. And I really, I love that mentality. And the other reason being is that winter, Mongolia is a very harsh climate and it can be hot, it can be cold and in the winter it's below zero most of the time. And because the horses are not kept in pens, stalls or anything like that, they just run wild for six months out of the year.


Lena Haug (00:25:04):

And if the horses are too domesticated, they won't survive. And so the whole idea is to keep the horse as perfect and pristine by keeping them the horse. So when we're first introduced to the horses in Mongolia, they're like, you only approach it from the left side, never the right ever. And don't walk past the shoulder. And if you have to touch the horse, like grab it and hang on . And then when you get on, oftentimes they'll have it in a three-legged hobble or they'll have two herders kind of having the horse in a bit of a choke hold to keep it still enough for you to get on. So it's like very minimal interaction as far as like working with the horse, managing it, you're basically strapping yourself to it and hanging on for dear life for the first few miles before the horse comes into a nice rhythm. So there's not a whole lot of interaction as far as like, hey buddy, no stroking, no petting, no touching. Because the horse is like, they're wild.


Katy Starr  (00:25:55):

What was that experience like for you? Because especially as a trainer you're used to probably certain systems and just like the way that you interact with horses here versus a total 180 going over to Mongolia and working with those horses, it was completely different from what you were used to.


Lena Haug (00:26:14):

It really was. And I mean I specialize with mustangs and wild horses and I would say the Mongol horse is different in the sense that like our BLM Mustangs, they're generationally wild and the Mongolian horse is generationally feral. Like I would define the difference between like the Mongol horses, they are around people, they interact with people and the wild horses in the U.S. do not interact with people. It would be almost like a stray cat to a domestic cat difference. So the Mongolian horse, we only ride geldings or stallions, the mares are left to be milked. And so all of the foals, the mares are tied up daily to be milked. And the foals then are around people and they also learn to be tied because they often are tied as their mother is being milked. It doesn't mean they're handled or worked with.


Lena Haug (00:27:03):

It just means that they have this proximity to humans that keeps them relatively okay with humans around but they don't have a lot of experience of being touched or asked to pick their feet up or you know, managed by any means. So I would just make that distinction. And then as far as like checklists, like I'm a colt starter, you know, and and I would have not gotten on any of these horses if it wasn't part of this race. I mean it, they, no checks checked in this list so they were like oh great, that one's in a three legged hobble and you want me to hop on it and then release it into the wild? Delightful!


Katy Starr  (00:27:37):

Yes, of course . Why are you asking me such a silly question? Yes, do it.


Lena Haug (00:27:42):

. And that's actually what happened when you had asked about the horse that took my gear on a little joy ride.


Lena Haug (00:27:48):

So all of us riders are allowed to bring five kilograms, which is about just over 10 pounds of gear total on this race. And you need a sleeping bag, mat, you know, bivy sack, whatever medication, emergency stuff, like that is it total. And I try to keep as little on my back as possible because you're in the saddle 12 hours a day covering 75 to a hundred miles a day. And I just did not want any issues. So I had a lot in this tiny little snug saddlebag. So if your horse took off with your gear, chances are you may never see it again for the whole race ever. That's just your stuff. But it was worth it to me to have it on the horse versus on my back.


Katy Starr  (00:28:23):

Worth the risk. Yeah.


Lena Haug (00:28:25):

Yeah. Worth for my back's sake. But this was a remarkable horse and it was the first horse of the day, I can't remember what day it was maybe six. And I, the herders had saved him for me. They were like Lena, they just wave over, you know I don't speak much Mongolian hardly at all. And a lot of it's just body language. And these guys were grinning ear to ear and they have this beautiful black, he just looks like a dragon. He's lean, he's waspy, he's fast looking. I'm like, oh hell yeah. And this is day six. So at this point I'm like, my legs are bowed, I am part horse. I can just, I'm happy to hop on anything.


Katy Starr  (00:28:58):

Be one with the horse .


Lena Haug (00:29:00):

I'm ready to go. I noticed how many herders are handling this beautiful guy and he's just frothing, he is like flinging his head. They've got him in a choke hold trying to get the saddle on and a herder immediately jumps on him to like kind of blow out the initial broncing and the herder gets pitched . He just, which is rare for Mongolians because these people are built to ride.


Katy Starr  (00:29:20):

Yeah, yeah. You're like oh gosh this is not a good sign. .


Lena Haug (00:29:25):

Yeah. And this beautiful black horse just goes flying off into the distance and with my gear and so I never saw the horse again. I did end up picking another horse. There was a spare saddle with funky irregular stir leather tied situation that I rode the next leg and I guess someone on a motorcycle must have caught the horse because my gear was at the next horse station when I got there.


Katy Starr  (00:29:45):

So it wasn't too long. That's good.


Lena Haug (00:29:48):

Which is lucky! No, it was not too long. Yeah.


Katy Starr  (00:29:50):

Oh wow. So speaking of supplies, when you were preparing for this entire process and you were deciding what you wanted to bring, how did you decide those things as to what would be most important and then after the fact what things were you like I'm so glad I brought this and what things were you like I totally could have left this at home.


Lena Haug (00:30:12):

Gear is like, whew, that is such an important topic. I tried out a lot of things. So I was doing big horse contracts, meaning like I would go to a ranch for two months at a time and just start colts from dawn to dusk about six months in advance to this. And I got a lot of time to go practice out, you know, helmet, breaches, boots, chaps. I slept outside every night, you know, on in my sleeping bag and mat and just became very familiar with the gear I brought. And I brought four kilograms. So I brought like eight and a half pounds of gear. I was actually underweight and I wanted it that way because I was like, you know, if I can survive with less it's going to be easier on the horse, it's going to be easier on me to not think about as many things.


Lena Haug (00:30:52):

The one thing I brought that I didn't ever use and I didn't actually need was I had brought some greens powder. I thought the diet in Mongolia is strictly pretty much meat and I eat a lot of vegetables and I thought that might be good for my gut. It ended up not really mattering at all. I didn't eat it, I didn't really eat anything actually at one point. And so I could have ditched that. But everything else that I didn't use, which was like, you know, emergency medications, that type of thing. I was glad I didn't have to use but I'm glad I had it.


Katy Starr  (00:31:22):

Right. Right.


Lena Haug (00:31:22):

Antibiotics, etc., stuff like that.


Katy Starr  (00:31:25):

Well because you never really know, everybody's experience there was different even in that same race. So you just really don't know what's going to be thrown at you.


Lena Haug (00:31:35):

You don't know. And that's the saying is 80% of this race is luck. Every single person has earned to be there. And I would definitely agree with that now that I've done it. That there is a huge element of what attitude do you show up with and what luck are you handed for that day.


Katy Starr  (00:31:52):

Right. And so in your race that you did, and correct me if I'm wrong, there were 47 rider that started the race?


Lena Haug (00:32:00):



Katy Starr  (00:32:01):

And 33 finished.


Lena Haug (00:32:04):

I believe it was 33.


Katy Starr  (00:32:05):

Okay. And you were 14th out of the 33 that finished but 14th basically out of 47. That's really incredible, especially when you think about that this is a worldwide race and all of the people coming from all around. That's something, for one, to be able to finish it, to be very proud of. But still to get 14th that is really, really great. Especially seeing has how you had your start in the race.


Lena Haug (00:32:30):

And everyone told me, you know, even beforehand is like, oh don't worry that the race shakes up all through it. People get penalties, people get injured, you never know. The end is the front, the front is the end. It just is. It's just a free for all. And by the end I was like every single one of these people that crosses this finish line is a first place winner. Because of the trials and tribulations they go through to get there. And absolutely. And the first place winners, they are incredible riders. My hat's off to them. They are great horse people and rode a clean race and just did an absolute brilliant job. I can't complain at all about the race I got. There's a saying that you don't get the race you want, you get the race you need when you, when you ride the derby. That is definitely what I experienced. It was a very humbling experience as a whole.


Katy Starr  (00:33:20):

Right. Well and another thing when I was doing the research for this, one of the things I think you had said in your blog and it totally hit me and stuck with me and I just thought it was incredible. You had said “One of the gifts of the derby is a constant practice of non-attachment. If you're pulled from the present and wish it otherwise you're wasting your time. It is what it is and it's just the way it's meant to be.”


Lena Haug (00:33:48):



Katy Starr  (00:33:49):

I just thought that was incredible because like that and that's something that can be so applied to everything in life because like you can sit and wallow in what's happening to you but it's not going to change what's happening. And so it just really stuck with me and so I really love that.


Lena Haug (00:34:05):

Well thank you. Yeah, I think that was probably one of the bigger takeaways coming back into my life afterwards was getting this opportunity to spend 10 days being really stripped to one of the rawest versions of myself and getting to not feel like I should be thinking in the future or in the past and contemplating, oh I should have done that differently. I was really forced into this present moment in order to make it, you know, if my mind was stuck in Oh God, I should've, I could've, your horse is already 10 feet ahead of you and you're probably on the ground. It was this forced acceptance of, this moment is absolutely perfect because it's the only one that is right this very moment. And to lean into that, I don't know that I'll ever get that feeling of serenity again in my life. And I certainly crave it now deeply. But this deep sense of, even if it felt like I was riding the wheels off this psycho horse, it was the perfect moment and it was, any decision that was made was the right decision because it was just made and that simplicity and that leaning into that acceptance of being, you know, just being a human out in the wild was, it was perfect .


Katy Starr  (00:35:21):

Yeah, that's so incredible. You've talked about how the Mongolians have that nomadic culture, like where they travel around and everything. But talk to us about how you personally felt integrated into their culture throughout the race. You know, the moments that you got to be with them and work with them.


Lena Haug (00:35:44):

Yeah, so the nomadic families were our hosts at each horse station. And so if you were lucky enough to get to a horse station by 7:00 PM you could just stay at the horse station and be fed and sleep there and kind of get to experience a bit of this lifestyle. If you weren't, you'd have to stop at 7:00 PM and you could flag down someone and maybe camp, it's called wild camping. You know, you're camping out outside of the course stations and try and camp with a family that's not associated with it. And those experiences were probably almost richer 'cause you're, you know, you're trying to explain what this race is and who you are and what you're doing. And ultimately the Mongolian people are extremely generous and extremely present with you as a person. And I think a lot of that comes from this kind of tent culture idea of I cannot survive without you and you cannot survive without me.


Lena Haug (00:36:38):

Whatever is mine is yours and yours is mine. We share this land together And that was very potent. I mean I felt so welcomed into the families and fed and adorned with care. It's not a warm, fuzzy culture, like not a lot of hugs and touching and feels. It's more of an eye contact. And whenever you would be given something like food or a drink or airag, which is the fermented horse milk, you would cradle your right elbow with your left hand and receive with your right hand and bring it to your lips and then pass it back to the person who gave it to you. And there's a lot of ritual and engagement with this generosity. There's a lot of focus on accepting and seeing one another for who we are. There was one moment, I don't remember what horse station, I was hot and sweaty and pretty disgusting at this point already.


Lena Haug (00:37:30):

And this older gentleman was sitting outside of a ger just watching me walk up after I had passed my vet check and he stood up and he just opened his arms to me and he gave me this huge embrace. And I remember just melting into this older man's arms and just feeling like, that felt like I needed to be held. I needed a little, I don't know what it was, some familiarity of just being, letting to like let my muscles relax, let my body relax and have this complete stranger. He saw it right in me that at that moment I just needed to be held. And he did. And I, we like locked eyes and kind of patted me on the back and then I went on my merry way. But from the experience I had with the Mongolians, it's just an incredible sense of family and connectedness with their animals and nature and a pride, a deep pride for their horses and their families and their lifestyle in their country.


Katy Starr  (00:38:26):

That's really, really beautiful. I mean just to be able to experience a culture. I mean obviously we live kind of fast paced in the U.S. I think, you know, some areas in more rural communities slow down a bit, but probably nothing like what you experienced in Mongolia and just that uniqueness of their culture. 


Lena Haug (00:38:49):

Yeah, it's pretty rare in our world to have people living really a traditional kind of nomadic indigenous lifestyle and I just was so grateful to get the opportunity to walk into another world like that. 


Katy Starr  (00:39:03):

Yeah. And so on day two, I think it was day two at horse station five, something really kind of unexpected happened with a very particular horse. Can you share more about that with us? What happened?


Lena Haug (00:39:19):

Yeah, I don't know exactly what you're talking about. So it was the end of a hot day. I had about two and a half hours to get to the next horse station. It was my third leg of the day. So you know, I've ridden approximately 50 miles already and had been very, very warm that day. So you're just really beaten down by the elements. And I had handed my kind of, I couldn't pick which horse to take based on the fact that these horses, they could be fat, thin, tall, small, whatever. And they no rhyme or reason one's fast, one's not fast, you just had no idea. And I had started to just hold my bridle up and say "khurdan mori” which just means fast horse and the herder who own these horses, they know them better than anyone and if they like you as a person and they've heard rumors of you being a good enough rider, they might just give you a great horse. So anyways, this herder grabs this big, thick, red horse. He looks, he's got big fat feet that are cracked and splayed, and he doesn't look like he's been ridden a whole lot, but he is pretty thick and hefty. He looks like a quarter horse, but they're all only about 12 to 14 hands. So they're pretty small. And I was like thinking in my head, I was like, are you sure? This one looks really slow. When I was thinking back to my first horse day one I was like, oh God, not again. .


Katy Starr  (00:40:31):

Yeah. You’re like deja vu .


Lena Haug (00:40:34):

Yeah. But I just kind of was like, okay, I don't really have much time, let's go. So he saddles it up, horses still is, you know, just still lets him saddle him up. He kind of walks him around a sec and then I hop on and I trotted two laps around the horse line to kind of warm him up and see what kind of broncing situation we had. And I was like, oh this horse is chill. Alright. And I point him in the direction of travel and I go choo choo, which is, they don't use their legs, they don't kick, they use verbal cues for forward. So I go, choo choo. And I kind of used my latigo with, you have this get down line and I kind of tapped his side a bit and that horse just cracked in two, he just turned into a bronc and I was so ill-prepared for it because he had looked so mellow, he just stuck it to the sun.


Lena Haug (00:41:17):

Just gave me three or four big bucks. And I rolled off his right hip and on the way down he kicked me in the face with his rear foot. He cocked me in the left cheek and I stood up just in time to see him bolting back to the horse station, which wasn't a far jog. And I picked up a jog and I was like, well my bell has rung. And I was, I remember using my tongue to see if all my teeth were still in place. I'm like, oh my, yeah, my teeth are there . But it was numb and kind of quivery and I was a little shaky and I get to the horse station and I see the horse, I'm going straight to go get him to get back on and go on and I just see someone wave me down to come over to them.


Lena Haug (00:41:52):

And I guess my face was bleeding pretty badly. So I went over and a medic was actually at that horse station, which is good because she palpated me, put some tape on my lip that was cracked open. And she's like, you're really lucky you don't seem to have any broken bones in your face. And she checked my eyes for concussion. No, no big deal. And I think he just must have grazed me on the way down because I had no residual issues. So I hopped back on him and that horse was deranged and insane and just the most brilliant runner. I should have just bit my tongue and taken back all my words of thinking he was a slow horse based on his thick little build. But we ended up doing that leg in about an hour and 15 minutes, which is bananas. I mean the horse was in full tilt most of the way.


Lena Haug (00:42:37):

And I had to try and rein him in the last two or three miles because he was just heaving with, you know, sides were heaving, he was dripping sweat. I had no control of him. This was the time where, you know, I thought I was going to die because I was a little shook up being kicked in the face. And then also he was traveling so fast across, up and over these little hills and every time we'd get to the crest of the hill I thought, oh my god, he is, he's going to tire out a little, he’ll slow down. And then the gravity just took us and he just would like bolt down these hills. And all I kept thinking was like, please don't fall in a gopher hole. Please don't fall in a gopher hole.


Katy Starr  (00:43:11):

Oh gosh, yeah!


Lena Haug (00:43:12):

If we go down going this fast, like we're both going to break our necks. And he didn't, he kept his feet and I just stayed as quiet as a mouse on his back and just like hoped and prayed we'd get there into one piece, but the horse was just flat-out gallop. When I got, this was my second heart rate penalty. And only after that, that was my last one, thank heavens. But I got to the next horse station and the vets just took one look at the two of us, the horse is just like heaving sweat, I have blood pouring out of my face. And they were like, oh, oh God, .


Katy Starr  (00:43:41):

What happened to you guys?


Lena Haug (00:43:44):

You guys don't look so good. And I was like well check the horse. And yeah, he had a elevated heart rate, but he actually did recover pretty quick. I walked him around, gave him some water and he recovered within like 35, 40 minutes. So I still got the heart rate penalty, but the horse was amazing. Amazing. And this is where I just, I was like, I'm out of control. I can do, I just need to do my best. That's the best you can do is do your best and hope it goes well because you know, I could not have picked that this horse was going to do that out of anything. So. 


Katy Starr  (00:44:14):

Right. Well and what is it like, especially, I mean it's one thing if the horse has really not a whole lot of get up and go, but when it's racing like that, how is it like trying to navigate where you need to go?


Lena Haug (00:44:26):

It feels impossible really. So the other thing we haven't mentioned on this podcast yet is like this horse race is all self navigated. So you have waypoints in a GPS and the maps that are uploaded onto the GPS are super antiquated, 1970s Russian made maps of the landscape. The topo is about a 50 meter topo lines, which is not particularly accurate or detailed. Water sources were outdated. And to try and scan at a GPS while you're going hellbent for leather on your tiny little deranged beast of a pony, it feels at some points you're just like, well, you know, I hope I'm going the right way because what's better than knowing if I'm in the right direction is staying alive. 


Katy Starr  (00:45:13):

Yeah, Yeah.


Lena Haug (00:45:13):

So I had very good luck. I think a lot of it has to do with piloting too, is like, I'm very directionally minded. I didn't really have any issues with navigation. Some people did, which is a part of their adventure, you know, but it can be challenging. And luckily most of the horses, after the first five or six miles, slow down to a really nice pace. Like a, let the reins a little looser, stand up in your stirrups and you know, look at your GPS and and sort things out. Right off the gate, right out of you, get out of a horse station. I would have picked something in the distance that I was riding towards so that I could manage myself and not try and pick my GPS up and look at it.


Katy Starr  (00:45:48):

That's really good. Yeah.


Lena Haug (00:45:50):

Just to keep myself oriented.


Katy Starr  (00:45:52):

At one point, you found yourself and they kind of warned you about it, but it just kind of crept up on you and you had no idea, but you found yourself on some sort of missile range?


Lena Haug (00:46:03):

Yeah, . Oh yeah. Everything just comes at you as it


Katy Starr  (00:46:08):

Should. Everything over there is trying to kill you. Wild dogs, missiles, horses.


Lena Haug (00:46:12):

But everyone's so calm about it. It's so nice. Yeah. So it was a, a misty early morning. The herder helped me pick this little appaloosa looking guy. He was pretty squirmy and skittish and it was raining and I had my rain pants on. I didn't have any extra clothes, right. Like you wear the breaches and the shirt you're riding in day in and day out. Like at this point you were just a disgusting mess. And what I did bring was a good rain gear, rain pants and rain jacket. So I had put my rain jacket on and my rain pants because I didn't want to, you know, freeze. And this horse was not impressed by that. He was like very tuck tail squirmy about the sound of the rain gear. So I had basically just hopped on him and pointed him in the right direction and was just, had him in a really good clip.


Lena Haug (00:46:53):

He was moving nicely. The herder that morning had pointed kind of to the north, God, I think it was like northwest. And he kind of gave me this like, don't go over there sign. And I was like, okay, no problem. And there's some mountains and hills. And ultimately what happened is I had quietly like tried to get on this horse's back as quiet as possible, get out of his way, let him run so he's not focused on the sound of this rain gear. And suddenly we're like at a pretty good lope through this beautiful valley. It was misty and rainy. And I look down as his feet are flying over this ground and I see these giant skid marks in the dirt that look like mini trenches. And I was like, what? What the hell is this? Like you're out in the most remote land.


Lena Haug (00:47:37):

I mean, you don't see no one's out there shoveling, that's for sure. So I just kind of kept going and I started noticing as these things were whizzing by every now and then that there was stuff in these trenches. And I took a better look at the next one I whizzed by. And it was what looked like a giant bullet, like a two and a half, three foot long bullet. And I realized like, holy crap, this is some sort of shooting range. Like is this some military training or something? And I look up at the end of this valley is far off in the distance and I just like, I just woke my horse up, I got my, I started like yelling choo at him. I was no longer keeping my arms quiet. And he kept hearing that rustling sound and that horse just went to a whole new gear and took off through the valley.


Lena Haug (00:48:19):

And at the end of the valley, I remember just thinking to myself like, you just got to get out of here. Like, I have no idea if people are going to start shooting. It's like 7:30 in the morning at this point. I kind of thanked, you know, the fact that Mongolians, they like to stay up late and drink vodka. And soI was like, oh maybe. Hopefully they're sleeping in and I get to the end of the valley as it starts to ascend up this mountain pass and there's just this lineup of men standing there just staring at me . As I come ripping by them and I just like give them a little salute, like, good morning , goodbye. Hello . And there was this, I don't know artillery very well, but it did look like some kind of a giant launching gun thing that was next to them. So I don't know if they saw me in binoculars. I never heard any explosions until later that afternoon from another mountain. I could hear back to it that they were, you know, bombing the area, doing some kind of missile practice.


Katy Starr  (00:49:14):

But that is so crazy.


Lena Haug (00:49:16):

I rode right through where one should not


Katy Starr  (00:49:19):

. Whoops. .


Lena Haug (00:49:20):

Whoops. Yeah.


Katy Starr  (00:49:22):

Oh my goodness. So talking about your rain gear, how was the weather during the race? Was it fairly consistent or was there some random storms, or what did you experience?


Lena Haug (00:49:34):

Anything but consistent. So to summer in Mongolia can be 95 degree hot desert sweating dry, and then two hours later it's hailing and it's 42 degrees on the surface. And blowing a thunderstorm through. The temperature is varied so quickly and so rapidly. And like I said, with these horses being so feral, you can't just get off and pull your jacket out to put it on. Like when you get on that horse, whatever you're wearing is what you're wearing through the whole leg, unless you want to lose your horse. So I had a leg where we started off sweating and I was just drinking profusely, water. And you're sweating enough to where you're not peeing like it's just your body's working so hard. And within 35 minutes this thunderstorm rolled in over us and we ended up in hail for the next, the last half of that leg. And the weather really was just so variable. And I know in other races in the past, riders have dealt with a lot of hypothermia issues for the very same reason where the leg starts out hot and then suddenly rains come in and just drench you and it's 38 degrees. So huge variation in temperatures. Absolutely huge. Which again, hats off these horses, they deal with a lot .


Katy Starr  (00:50:47):

Yeah. Different from the rest of their year. They're 300 and however many extra days of the year that they aren't doing a race .So if you could go back and change something from this experience, would you, and if so, what would you change?


Lena Haug (00:51:07):

I think going back to the thread of really getting the race we need, I can't say that I would change anything at all. Every leg was its own adventure and every leg was a little deeper vision into kind of who I am, how I show up in the world, and who I want to be, and getting to know myself at a different level. And there were things that could have gone smoother or I could have refrained from a negative thought or something. But every single little building block built up to this pretty exquisite experience that it's actually keeping me from ever wanting to do it again, minus the fact that it's just extremely grueling. It's, I say that I would want to go back and jeopardize changing the lessons I learned in this race. So from that perspective, I don't think I would go back and change anything. There are certain moments where I, I feel like, oh, I could've, you know, run a little harder at this point and run a little different. But all that is just a wash in the end of just realizing that I got the perfect race for exactly where I was in my life. And hold onto those lessons like gold.


Katy Starr  (00:52:14):

Then what would you say is your greatest takeaway from this experience?


Lena Haug (00:52:21):

After I got to finish camp, I had a couple of words that I wrote down in my journal that I had at Finish Camp . I wrote down that I was humbled, I was raw, I was very moved and that I was going to try and do less in each day in order to really fully be a little bit more in that mindset of that serenity into that present moment that we talked about. Kind of open up the space to really live in the here and now versus in a little bit of that fast forward mindset that we get so tied up into in our culture. So the humbled part of that was us feeling, it sounds so silly, but I feel like I didn't necessarily need to run a horse race in order to get the life lessons I got. Like this race was, horses are my medium and maybe I did need to run a horse race, but the lessons I learned was not improving my horsemanship or my riding or my, you know, connection to horses or anything.


Lena Haug (00:53:30):

This was like an emotional internal journey. And it just so happened to be on the back of these incredible creatures. And then the rawness was, I felt the smallest I've ever been in my life, I felt like a tiny little speck in the universe. Kind of like when you look at, you know, NASA pictures of the galaxies. You're just this spot in the world. And at the same time, my heart never felt bigger. I felt like I was just ripped open and open and so accepting of who I was, what was around me, and what was going on. And that kind of, I felt like a human in the wild really. And then the moved part I just, I started to, like I still do is as I talk about this race as I'll, I'll tear up or I'll get emotional about kind of the experience as a whole of being put in my place in a greater scheme of things.


Lena Haug (00:54:22):

Like you are one being amongst billions of other energy forces out in the world and who are you in that? And I think things I looked at after and it's gotten a lot less, as the year has gone out, I've kind of reintroduced myself back into society, but for a while I would, you know, look at a tree in a certain way and just feel incredibly moved by the simplicity or the beauty of that thing. And that as a whole was as just, I think, given to me in this experience of the race of being brought back to like my humanness. And by that I just mean like a raw just being that occupies a human body in space. So those were, yeah, those were kind of my big takeaways.


Katy Starr  (00:55:09):

Well, and I think it's interesting to me to hear you talk about, you know, how small you kind of felt doing that just in the grand scheme of the universe and everything that exists. And from my perspective as an outsider who will never race the Mongol Derby, but loves to be able to hear about your journey and your experiences about it, you seem like larger than life from my perspective because of what you did. So I just find that to be really interesting and just the dynamics that we have between our views of that that ride that you did.


Lena Haug (00:55:50):

Yeah. That's interesting. Yeah.


Katy Starr  (00:55:52):

So what do you feel like, I'm going to ask you a couple different things around this, but I know there probably could be a lot. But what do you feel like was the most challenging moment for you during this whole race? Maybe a moment that you didn't think you'd be able to overcome or it just seemed like it was so tough.


Lena Haug (00:56:11):

I think, and I feel kind of grateful this happened so early, but I do think it was that first heart rate penalty when the horse coed. It just felt so out of my control and I felt so ashamed of being in that situation of having put this horse into, you know, a harmful situation essentially. Yeah. So I would put my finger on that being one of the most challenging. It's so funny because we haven't talked about the finish line or the last day, but I had been riding with another American rider, Kaylee Davenport, a lot of the race, it just so happened to be that it worked out that way. And it was day nine and you have 10 days to finish this race. And we were two miles from the finish line and it was 7:00 PM and we ended up camping out with some family two miles from the finish line on night nine like it was. And as people asked me afterwards, like, wasn't that infuriating? And I was like, it was the best, like it was the best thing at that point. I was like, I'd never want to go home like I am part of this.


Katy Starr  (00:57:15):

It probably has happened for a reason.


Lena Haug (00:57:18):

It really felt that way. It really felt that way. Yeah. We were so close. And at the same time it was the most peaceful thing to just think about getting to wake up early the next morning and just have a quiet kind of thoughtful last two miles of this incredible journey and getting to kind of milk out the last little bits of this ride was, it felt very gifted. But it's funny because people would say like, oh, wasn't that just so infuriating? And I was like, absolutely not. It was the opposite. But my painful moment was really in the beginning when I had to start softening my mind to the unknowns with that colic.


Katy Starr  (00:57:53):

Yeah. Yeah. And I wonder though, if people asked you about that, like it being infuriating to you because like you said, you crossed that finish line, you're a winner. Like you know, I don't know how many people have that mindset of, you know, I'm in this race to win it and you know, I'm going to do my best to win it. But there's so many people that I feel like go through that race just to experience the race and everything that it has to offer. And so I'm wondering if those people have a little bit different mindset because they're not in that race of that's what's important, but for you it's like there's so many of these other elements that come into play that are really impacting your whole being and experience with this.


Lena Haug (00:58:39):

Yeah, I think that is kind of the interesting part about this is every single person who starts this has a goal of, you know, winning in some way. And at some point in it, your idea of what winning means really changes. And I can totally put my finger on the time that changed for me as well. 'cause I, I knew I was gonna run as hard as I could and run my best self in my race. That was my goal. And I wanted to keep the horses safe and I wanted to experience the culture and the space. But really I also wanted to win , you know?


Katy Starr  (00:59:08):

Yeah. How cool would that be?


Lena Haug (00:59:10):

How cool would that be? But there's a point where I remember having this conversation with myself. It was after getting stuck in a hailstorm and I was chilled to the bone and it was about an hour and a half before it was like five 30. So I still had some time to ride. And I had this talk with myself. I was like, Lena, what does it look like to win to you? Does it look like crossing that finish line first? Or does it look like staying here with this family and getting to know them and resting your body and recovering and taking care of, you know, you and the people around you and the horses and maybe watching a sunset instead of being, you know, dead to the world, falling asleep. And that conversation with myself was so real and so needed because I absolutely feel like I won the race for myself. I made decisions and I chose, I chose things that felt really right. And following that path is a huge form of winning in my mind now. Now I don't know that I could have said that beforehand.


Katy Starr  (01:00:09):

In the moment. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just some reflection. Mm-hmm. , would you say that that moment camping out two miles before the finish line, would you say that that was your favorite experience from the Derby? Or is there some other moment throughout the whole race that it just lights you up?


Lena Haug (01:00:30):

Oh God, I cannot pick one. I honestly can't. , there were plenty of moments where I would hoot and holler and scream and just say, you know, I'm alive. Or like yell something to the horse, like we did it, like we got through that bog. Or you know, we outran these wild dogs that were fighting and barking and frothing for meat. You know, like, I can't say there was one in particular moment where it was my favorite. I did have quite a few moments where I, I just like looked up and was in just such awe of getting to be in that moment. Like when that horse ran away with all my gear, I got this little gelding who whinnied the entire leg. And I was like, at this point my mind had become like jello. I just was softened. I was kind from my core inside out and I was just kind of laughing like, hey little buddy, I'm sorry I'm taking you from your home.


Lena Haug (01:01:22):

And I remember looking up and there was this double rainbow in front of me. It was raining ahead of me and then the sun was shining from behind and it just, it was like a gateway of rainbows that I was just riding into. And I had this like immense gratitude for that black horse that took off with my gear because I was like, I wouldn't be here right now if that didn't happen. And there was these, yeah, these like magical moments and I don't know, I want my mind to stay in that place of just being malleable and seeing those moments for the magic they are. And I, you know, that's something I don't want to lose, but in that vulnerable raw state, it was so potent and so obvious at how lucky I was to be there.


Katy Starr  (01:02:04):

Ugh, that's so good. What an experience. So obviously with your experience with the Mongol Derby, but then even just all of the time that you've worked with horses through your entire lifetime, what do you feel like, feel like is the most important thing that horses have taught you in your life so far?


Lena Haug (01:02:25):

Oh gosh, that's a big question. I think a big one is authenticity and having conversations from the heart are probably the two main things that I could pinpoint right here on the spot. And what I mean by that is it's very easy for us humans to think we're like the dominant species in our way or the highway, and you can get a horse to do anything, but can you learn to train and communicate and kind of blend your desire into also the needs and expectations and safety of this majestic prey animal that we're relating to. And that journey, it's, you know, you can, as a trainer, you know, as a professional equestrian, I can a hundred percent go down the route of force intimidation with these animals, or I can choose a much harder, longer process way of trying to understand how I can have a partner in whatever I am trying to accomplish.


Lena Haug (01:03:24):

And when you, you know, compared to dogs, dogs really look at people for guidance and horses, I don't think they do. I don't think they naturally do. And I think when you do get to a point where a prey animal truly does seek and look at you as a good leader, that's a pretty big accomplishment. And that is a lesson that I repeatedly have to learn because in our human world, it's very easy to slip back into kind of that, ugh, I just want to get it done mode. And I have to keep asking myself, what quality is that? And is that really the highest art form that I can get to with this horse in front of me? And then as far as, oh, authenticity is showing up, you know, we all have stuff that happens in our day, we have our own quirks and frustrations and anxieties, and oftentimes we'll project that onto whatever's around us.


Lena Haug (01:04:18):

And I've been trying to make it more of a practice of, you know, when something frustrates me or is annoying or the horse is being naughty or fearful to try and quiet my own whatever is going on and show up authentically and kind of own my crap, you know, in that situation. And they are very good at reminding us for the most part. A lot of us can kind of shush them and still get our tasks done and kind of lose trust from that creature. But there is an opportunity to kind of show up and check yourself beforehand. 


Katy Starr  (01:04:53):

Yeah. That's so great. And as we're kind of starting to wrap up this episode, I know that there's so much that we have not talked about, and I know we could probably talk about this topic for hours with you, , that we don't have time. So is there anything else on your heart that we didn't talk about involving the Mongol Derby that you would like to share?


Lena Haug (01:05:16):

Ooh. Well, I think it just comes down to the horse, again, as a trainer working with horses all the time where we are looking to change and alter their behavior. People always, the big question is, is like, oh, what did you learn about horses? Or how did that change your training from your experience on the Derby? And it's the opposite answer probably anyone wants to hear, but I am just even more, the horse is perfect just the way it is. And when we step into the their world, we create a lot of, we really shift a natural situation that is perfect in its way. And I remember thinking out on the step, and then also I work with a lot of mustangs, you know, so then seeing them in their natural habitat, they are truly perfect just as they are. And us stepping in and asking them to do things is really quite a privilege and should be done with extreme care. .


Katy Starr  (01:06:11):

Yeah. Oh absolutely. Yeah. If you could give some words of wisdom to someone who is inspired to one day compete in the Mongol Derby, what advice would you give them?


Lena Haug (01:06:23):

Ooh, check your ego at the door. . Yeah.


Katy Starr  (01:06:26):

Number one, .


Lena Haug (01:06:27):

Number one, expect the unexpected. Nothing you plan on happening is going to happen. Ride as much as you possibly can beforehand to get ready for it. The only thing that gets you fit for it is a flexible mind and a lot of miles under your seat. And yeah, hang on tight .


Katy Starr  (01:06:47):

That's good. That's so good. So how can our listeners stay connected with you after this episode?


Lena Haug: (01:06:54)

I have a website. It's my first and last, so I have Instagram handles, it's lha_LenaHaug, and that's kind of where I keep most of my horse stuff. Those are probably the two best. On the website, I have a blog that's all about the derby and I have stories written out, and then more information there. So that's probably the best place to land on. 


Katy Starr  (01:07:20):

Perfect. And we'll be sure to include that in the show notes so our listeners can easily find you if they want to connect with you and maybe learn a little bit more about your journey that we didn't have a chance to talk about today. So, and to our listeners, thank you so much for being with us on The Beyond the Barn podcast. If you have any podcast topic ideas that you would like us to talk about, please email us at and we would love to hear more from you about interesting things that you think we should be talking about on the podcast. So Lena, thank you again so much for being here today. We can't tell you how much we appreciate you being here.


Lena Haug (01:08:00):

My pleasure. Thank you for having me. 


Katy Starr  (01:08:05):

Thanks for listening to The Beyond the Barn podcast by Standlee Forage. We'd love for you to share our podcast with your favorite people and subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or your favorite listening platform. Until next time, keep your cinch tight and don't forget to turn off the water.


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