Sudbury’s Kayleigh Davenport conquered the world’s longest horse race

Sudbury’s Kayleigh Davenport was fearless in her recent completion of the 1000km Mongol Derby – the longest horse race in the world. Photo by Tulgas Skizz/The Equestrianists


SUDBURY — Hardiness, the ability to thrive in isolation, and a good sense of humor are hallmarks of many a happy Vermonter’s lifestyles. And they can frequently put themselves through impressive feats of endurance to get that happiness. 

Whether chopping wood, visiting with that “slightly-too-chatty-for-my-blood” neighbor (you know the one), or even just surviving the winters, Vermonters are willing to go to great lengths to make themselves whole. However, one person has just gone a little further than most.

Sudbury’s Kayleigh Davenport recently completed the longest, toughest horse race in the known world: the Mongol Derby. The Derby is a 1,000km (621.37 miles) trek through northern Mongolia designed to mimic the horse messenger system established by Genghis Khan nearly 800 years ago in 1224.

Kayleigh Davenport

Davenport, who grew up riding at Pond Hill in Castleton and calls riding part of her identity, first heard about the race via her job working for SmartPak, an online retailer for equestrian apparel. 

SmartPak sponsored a rider in 2018, and a postcard hanging in the break room thanking them for their support piqued Davenport’s interest. “I’m always looking for some kind of adventure. I said, why not? Let’s do it.”

Davenport didn’t think she had a chance to get accepted. Still, after submitting numerous videos and pictures of her riding and going through a lengthy interview process, she was finally approved.

The race, whose course changes every year and is kept secret until the last minute, can take riders through mountain passes, open valleys, river crossings, wetlands, floodplains, arid dunes, rolling hills, and of course, the famed Mongolian steppe. 

All across roughly 10 days of riding 13 hours a day and dealing with all manner of difficulties along the way—including weather, wolves, and the all-too-common (in Mongolia) giant marmot hole. 

“If you’re on a horse and you don’t really have a say in how fast you’re going to be going, you can’t be barreling through a field and fall in a marmot hole, which happened a lot,” she said.

Riders must carry all their materials and supplies (although meals are provided at checkpoints) and may not weigh more than 187 lbs., including their backpack (with camping supplies), in addition to a maximum of 11 lb. saddle bag. “When you’re out in the field, it’s just kind of you and your horse,” said Davenport.  

Some restrictions are made to keep the race close to what the initial Mongolian riders had to contend with, but much of it is done with horse safety in mind. 

No horse may be ridden for more than one leg (about 40 km), and a team of vets checks each horse after each leg to ensure that they have not been over-ridden. “At each horse station, there are the herders who own the horses and help you get on and get saddled,” she said. “There’s a whole team of medics that work for the race, a whole team of vets that work for the race, and some crew that are there to help support you.”

If the horses do not meet benchmarks for health, the riders can suffer substantial time penalties—penalties that frequently affect the outcome of races. As a result, Mongol Derby horses are injured at much lower rates than other types of horse racing. 

In America alone, there are approximately 700-800 racehorse fatalities annually. In contrast, the Derby has suffered only one such fatality since the race began in 2009, and that horse is thought to have had an old injury or a congenital defect which contributed to its death.

The Mongol Steppe shimmered after one of its heavy storms. Photo by Kayleigh Davenport

“The horses are absolutely amazing athletes, but they’re so different from our horses,” said Davenport, who rode equestrian in college and showed on the American Quarter Horse Association circuit.

“The Mongolian people are nomadic,” she continued, “so when they’re in an area, they wrangle their horses, and when they go back somewhere else, they leave them. They’re wild half the year, so they really need to be treated like wild animals.”

Selecting good horses is a key to success, according to Davenport. “The [riders] who maybe had a worse time were more concerned about getting the racehorses and being the fastest one out there rather than getting there in one piece, or they were in the back of the pack, so they only had a limited number of horses to choose from,” she said.

For her method, Davenport said she wanted to select horses with both experience and temperament, asking herders first if the horses were fast but then if they were well behaved.

 “I’d look at their feet—they don’t have any farriers or blacksmiths up there, so [their hooves} naturally wear down—and if they had really long feet, I assumed they didn’t get worked very often, so I would usually pass on those,” she said. “Next, I would go up and see if I could pet his neck, and if I couldn’t pet his neck, then I passed on him.”

In addition to the horses, the elements play a huge role in the race. Davenport said it was a hot race this year, with temperatures regularly in the 80s and 90s, making heat stroke and dehydration a common bugaboo among competitors.

Of course, there are storms, too. “We only got two big rainstorms. When it rains, it really rains,” she said. “It was like quarter-sized hail, thunder, and lightning—really scary actually. That was the scariest moment I was out there. We were out in a field—the flattest field—it was me and another guy, Mike. At the end of it, I said, I’m just glad you were taller than me.”

“The vastness of everything—you can’t even describe it,” she continued in reference to the landscape and its challenges, all of which make even finishing the race a massive achievement. Of the 47 riders who began this year’s race, only 33 finished. Davenport finished in a tie for 14th place.

Lena Haug, left, and Kayleigh Davenport, right, celebrate the end of their 10-day ride across Mongolia. Photo by Shari Thomspon/ The Equestrianists

Davenport said the comradery and sportsmanship among riders are high even though riders come from all over the world and specialize in a variety of riding styles, including endurance western, jumping, racing, dressage, and even ranchers. 

Davenport said all the riders did have one thing in common. “We all are equally crazy people. Crazy horse people,” she said with a giggle. “We’re all equally as crazy, and kind of have the same philosophy in a lot of things. I met so many great people.”

She says she has kept up with her fellow competitors since the race ended on August 1. “Everyone kind of has post derby blues getting back into normal life, so we’re all commiserating together.”

Davenport mentioned fitness and preparations as key to her success, but she also mentioned the importance of keeping things emotionally light. “Roll with the punches and prepare as much as you can. You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” she said.

As for future plans, Davenport says, “I don’t think I would [do it again]. I think some things are once in a lifetime for a reason.  And I had such a fortunate time and got really lucky, got good horses; I don’t think I could ever get this lucky again.”

 “I loved it. It was amazing,” she continued. “I keep seeing people saying, “oh, you made it back in one piece,” and I’m like—I am wholer than I have ever been.”

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