Reid Albano is retired from the military (Army Captain, Ranger, paratrooper, and amputee) and has been foxhunting on and off since he was a child. He is currently a member of Santa Fe West Hills Hunt in Southern California as a Whipper-In. His list of accomplishments is impressive, but the most inspirational of them all is being the first disabled rider to complete what is considered the world’s toughest and longest horse race, the Mongol Derby.
“It is impossible not to be reminded of your mortality in the vastness of the steppe”, Reid observed during our talks.
As he was preparing for the 1,000-kilometer horse race across the Mongol steppe, I had the privilege to speak to Reid this past spring. And again last week, a month after he crossed the finish line. He finished ten days after the starting gun set off 42 intrepid riders clinging to half-feral Mongol horses. I asked Reid the most obvious question for anyone who enters this famously difficult horse race, regardless if they have an artificial leg or not, “Why?” Reid chuckled, but he had several reasons.
Pragmatically, Reid wanted to try this new adventure before he was 40 and before children came into his life. By chance, Reid heard of the Derby and decided to apply. Being an amputee did not disqualify him, but it would put him as the first disabled rider to compete. And as it followed, the first disable rider to complete the race as well.
Intellectually, the idea of a horse race that recreates Chinggis Khan’s own version of the Pony Express across the steppe appealed to Reid (note that the preferred Mongolian name is Chinggis instead of Genghis). Reid happens to have an undergraduate degree in Medieval History from the University of California, Berkeley. Mongolia has an impressive history and a fierce reputation for having the best horseman in human history. Reid has been riding and foxhunting since he was a child, and the idea of racing across the vast steppe in the hoofprints of history was too appealing to pass up.
Personally, Reid wanted to prove to himself that he still had the mental and physical fortitude that he had when he was in the military. Could he still push himself to the limit, as he had to when in combat? The fact that he compared the mental strength that this race requires to combat tells you a bit about just how hard this race is to finish.
And motivationally, Reid wanted to be an inspiration for other disabled riders and wounded veterans. If he could finish the world’s toughest horse race with an artificial leg, then he wanted to use his experience to help others.
Reid’s family has a long line of military service, so it wasn’t surprising that he also joined the military. Reid lost his foot after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan. The fact that he applied his own tourniquet tells you a bit about Reid’s personal strength.
Reid also grew up foxhunting with his family in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Life and military obligations obliged him to stop riding and hunting for most of his adult life, but after retiring from active military service Reid wanted to see if he could ride as an amputee. He joined Santa Fe West Hills Hunt last season and has thoroughly enjoyed learning the ins and outs of whipping-in. Fast, adrenaline-high riding while having to make judgment calls concerning a pack of hounds hot after coyotes were right up Reid’s alley. Prosthetic leg be damned.
MONGOLIAN HORSES – NEMESIS OR HEROS
Reid said, “The horses were amazing! Some were my nemesis, but there was one horse that was the most amazing horse I’ve ever ridden.”
Riders are permitted a very limited amount of gear, so the strategy of what to take and what to leave behind consisted of very tough decisions. Reid fortunately did bring along some antibiotics in his gear, which saved him from being evacuated out of the race. He caught dysentery and had a high enough fever that the race medics wanted him to pull out of the race, despite taking the medication.
Broiling summer heat, a sheep entrail diet, and twelve hours a day riding half-feral horses are not what a doctor would order to recover from dysentery. As it turned out, Reid was the only rider with dysentery not removed from the race (praise to modern medications).
But Reid carried on. As luck would have it, the morning his fever was the highest was when he was at the horse station when he was given the scariest horse of his race.
Riders were given horses based on a lottery system at every horse station. The stations were every 25 kilometers, so every station resulted in a new horse to conquer. This particular horse was the only one in the race that scared Reid at first sight. He asked the herder who owned the horse to mount first, which is allowed in the race. But the herder was too scared to get on his own horse!
Reid had made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t turn down any mount given to him to prevent any self-doubt or insecurity from sabotaging his commitment to himself to finish. But this horse must have been a sight to quell Reid’s determination! As it turned out, Reid’s instinct was spot on. Upon mounting, Reid was immediately thrown and kicked for good measure. Reid wisely asked for another horse.
The only other horse to scare him was a very agile paint horse that threw and stomped the herder during his test ride to get some of the bluster out. Despite the trepidation, Reid felt that he had to try to mount the horse. This paint horse turned out to be an amazing runner, but so spooky that Reid didn’t dismount for the entire leg of 25 kilometers for fear of losing the horse and all of his gear attached to the saddle.
Reid’s next-to-last horse in the race waited until he dismounted to bolt, which gave Reid several broken and dislocated fingers. The medics again wanted Reid to leave the race to get medical help, but at this point so close to the finish line it felt like a betrayal to Reid to suggest that he quit. What Reid said to the medics can’t be printed. Instead, he wrapped his own fingers and did a quick and painful reset to the dislocated finger.
He encountered a bog on this last horse, which tried to gallop full tilt while buried chest-deep in the muck. Ried, with only one functioning hand on the reins, could not dissuade this horse from this scary and unwise decision. But luck prevailed, and both Reid and the overly ambitious horse swam out, upright, to solid ground.
HIS RACE STRATEGY
Reid said, “Anyone who starts that race with complete confidence that they will finish, or even win, is out of their mind.”
While there is a very high baseline of riding skills necessary to even qualify for the race, Reid concludes that riding will not win the race. His breakdown to be successful in the race is 10% horsemanship, 30-40% route planning and land navigation, and the rest to “intangibles” or factors that one can’t control.
Those intangibles, as he put it, were mostly judgment calls, lottery luck of which horse you pulled, terrain obstacles (marmot holes are notorious for retiring many riders), and a vast multitude of other factors.
Sheer mental toughness is needed to succeed but so is operational judgment. Knowing how hard to push oneself and the horses are crucial decision in strategy. As in, do you push yourself past the last horse station that day to sleep out on the steppe in order to get a few kilometers ahead of the other riders? Or do you cut the day short and sleep in the horse station, while watching all the other riders pass you? The risks of sleeping out on the steppe were many, but the biggest risk was waking up all alone to no horse, no saddle, and no gear. Oh dear.
One night Reid stopped early due to dysentery. The next morning, Reid passed every rider that had chosen to skip sleeping at the horse station in favor of the steppe. He had a horse that was fresher because that horse had not been overnighted alone on the open steppe, away from any buddies or a herd. And Reid himself was more rested for sleeping in a shelter.
Another critical judgment call was the decision to work with other riders, as in forming alliances. Reid rode with several riders along the different legs of the race. He provided navigation and leads to their less confident horses. Karma then worked in Reid’s favor on the day of his high fever. One of his riding buddies who had been helped by him previously now used her horse as a “rugby blocker” to Reid’s mount. Because Reid had a “real racer that flat refused to steer”.
The riders in the Derby who didn’t pick up the nuances of the Mongolian herder’s riding skills suffered more than the observant riders. The Mongolian horses for the most part did not like Westerners. To the horses, the Western riders smelled, looked, and moved differently from the Mongolians. Very smartly, Reid learned how to mount like a Mongolian after careful observation. He said this new skill was a large factor in his surviving the scariest part of riding Mongolian horses – mounting up in the saddle.
FINISHING THE MOUNT EVEREST OF HORSE RACES
“This is a precarious means of existence living on the steppe, and it has been breeding a particular type of person for literally millennia”, Reid said.
By the very last horse in the race, Reid had an open wound on his amputated leg in addition to broken fingers and dysentery. Reid had prepared for the Derby by riding with endurance trainers every month to not just build up his stamina but to also fine-tune the adjustments he needed for his prosthetic leg. As it turned out, the chaffing that notoriously lames most Derby riders was too much for his prosthetic leg.
Reid was met at the finish line with a beer and a set of crutches. He had to take off his prosthetic leg to give the open wound a chance to dry out after days of riding 1,000 kilometers. Reid finished 13th in ten days with a clean vet card with no warnings (meaning all of his horses’ heart rates came down to the accepted rate in the allotted time). Only 25 riders finished out of the 42 that began the race.
For all the effort it took to finish the Derby, Reid realized that he was now a much better horseman than before he started. He likened it to a Darwinian process that developed a very secure seat. A trial by fire as it were.
And while endurance riding was necessary for him to prepare for the Derby, Reid credits foxhunting as being the biggest help. While they cover a long distance, Endurance races are still over-prepared or a known route. Foxhunting covers no pre-determined path.
There is a certain amount of physical courage found in foxhunting that is also necessary for the Derby. Riding at speed over uneven terrain requires a large amount of trust in the horse that can only be found while riding to hounds. Adding in the skill set to know when and when not to help the horse solve a problem at a gallop is learned in the foxhunting field.
Reid said that the Santa Fe West Hills Hunt’s territory covers similar terrain to the Mongolian steppe, so he felt he had an advantage over the other non-foxhunting riders in the Derby. And he observed that every serious foxhunter (there were several from Ireland) finished the Derby.
A week or so after he returned home from Mongolia, Reid wondered if it was all real. Just like he would wonder after a rough combat mission. Despite that sobering and astonishing observation, Reid is keen to find another adventure. He has just applied for the Gaucho Derby that runs through Patagonia. His desire to be a resource and example for anyone with a disability is impressive.
Reid had a large support system that helped him prepare for the Derby. His wife Roxane Modares never stopped encouraging him. Terry Paine, MFH and huntsman for Santa Fe West Hills Hunt has been his mentor in the hunt field. Tammy and John Simpson were his endurance trainers. Lisa Sabo is his local trainer. His friends Bruce and Dana Weary were unwavering in their support. And finally, Reid credits his mom as being one of the best riders he knows. She taught him how to ride as a little boy and is a tireless supporter, advisor, and critic of his equitation.
A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE
While racing along a mountain trail, Reid had a Mongolian fox that trotted along with him for half an hour. What a beautiful experience that was high on a mountain, looking down on the vast expanse of the steppe. Without any visual evidence of modern life within the horizon and beyond; just yourself, a flying horse, and a fox. All comrades in that moment of belonging. No wonder Reid wants to risk more injury and dysentery to race again.
Check out the website and coverage of the 2023 Mongol Derby here: Follow the 2023 Mongol Derby Live - The Equestrianists.
Originally published September 26, 2023.