For the next 10 days, two Montana women will be thundering deep into the wilds of Patagonia astride a series of horses they've never met.
With only a steed, a pack horse and minimal supplies, they will be navigating across some of the wildest terrain on Earth attempting to finish one of the toughest and most unusual equine challenges in modern history.
They will face countless problems, possibly encountering dehydration, hypothermia, dysentery, intense sleep deprivation, and overall fatigue.
Even for experienced horse riders, they know this is no mean feat. To top it all off, there will be no prize.
But that’s what Corie Downey of Whitehall and Marie Griffis of Manhattan signed up for when they applied to race in the Gaucho Derby, a 300-mile multi-horse race in Patagonia, Argentina.
The adventure race calls itself "the greatest test of horsemanship and wilderness skills on Earth," and it is easy to see why.
With no outside assistance, Downey and Griffis, along with other riders, will be responsible for riding and caring for two horses, navigating between checkpoints and camping each night at spots across the Andean foothills.
Riders are limited to a weight of roughly 187 pounds, including everything they wear, roughly 22 pounds of gear including food and shelter, and 40 pounds of horse-related tack, such as saddles, stirrups, and hobbles.
This is the first year this particular race has been held, but its organizers have staged horse races in Mongolia and all over parts of the world.
“This is what we call the 'Pioneers Edition' of the race,” Dan Wedgwood, managing director at The Adventurists, wrote in an email to The Standard. “As it has not ever been run in full before, the riders are taking on a world first with this format and distance in Argentina, celebrating the Gaucho culture and expanding our long distance horse race format that has proved so popular in Mongolia.”
The mind-bending terrain in Patagonia won’t just test skill on a horse but will push Griffis and Downey to the limit of their navigation skills, ability to handle the wilderness and their physical endurance.
Who could be lured to such a test of mind, body and spirit on horseback? Griffis and Downey both have equine pedigrees, though their paths to land in the Gaucho Derby are dramatically different.
The two were chosen from hundreds of applications as two of 24 competitors in the ultra-endurance horse race. They applied in December 2018 and found out they were selected last September.
“I was just flat out floating on air, excited,” Griffis said. “The fact that we’re able to get in together is just really cool.”
Downey said she was excited, too, but also felt “a bit of dread.”
“I came to a realization that I now had four and a half months to get in shape, to ride 300 some miles over the winter,” said Downey, a wife, mother and ranch manager of Diamond K Ranch. She said she’s been riding horses before she could walk.
“I have to give it to Marie without ever putting my name in there too, and vouching for me,” Downey said. “It would have been hard to get in.”
But Griffis tells of a different side of Downey. That’s probably because Downey is also a competitive athlete in skijoring, an extreme winter sport where a horseback rider pulls a skier holding on to a rope.
“Corie is also very, very intense. I can be intense, but I'm much more laid back than Corie is,” Griffis said, adding that they complement each other’s abilities. “Corie is a heck of a horsewoman. If there's any girl that can sit a nasty horse and buck it, it’s Corie ... She can ride. So I'm excited to do this race with her.”
Griffis grew up riding horses on her family’s ranch in Manhattan, but she said she didn’t take proper riding lessons until she was close to 40 years old.
“I don't really know, like the technical way of riding. But what I can do is, I can sit on a horse, and I do that fairly well,” said Griffis, a Montana native, dedicated adventurer, and professional pastry chef. “So I’m pretty comfortable on a horse and absolutely love it … I’m addicted to it.”
Griffis said she first learned to pack horses when she was 12, when her father would take her and her siblings out into the mountains to hunt big game. “And for the last 22 years I've led my friends and my sisters into the mountains for a girls pack trip in the summer, and I will pack the horses for myself and my sisters,” Griffis added.
She said winning isn’t everything and has her eye firmly on the Gaucho Derby finish line. Despite the challenge that lies ahead, she has the experience and skill to achieve this grand feat having finished 15th in the 2016 Mongol Derby.
What Griffis and Downey have in common is their affection for horses, non-lethal English-style fox hunting, and adrenaline rushes. Their paths first crossed through fox-hunting with Big Sky Hounds in Three Forks.
Griffis said racing the Mongol Derby inspired her to sign up for the Gaucho Derby. “So what inspired me to do the Mongol Derby? I'll tell you exactly what inspired me,” Griffis said.
Griffis said she’s inspired by some of the women she met through fox-hunting who weren’t experienced riders.
“I was very impressed with them and their ability to just swallow fear, get on the horse and still go out and ride country, because it can be very scary and nerve-wracking,” Griffis said. “I never really had to swallow the kind of fear they had to swallow in order to be out there … And so I wanted to see if I actually could be as brave as those ladies.”
Downey said hearing about Griffis’ Mongolian adventure inspired her to pursue such a thing. “She talked about how amazing the Mongol Derby was, and I’ve always wanted to do that one,” she said. “So when Marie found out that they were planning on starting a new race, the Gaucho Derby, she talked me into applying.”
Downey and Griffis said their main goal is to finish the Gaucho Derby. When asked about what concerns they had before the race, neither one could think of anything to be afraid of.
“The only thing I'm really concerned about is the wind. Otherwise, I think it's exciting to be getting on unknown horses, and I think riding through the Andes is super exciting,” Downey said. “But no, I'm not afraid of anything with regard to this.”
One other challenge may be confidently navigating the course as Downey hasn't done as much wayfinding as she would like. Downey and Griffis, and all the other riders, won’t know the route of the derby until the start.
Meanwhile, Griffis said she hasn’t practiced horsepacking as much as she hoped but has been riding and practicing her navigation.
“I’ve also been working on making sure my gut biome is good, so lots of probiotics, and even testing what I'm going to be eating,” Griffis said. She added that she’s been sleeping in her horse trailer to acclimate herself to sleeping outdoors.
Griffis and Downey said a lot of time has been spent weighing every little thing and seeing how many grams things weigh, since riders can only bring up to 22 pounds for personal gear, shelter and food. Both said they’re bringing freeze-dried meals and high-calorie foods.
“It's not very much weight,” Griffis said. “So I took to the kitchen and I created a mixture of nuts and dried fruit that's held together with a little little bit of chocolate, coconut oil, almond butter and honey. One ounce of it is like 400 calories ... I also made a whole bunch of homemade jerky.”
Downey said she’s taking “a lot of gum” with her. For her, chewing gum can really put the kibosh on her appetite and allow her to feel less hungry during the long riding days.
Downey and Griffis said they plan to ride roughly 30 miles a day.
“We'll be stopping about every 25 miles to have either a vet check for the horses or to switch horses out,” Downey said. She said when a rider and mount arrive, a medical team immediately tends to the condition of the horse. If a horse’s heartbeat is above 56 beats per minute, the rider can receive a time penalty. Injuries, on the other hand, can result in steeper fines.
“They want to ensure the welfare of the horses, because it is such an extreme race,” Downey said. “They want to make sure that everyone understands that they're looking out for the horse, first and foremost. So if your horse comes in and he's overly exerted, they want to make sure that you haven't abused him in any way or overworked him.”
Downey and Griffis left for Argentina last Thursday. A pre-race training started on March 3 for riders to brush up on their navigation and wilderness survival skills. Their adventure begins Thursday, March 5 and will end March 14.
“I hope that I don't forget to have fun while I'm out there. It's going to get very, very intense, and it's going to get very, very difficult,” Griffis said. “I really hope that I just continue to smile. I hope to learn to embrace the hard times and the challenge. It’s like what they say: the people who can win in diversity and embrace the challenge are the ones who thrive.”
Downey said she sees this adventure as an opportunity for “self-discovery.” She said she wants to see how far she can push herself past limits she didn’t know existed.
“What I'm most excited about is seeing the different culture and the ranching lifestyle there versus what it is here,” Downey said. “That's really intriguing to me, and the horsemanship down there is legendary. So I'd like to learn from them and hopefully bring some new knowledge home with me.”
Both Griffis and Downey are equipped with GPS and tracking devices, so folks can follow along their adventure as it unfolds. To check their progress: https://blogging.theadventurists.com/map/adventure/gauchoderby2020
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