Mackenzie Stabler was nervous. Dressed in a waxed canvas vest with a badger fur collar and a black helmet, she fixed her horse with heavy bags and equipment for the day. The hazel and gold Argentinian hills stretched ahead, daring her forward. Everyone was on edge, horses included, as all prepared to fight through the harsh Patagonian wilderness.
Memories of a friend who left a 600-mile derby in Mongolia with a broken nose and fractured ribs followed Stabler to the event start. By the end of the day, one rider would be retired medically. Of the thirty-five riders who started, five more would follow. “I just want to survive the front part of this race,” she thought as she plunged into the wilds.
A Wild Idea
Stabler, the director of operations for Humm Kombucha, joined the Gaucho Derby as a break from her usual life in Bend. The competition launched this past March 3, with participants racing Patagonian ranch horses 310 miles over ten days through the visceral landscapes of Patagonia to the Argentinian village of El Chalten.
The Derby was created by adventure tour companies The Adventurists and The Equestrianists, which offer long-distance multi-horse races in Mongolia and Patagonia, and are working on bringing races to North America, the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and Europe.
The race runs on a “horses first, humans second” approach and tests the endurance of the riders, not the horses. Every 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), horses are checked out by veterinarians. Horses are swapped out nearly every day, meaning that participants ride about seven different horses throughout the competition.
Many riders raise money for charity while riding—Stabler chose to support the Central Oregon chapter of Camp Fire, a youth development organization focused on the outdoors.
A Life Astride
Horses have been a central theme throughout Stabler’s life. When she was five years old, her parents recognized her interest and helped her get involved in traditional equestrian jumping. At nine years old, her family moved frequently—to Hong Kong, Macau, Southern California, Idaho and Washington. “But horses were there throughout,” she said.
Stabler’s first foray into backcountry horse packing came around five years ago. She filled her bags with supplies, strapped them to her horse and headed into the woods. She loved it.
Eventually, she met Stevie and Dylan Delahunt who co-run Intergalactic Equine and train riders for adventure races such as the Gaucho Derby. When Stabler heard about the race, she knew she wanted to do it. The outdoors, the travel, the horses—it was irresistible. “I signed up right away,” Stabler said. “I hardly even researched it. It just combined everything that I love.”
Two months later, however, COVID-19 struck. With the world closed, she focused on training—spending hours riding through the backcountry of Central Oregon with Stevie.
The remoteness of Patagonia meant that medics and a support crew rode days ahead of the competitors, and Stabler would need to rely on herself if need be. Skills with maps and GPS point-to-point navigation were a necessity, as were survival skills. Stabler focused on getting ready for the challenge.
Halfway to the end of the race, another rider’s foot got stuck in a strap as he was dismounting. He flipped with his foot in the air and his head on the ground, right by his horse’s hind leg. A moment later, the horse kicked, connecting gruesomely.
They thought he was dead. Around two minutes passed before he regained consciousness. Stabler held his head and neck in place for twenty minutes as a medic jerry-rigged a neck brace out of a CamelBak. There was no room for error in this race. She recalled, “It made me really reflective on my life in general—just realizing that I have a really good life, and I really like all the people in it.”
A few days later, Stabler and Carmen Jackson, who she had trained with back in Bend, were lost. After getting turned around in some woods, they spent the day looping up and down massive hills with frustration building. Despite the lost time, however, they found themselves laughing about the incident afterward. Though they were competitors, Stabler realized how much she enjoyed the other riders, and how much she wanted to ride with them. “I just wanted to spend time with all of them,” she said. “They all had such cool stories.”
While the lost time cost Stabler and Jackson vital positions in the race to El Chalten, Stabler did finish, and found that simply surviving the wild was an accomplishment. Stabler is back in Bend now, re-immersed in her regular life. If she did the Derby again, the only thing she’d change is to go slower and ensure she fully absorbed everything. “All the smells, all the sights,” she said. “I would touch the dirt and really make sure I was logging in my memory where I was and what was happening.”
Learn more at equestrianists.com/guides/gaucho-derby.