Thacher Magazine Feature: Paving the Way - Three Thacher women and the world’s most grueling horse race

Felicity Arnold CdeP 2000
It was a beautiful late summer day when Deirdre Griffith CdeP 2006 crossed the finish line to co-win the 2022 Mongol Derby. While she was a world away from her home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, she was far from alone. The horse she rode was the last in a string of semi-broke horses loaned to the event by local herdsmen; the rider at her side, Willemien Jooste of South Africa, had been her race companion since Station 5 on day two of the race. At home, her friends and family eagerly tracked her progress online. Also rallying behind her was a community of women sharing a singular place: Thacher.

The Mongol Derby advertises itself as “the longest and toughest horse race in the world.” This marketing is not hyperbole. The race is 1,000 kilometers traversing the Mongolian steppe while switching semi-wild horses every 40km. Riders not only need to expertly pack and manage their gear, they also must monitor the health and well-being of their mount during each leg of the race with vet checks at each of the 40km crew stops. Riding 12 hours a day, for 10 consecutive days, riders must navigate on their own all while managing weather, terrain, and wildlife. As there is no set course, they ride unaware of exactly where they will be at the end of the day. Nights are spent camping out, knocking on strangers’ doors to request a place to sleep, or at checkpoints.

Mounting an unknown horse is far from the beginning of this adventure. It starts with a rigorous application process, months of planning and preparation, gear procurement, days of international travel followed by nearly a full day’s journey by bus over dirt roads. And in the time of covid, training and preparation stretched from months to years before participants even reached the starting line. This isn’t a race for the faint of heart or an individual unable to cope with uncertainty. To top it all off: there’s no trophy waiting at the finish line. This is a competition created for those who are willing to suffer in the name of adventure and for the love of horses. Three Thacher women have risen to the challenges of the Derby.

It was from alum Katherine Bechtel CdeP 2003, that Deirdre first heard of the Mongol Derby. Katherine firmly believes that without her experience in the Thacher horse program she never would have considered applying for the Derby, having no experience in endurance riding. Nor does she believe she would have made it through the selection process. However, Thacher equipped her with the skills that have proved essential. “Both the Horse and Outdoor Programs had a profound impact on shaping me into the person and professional that I am today, and has continued to have outsized influence in my life in the years since graduating,” said Katherine. While her race was cut short due to injury and illness, she no doubt paved the way for future Thacher alumni.

In 2017, Brooke Wharton CdeP 2007 competed in the grueling competition. Not only did Brooke successfully complete the race, she did so mostly solo, which surprised more than a few race directors. Brooke came to Thacher having grown up on a ranch in Texas, and she has remained immersed and committed to the sport as owner and manager of Fort Worth-based BMW Quarter Horses. Brooke credits Thacher for encouraging her to be comfortable stretching herself and being on her own. It was Brooke’s confidence in Deirdre’s abilities that cemented her decision to apply. Brooke assured Deirdre, “It will be hard but you’ll be fine.” This phrase became a refrain Deirdre repeated to herself often while preparing and competing in the race.

There’s no disputing Deirdre Griffith’s equine abilities and expert packing skills—she’s been riding as long as she can remember. Growing up participating in Pony Club, it was the allure of the horse program that drew Deirdre to Thacher. She recalls being about 10 years old at her older sister’s Big Gymkhana weekend when she saw a young Trinity Seely CdeP 1999 and current head of the Horse Department, riding a big beautiful bay horse and thought to herself, “I want to do THAT!”

Spoiler alert, Deirdre Griffith accomplishes her goals. As a student she rode all four years, earned her A camper, and spent more time packing and camping in the Sespe than she can count. She earned a degree in equine science from Colorado State followed by a master's before moving to Jackson Hole to pursue horse packing. She remains in Wyoming with her husband and two young daughters, Lilah and Delaney (both already competent riders).

With three decades of horsemanship and a vote of confidence from Brooke, Deirdre applied to the Derby in 2020 believing she would compete the following year. When Martha Gregory CdeP 2006, now a filmmaker, got wind of Deirdre’s plan to compete, she reached out to document the journey. Thus began what has turned into several years of filming, interviewing, and editing a short documentary film. Martha and her production partner made three or four visits to Wyoming to film and interview Deirdre. Martha herself rode fall and spring while at Thacher, packed often, and earned her A camper. She described the Derby as the perfect aggregate of the skills you acquire at Thacher. Students have exposure to so many equine skill sets such as packing, jumping, barrel racing, and roping. Additionally needed are experiences camping, learning to navigate with a map, and also the general ability to measure challenging situations with discernment, resilience, and mental strength. Martha also credits Thacher as a space to problem solve. The Thacher roots run deep and overlap in compelling ways. Martha and Brooke Wharton were Big Gymkhana green team co-captains and Katherine Bechtel was Martha’s Casa Prefect. Martha even ended up with a horse that Katherine trained named Jim (who is now retired on Katherine’s Tennessee horse farm), with whom she won the gymkhana season and high point of the day. Martha is hoping to have the film, currently titled “621 Miles,” done in the beginning of 2023.

The story of Thacher women invested in Deirdre’s success doesn’t end here. Alyssa Tennant CdeP 2006 is a bay area professional life coach who worked with Deirdre in the lead up to the race. Many, if not most, of her clients are high-achieving women. She worked with Deirdre to define goals and develop a plan for inevitable doubt and fear. Alyssa notes the importance of practicing returning to a positive mindset and having clear reasons for setting out to take on a challenge.

While all three women came to Thacher with varying degrees of equine experience, it was at Thacher that they honed their packing skills, became accustomed to discomfort and developed a true love of experiencing the backcountry on horseback. Horse department faculty, Cam Schryver and Chuck Warren were seminal figures in their packing and riding education and imparted deep respect for horsemanship. However, all three women recall another teacher as most influential to their time at Thacher, both in and out of the saddle: Liz Mahoney. 本人1988年毕业的目的, and a faculty member since 1998, Liz has not only continued her equestrian career, she too has excelled at endurance sport and completed the Kona Ironman in October of 2022. She remembers Deirdre, Brooke, and Katherine as women that would always stand out in a crowd saying, “these are women of tremendous tenacity, adventure, skill, and knowledge.” Adds Mahoney, "There is no doubt about the growth, experience, and value the Horse Program continues to bring to the lives of Thacher students year after year." She believes “that having alumni who understand what the horse program meant to them is what’s going to keep the program alive.” Both Liz and Trinity Seely credit Deirdre, Katherine, and Brooke for their continued involvement in equine sports and carrying their commitment to the horse program forward through their work with the Thacher Horse Advisory Committee. All three women have donated invaluable history, knowledge, time, resources, and even horses to the school.

Deirdre clearly possesses the packing skills required as well as the ability to endure discomfort and to work beyond typical limits. However, the Derby also involves many factors outside of the control of the participants. Huge marmot holes speckle the landscape, weather conditions change on a dime, horses are unpredictable, gear breaks, the variables of a race this long are endless. No stranger to unexpected twists and turns, Deirdre says they are a part of every trip, enjoying the Derby comes down to attitude and an ability to adapt. Cam Schryver watched footage of the Derby and noted that the horses had a tendency to bolt once mounted. His advice? Don’t fight it, just make sure you point the horse in the direction that you want it to run.

Grasping the full magnitude of the Mongol Derby is daunting, and yet Deirdre couldn’t be more humble about her achievement. “I just tried to ride each leg the best that I could and ride the horse that I was on. Slow and steady.”

No doubt Deirdre, Katherine, and Brooke will inspire a whole new generation of Thacher graduates.
Paving the Way is an excerpt from the Fall/Winter edition of Thacher Magazine, digitally available on Issuu. 

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