Oregonian rides in international horse derby

Brenda Johnson smiles and poses with a horse. The Oregon resident rode in the Gaucho Derby earlier this month.

Brenda Johnson smiles and poses with a horse. The Oregon resident rode in the Gaucho Derby earlier this month.

Courtesy of Brenda Johnson

The Gaucho Derby is billed as a 10-day, 500-kilometer horse race that tests riders on endurance, navigation skills and horsemanship. The race was held in the wilderness of South America’s Patagonia region. Brenda Johnson, from Wallowa County, was one of more than 30 riders from around the globe chosen to participate in the competitive race. She joins us with details of her adventure.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: The Gaucho Derby is a 10-day horse race high up in the plateaus and mountains of Patagonia. 500 kilometers that tested riders on endurance, navigation skills and horsemanship. It attracted about three dozen riders from all around the world, including one from Molalla County. Brenda Johnson lives in Lostine. She describes herself as a live-in ranch hand, backcountry packer, a part time horseshoer and veterinary assistant. I talked to her yesterday while she was still in Argentina. I asked her to describe the race.

Brenda Johnson:  The setup of the Gaucho Derby is a 500 km horse race through the Andes Mountains and Argentinian Patagonia. So there are riders from many countries, I think it’s around either 13 or 17 countries around the world. Um there were 35 total riders that started the race. And we change horses seven times throughout the race. So it’s a test of the riders’ endurance, the riders survival skills, and the riders’ navigational skills. It’s to test the rider, not just the horse and that way, if somebody gets a really good horse and the bad horse, you kind of even out by luck of the draw.

At each of the horse change stations, you actually literally draw a number out of a hat and you have to ride whatever horse comes with that number for the next however many kilometers, depending on the section of the race. And we raced through every kind of terrain you can imagine from grasslands to roads to high back country mountains. Most of it except for a couple of small road sections did not have any trails. We were literally navigating on Guanaco, which is like a llama, their trails, cow trails or just picking our way through forests. It was a pretty intense race. They call it the toughest horse race in the world for a reason.

Miller:  So you heard about this race 500 km, which is 300 something miles, 311. What made you say yes, I want to do this?

Johnson:  I think my local paper quoted me saying because I’m crazy. I have been a back country packer up in the Eagle caps on Wallowa County for several years now. I love being out in the woods with the animals and pushing myself and exploring and finding new places. And I actually heard about the Mongol Derby, which is the other race that the equestrianists run years ago when Bob Long had done it. I think it was 2019. He was in his seventies and won the Mongol and it just sounded really cool. And then the Gaucho popped up the year after as a pioneer race and I said, you know what, that, that sounds like something I need to see if I can survive. It really was a question of, can I survive alone in the wild for 10 days not knowing the land, not knowing the horses. Um, Yeah, I just wanted to see what I could do to push myself.

Miller:  How did you prepare for it?

Johnson:  Uh, lots of prep. I’m very blessed that I have had a lot of jobs that helped prepare me for this over the years. I actually was a cadastral land surveyor with Wallowa Associates out of Wallowa County for a lot of years. So we would actually use our little GPS to find  property corners that were set back in the 1800′s. So I’ve got a lot of experience randomly navigating through the woods to find little points with GPS so that helped me a lot. But I also had to do some of that on horseback in the wilderness. I would literally go out and I just pick a spot on my map and try and see if I could get me and my horse to here.

And then I did a lot of riding lessons to try to get my body toned to ride different horses and be able to communicate well with the horses. I took dressage lessons and then just as much trail riding as I could get. I also had one of my farrier clients as a personal trainer. So she and I did a lot of trade work and I would trim her horses and then she would give me some personal training sessions and lots of fitness and mental preparedness to get ready for some crazy thing like this.

Miller:  So that was your training and then you arrived. What was that first day like?

Johnson:  Well, so I’m overly prepared most of the time. So I actually got to El Calafate, which was the city where we started the training camp from, about three days [early]. I honestly don’t think I slept hardly at all until we actually got to the site where the race started because I was nervous and excited. Yeah, all of the above. It was this weird combination of feelings that you just can’t explain because you’re not scared, but you’re terrified and you’re not, you know, nervous, you’re excited. And it’s just, this whole swirl of emotions that you just don’t really totally know how to comprehend. And so the first days, all I did was try to keep myself as busy as possible so that I could keep myself sane.

Miller:  What were the backgrounds of the other riders? They came from more than a dozen countries all over the world, who else was attracted to this Derby?

Johnson:  You know, everybody. So I will never be able to say enough good things about not just the competitors, but also the crew and the people involved in this race, but the other riders, all kinds [with] that same sense of adventure. They wanted to push themselves and see what they’re made out of. We had a whole group of people from Kenya that came from some safaris, horseback safaris in Kenya. They came and are supporting a charity for rangers which helps with endangered species protection and things. They came and their primary goal was to raise money for their charities.Then there was a guy from South Africa and a guy from France. There were a couple of guys from Mexico, there was a brother/sister team from Switzerland and there was, I think, a total of six Americans from all over this country. We just have people from every walk of life. But every one of us had horses in common and that sense of adventure. [There were] a lot of polo players, many of them were polo players.

Miller:  And I guess they had a lot of relevant horsey skills, endurance and agility?

Johnson:  That ability to ride horses athletically for long periods of time is, I think, a necessity for this.

Miller:  So what are the different horses like? As you said, it’s engineered in such a way that at certain points, you draw a number from a hat and you would then get some random horse. What were the different horses that were, who had numbers in the hat?

Johnson: I think I had one of everything at some point. My very first horse, his name was La Maquina, which means the machine. He was the first horse I ran off the start line and I didn’t know anything about him except his name when I got on him that morning and he’s just going to go and go.

Miller:  It seems like a promising name.

Johnson:  It does. It seems like a promising name.  The thing about La Maquina was, he did go and go but not very quickly

Miller:  I guess. Yeah, and there’s nothing to say that it’s gonna be a fast machine.

Johnson:  He went, he went, he never stops, he never stopped, he never wanted to quit. He just was, at some point, okay, we ran enough, let’s just trot now. And you know that first section of the race, they designed the race to kind of progressively get harder as you went through the legs. And so that first section was the section [where] you were supposed to go really fast because it’s over relatively easy terrain.And so yeah, my first horse is a little slower, but he was very safe and sane. I actually found out after the Derby that one of the gauchos, it’s his nine year old son’s horse that I was riding.

Miller:  So, not not an intense fast horse. This is a horse meant for a nine year old,

Johnson:  Yeah, not an intense fast horse. But then my second horse, I think the Derby people actually posted something on their Twitter account about ‘watch out Brenda’s on a fiery one’ because the next horse was nothing but speed.  I got on her and I wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay on her because she just wanted to run and go. And I mean she was literally jumping, at a dead gallop, 6-foot bushes. Um and just kept going up mountain sides. So yeah, I mean this was a kind of riding that I would never [have] imagined in my life was even possible, much less that I was doing. Um and that horse

Miller:  And it’s just random, you’re just on that horse. Well how do you experience that for four hours over the course of a day?

Johnson:  The horses here are so different from many of the ones in the States as you know. These horses are used to these gauchos getting on them and working all day long and these guys have to cover, you know, tens of kilometers to hundreds of kilometers in a day to find the sheep and the cattle in this vast landscape. So these horses are used to just having people just get on them and run all day long. That’s what they’re used to. And so we weren’t prepared for it, but the horses were.

In all the trainings and everything that we went through, they just kept saying to us, ‘trust your horses’ and they were absolutely right. You just had to trust that when you hit this crazy steep cliff with a, what you would assume in the United States was a goat trail. If the horse was willing, you just had to assume they could handle it and hold on and trust them. And that worked for me for six out of my seven horses.

Miller:  We’ll get to the seventh horse in just a bit. But before that, I want to ask you about navigation because on the race website it says one mistake navigating could cost you the race. And this is in promotional copy that’s trying to show how exciting and scary and intense the race is.  But In fact, on the recap for day three, on the site, it mentions you and says that you were riding around in circles at one point. How challenging was it just to know where you were supposed to go?

Johnson:  So we did not ride in circles, we rode in branches, but we had had, the night before, a terrible, terrible windstorm. And my riding partner’s tent was literally [being] held up with her hands and her legs, while she was trying to sleep. And my tent actually broke and landed on my face in the middle of the night at three a.m. So we had no sleep that night before at all, either one of us. We got to a point where we were supposed to go on the south side of the lake and we ended up on these beautiful trails on the north side of the lake, which ended up being a place we were not supposed to be. It was actually property we didn’t have permission to be on and we do have trackers during the race so that they were able to tell us we were in the wrong spot, but we had already navigated so far, we had to figure out how to get back to the right spot.

And it did, it cost us. I think going into that day, my partner and I were in 5th and 6th place. And I think at the end of the day, we were in the 16th and 17th place by the time we got all the way back around the lake. And then again, we were so tired and after going the wrong way for a couple of hours, we ran into another rider who seemed very confident and just blew past us and said, ‘hey, you gotta go up this hill’. And instead of following our better judgment and staying low and going around the lake, we ended up going up this massive hillside and ended up at a cliff face that, on the topo maps that we have that are 100 years old, that cliff face doesn’t show the GPS, doesn’t show it and there was just no safe way to get the horses down. So we had to then backtrack again. And then we finally had a third try, got on the right path, and were able to get around the lake to where we needed to go. But one big mistake in navigation had cost us from being in the top 10 to being in the bottom half. Neither of us ever actually recovered from that for the rest of the race.

Miller:  I’m talking right now with Brenda Johnson, who recently competed in the Gaucho Derby. It is a 500 kilometer race on a horse in South America. So let’s turn to what you alluded to briefly earlier, the one horse of yours that really did not work out. Who was this horse?

Johnson:  So I don’t actually know what his real name was. I had a habit of naming every horse I got on whether it had a name or not . I mean it’s just easier to have names for them, you know when you called him good boy or girl or whatever. And so when I caught this one, his name just came to me. His name was Hector. So we don’t talk about Hector a lot on the Derby because Hector was a problem from the beginning. The other thing I didn’t really mention earlier is part of Derby, is the horsemanship. And part of horsemanship is catching your horse. These horses are not used to being caught in the same way we catch horses in the States. They’re used to being either literally lassoed and caught or ran into a chute and caught.

So we would have 40 horses loose in a pen and you have to go out in this pen and try and see the number on their halter and catch them. Well we found Hector right away because he was the only horse of that particular color and he was easy to spot. But it was another one of those teamwork moments in the Derby you had to have. It took four of us 45 minutes to catch this horse. We ended up having to single him out in a pen and even after that, it was like 10 minutes alone in a pen before we could catch him.

Miller:  And was he a working horse or was he just a wild horse?

Johnson:  Yeah, all of the horses on the Derby have at least been ridden. They were all supposed to have been seasoned mountain horses. I think this being the first official year of the race, we may have found that some of them were more seasoned than others. I don’t believe that Hector was one of the more seasoned horses for riding in the mountains [chuckle].

Miller:  So you and a team of three others after 45 minutes finally got ahold of him. What was it like to ride him?

Johnson:  Well, we had some problems even before that, because when I was trying to saddle him, he was trying to hit me with his front feet and bite me. He didn’t really want me around him. But in order to change horses, you have to wait until everybody else catches their horses and then you can redraw. So I was still kind of in the middle top of the pack. I didn’t want to wait that long and once I got him saddled, he was half ok. I was able to get on his back without him throwing me off. So we just took off. And with that second horse I had mentioned earlier in the interview, she was so fiery. But once I got going, she calmed down and was just amazing. So I was hoping Hector would be the same way as that horse and I thought, ‘if we just run up this massive mountain we’re about to climb, by the time we get to the top, he’s going to be great’. [That] was my thought. And it turns out not so much.

We got to the top and he started bucking. So we ran him across the prairie and he calmed down and we found out if I rode right behind my partner, he was fine. But if I got too far away or whatever, he’d start bucking again. So I just basically followed her. Then we got to this big steep part where we had to get off and somehow I found out the hard way that Hector doesn’t like to be mounted or dismounted because we had to dismount to walk up this hill, it was just way too steep and slippery from the rain the night before to ride the horse up, it was too dangerous.

Well, it turns out getting off the horse was just as dangerous. Because as soon as I got my leg out of the stirrup and about halfway up his side he bucked so hard, the rider behind me could see his entire belly and face planted me into a rock and broke my nose.

Miller:  What happened after that?

Johnson:  So thanks to some GoPro footage -I happened to be wearing my GoPro at the time – so I actually reviewed it before this interview. I immediately sat up and said ‘I’m okay. Catch my horse’. Because again, it was so hard to catch. Luckily he had run up the trail and he stopped in the middle of that super steep hill out of breath. And she was able to go catch him and I said, ‘oh, I think I’m bleeding’. I grabbed my nose and said, ‘oh, yep, I’m bleeding’ and grabbed my nose really hard to pinch it to stop the bleeding and you can actually, in the video, hear the crunch of me resetting my nose.

Miller:  The GoPro microphone captured the broken bone moving in your face?

Johnson:  Yeah, I didn’t realize it until I got into a quiet hotel and listened to it the other day.

Miller:  I guess now’s a good time to warn listeners we’re gonna be talking about gross stuff, but I guess it’s too late for that. We’ve arrived. So could you keep racing?

Johnson:  Yeah. So in my state of where I was mentally, I just didn’t… it was just a nose. It didn’t seem like a big deal. So we hiked up this hill and I was pretty ticked off, but it was a pretty big hill. So by the time I got to the top, I was kind of calmed down. The bleeding had stopped or slowed enough that I could shove some Kleenexes in my nose and just ride on. And I actually rode the next, I think it was another eight km to the next vet check station on this horse, because, quite frankly, it was safer on him than off of him. And I do want to preface, I had a unique experience. There were 35 other riders that had some rough horses. But none was as bad as the particular one that I got. So when we got to the vet check station, my partner had gotten too far in front of me and the horse came unhinged again. And actually, I jumped off this time. He was bucking so bad that I realized he wasn’t going to stop. So I actually jumped off. But the medic happened to be there at the vet check with the vet and saw me come off the horse. And when the horse took off running and the gaucho who was at the vet check took off to chase my horse, the medic comes running to me and of course my nose has started bleeding again from hitting the ground again. And she thought I had just broken my nose at that point. But I was attended to by a medic right then and there, because they did have medics at almost all of the vet checks and they had vets obviously at all of the vet checks. So [the medic] was the one that crushed my dreams and told me I wasn’t gonna be racing anymore.

Miller:  Just to sort of fast forward a little bit. My understanding is that because another racer ended up having a problem, you were able to come back. And you weren’t allowed, because of the rules of the race, to be an official race participant. You couldn’t win anymore, but you could still be a rider for most of the rest of the race. What was it like to be able to go back and to still be on a horse on that landscape, even if you weren’t officially going to be a winner?

Johnson:  Honestly, it was the most amazing feeling in the world. So, unfortunately, another rider got injured and because he was so severely injured a helicopter came in to take him out. So I was actually able to get on the helicopter with him, had a doctor check me out and within five minutes I was back on the helicopter with the medic heading back towards the race. But it was the best feeling in the world. I cried the whole way from vet check 9 to El Calafate where they checked out my nose because I knew I was out of the race. I thought I wasn’t going to get back on a horse again. And then the entire time after that I was nothing but grins and smiles and some happy tears. I was ecstatic and thrilled to just get on a horse again.

Miller:  What do you think you’re going to most remember from this experience?

Johnson:  Above everything else? It’s a tie between just the epic vastness of the landscapes that we rode through and the people throughout this Derby.  The other riders are the things that I’ll remember most and how they took care of each other. People who have never met before helping each other through life threatening situations, in the case of the other rider that was injured and myself. Just the amount of love and compassion that we shared from all different walks of life, all different countries around the world – it was really phenomenal how much love and cooperation there was versus competition. There was definitely still competition, especially in the front runners. But especially towards the back, where I ended up at the end of the race, it was nothing but a lot of fun and a lot of love.

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