Local equestrian, pilot and adventure enthusiast competes in 2022 Mongol Derby By Christian Weaner | Photo by Shari Thompson
Lena Haug fondly remembers her childhood car rides to school each morning, when she’d glance out the window imagining herself galloping on horseback and blasting past the cars.
“Horses are just kind of one of those mystical, magical creatures that caught my heart,” Lena recalled.
Years later, Lena’s love for horses and unwavering imagination has literally taken her around the world. In August 2022, Lena competed in the Mongol Derby—a 1,000-kilometer marathon horse race across the scenic terrain of Mongolia dubbed “the longest and toughest horse race in the world.”
Lena was born and raised in the small town of Sebastopol, located in the rolling hills of Sonoma County, California. She did not grow up on a farm herself, but one of her closest childhood friends did, giving Lena ample opportunities to be around horses.
Lena’s childhood riding instructor had 60-plus horses on only 14 acres of land, and all the horses were taken care of by her students in exchange for lessons, making Lena’s horse habit possible. It was on this ranch that Lena met her first horse, Jerome.
“[My mom] had told me, ‘Well, if you can afford it, you can have the horse,’” Lena said. “I ended up working really hard and raising enough money to buy him and pay his way by coming up with jobs.”
As Lena got older, her passion for riding and training horses continued blossoming. As a teenager, she began taking on new opportunities to study under prominent horse trainers, spending school breaks at ranches several hours from her hometown.
“[My instructors] took me under their wing in a way where I got to learn not only high-quality training techniques and the business aspect of it but also mentoring about how to be a person in the world,” Lena explained. “I learned a lot of independence and a lot of ways to communicate with customers, clients and adults.”
Since high school, Lena has pursued a wide range of life experiences. She spent a year in Chile leading horse trekking tours, earned a bachelor’s degree in political geography, studied abroad in Berlin, ski instructed in Tahoe, ran her own equine business and is now 30 hours from achieving her commercial pilot rating—just to name a few.
“I never felt like I couldn’t do anything, and I think that is really special,” Lena acknowledged.
In 2017, Lena visited friends in Sandpoint and was drawn to North Idaho—a place where she could enjoy the remote wilderness and begin her flight training. A year later, she decided to make the move.
During this time, the Mongol Derby was one of the potential opportunities that Lena had been contemplating for several years before finally making the decision to apply in 2020.
To her surprise, Lena got a call back and made it through each stage of the interview process that trims thousands of applicants down to the 45 riders who compete each year.
One of Lena’s biggest concerns about the race was how to raise the $20,000 that it costs to compete in the derby. Her friends encouraged Lena to share her idea with others and ask the community for support.
“I had help from friends who told me, ‘If you put this out there and tell people what you want to do, people will be excited with you and they will support you,’” Lena said. “And that is exactly what happened.”
With the help of friends, acquaintances, and even some complete strangers who had read about her goal to compete in her online blog about the derby, Lena raised over $21,000.
Lena was accepted for the 2021 Mongol Derby, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19. So, her date to compete was pushed back a year to 2022, blessing Lena with extra time to train and prepare.
Traveling to Mongolia and competing in the 10-day race, Lena was blown away by the Mongolian culture, which she said is very much centered around the horse.
“As a rider racing in that country, it was like riding through a history book,” Lena described.
Lena’s stories from the Mongol Derby are seemingly endless. Every day was action packed as she and her fellow racers dealt with stubborn horses, lightning storms, and hail that came down so hard she had to close her eyes.
“There were so many twists and turns—this race is absolutely insane, and very wild and challenging and exciting,” Lena exclaimed.
As Lena rode through the rolling grasslands of the Mongolian Steppe, it was almost like she was a young girl again, blasting past the cars atop her horse, headed for the next adventure.
To learn more about Lena’s story and her experience in the Mongol Derby, visit her blog at LenaHaug.com/derby-blog. Also, don’t miss your chance to attend Pend Oreille Arts Council’s event on Thursday, November 17, at the Panida Theater, which will feature a presentation of the award-winning documentary “All The Wild Horses” and a Q&A session with Lena. Tickets and additional information can be found at ArtinSandpoint.org/lena-haug.