U.S. Veteran Takes On The Ultimate Riding Challenge: The Mongol Derby

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Tim Finley, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, riding his horse, Honor. Finley is competing in this year's Mongol Derby, an equestrian endurance race. (Courtesy of Tim Finley via Facebook)
Tim Finley, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, riding his horse, Honor. Finley is competing in this year's Mongol Derby, an equestrian endurance race. (Courtesy of Tim Finley via Facebook)

The world's longest and toughest horse race gets underway next week in Mongolia. The Mongol Derby spans more than 600 miles and takes about 10 days.

Among this year's riders is U.S. Air Force Capt. Tim Finley. He deployed to Iraq to command air strikes for nine month, and returned home last summer.

Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with him about finding the challenge — and affirmation — in meeting his goal.

Interview Highlights: Tim Finley

On what the Mongol Derby is:

“You ride 25 horses, each rider. There's 40 of us this year. The event is put on by a group called The Adventurists out of Britain, but you get on a horse, you ride for 25 miles. Then you hop off a location that's called an urtu. It's basically a farm, where they have a bunch of new houses lined up. You pick a new horse, ride it for another 25 miles. Rinse and repeat.”

On his reaction to first seeing the Mongol Derby on YouTube:

“It was entrancing. The opportunity to ride in a location with no fences on horses that every step of the way are trying to kill you, against the best adversity that Mother Nature can produce to say it's just me at the pinnacle of my favorite competition. Like I said, it's just entrancing. To think that exists on this planet and I wasn't doing it.”

On what kind of horses they ride:

“They're called semi-feral. that means that the Mongols will break them just to the point where they're rideable, and then just kind of leave them at that point. The horses are kind of green broke. You’ll get on a horse and you’ll have a fifty-fifty shot. You get on his back and he either throws you or you're lucky enough to hold on.”

On how the semi-feral horses compare to others:

“They're dainty. They are between 12 and 14 hands. Literally speaking, that's pony size. But these horses are not ponies by any stretch of the imagination. These horses are rugged. They are perhaps the most robust horses in the planet. They are unchanged for thousands of years. The exact same horses that Genghis Khan used for his cavalry.”

On being with the Mongolian people and their horse culture:

“Absolutely. It's fascinating. This is one of the very few, maybe the last environment on earth, where humans are still living literally symbiotically with the horse. The herders that live out on the steppe without the horses can't survive, and the horses themselves can't survive without the care and guidance of the shepherds themselves. They're not being owned.They're just being guided.”

On how he got into the Mongol Derby

“The short of it is, I came back to a world that had changed for me, and it changed painfully. I wasn't getting much enjoyment from just about anything. All of my hobbies, all of the things I found joy in I just wasn't finding any. So I hopped on my horse and made myself get back in the saddle.”

“One of the first really good moments after coming home was in that saddle. I thought, ‘This is my solution.’ I could talk to all the counselors in the world, and they were giving me wonderful tools and all the programs that were available to me were immensely useful. But when I found that solution in the saddle I thought, ‘I need to make a goal out of this. I need to do something productive. I thought ‘This is it. I'm going to take this goal. I'm going to throw this absurd goal as far over the horizon as I can, and I'm just going to run at it. I’m going to run at it, and I'm going to run as hard as I can until my legs pump battery acid, and then whenever I get there, I'll find out I have new horizons.’”

On what the Mongol Derby as more than a challenge:

“It is. It's absolutely more than a challenge. It's an affirmation. It’s an affirmation in so many different terms in so many different ways. It's the best I can be, juxtaposed to sitting around not feeling sorry for myself.”

On how other veterans were also part of his motivation to go to the derby:

“It is. So I took it and made a campaign. I got sponsored by Nine Line Apparel and they've sent me several shirts that I can wear that have a big 22, representing the 22 veterans a day that are committing suicide, and what I intend to do is name each horse that I ride, all 25 horses, after 25 veterans that have taken their lives in the last two to three years. The idea is I want to take those men and women who did not have a solution to let them ride me with me on the ride — write their names on my shirt — and when I cross that finish line, hold it up, and say ‘Here's a solution, and you guys rode it with me.’”

Was there a time where you could have been close to being one of those names?

"Absolutely, and that's why I decided to do this instead."


Tim Finley, U.S. Air Force captain and first-time rider in this year's Mongol Derby. He tweets @timandhonor.

This segment aired on July 25, 2016.


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