True Grit on Horseback in the Adventure of a Lifetime

By Louisa Barton

To participate in the challenging adventure that is known as the Mongol Derby, a rider must ride unknown and potentially untrained horses across 600 miles of the Mongolian Steppe, plus camp out or stay in yurts and dine on local cuisine. If this sounds exciting to you, you might be a candidate to ride in the Mongol Derby, and this race is an adventure indeed.

Ocala-based equine veterinarian, Dr. Tiffany Atteberry found this adventure enticing and so she decided to give it her best shot and apply.

True Grit on HorsebackAtteberry, 46, who rode on the back of her mother’s saddle as a very young child, had her own horse starting at age 5 and was always very competitive. She grew up in Tennessee and decided at 8 years old that she would become an equine veterinarian, having grown up on horseback, riding English and Western. Atteberry graduated from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2000. She and her husband, Scott, moved to Jacksonville, where she worked at an equine practice for two years. She wanted her own mobile veterinary practice, and in 2003 the decision was made to move to the horse capital. Then in 2009, the couple bought a 10-acre farm where they also raise thoroughbred race horses. 

In 2017, lightning struck their home igniting a fire. The home was spared but needed a lot of repairs. It was during this time that Atteberry watched videos about the Mongol Derby, just to get her mind off the stressful moments of life. Atteberry was ready for a new adventure, and she applied to compete in the Mongol Derby in 2018. This process includes answering background questions and, if the race organizers like the answers, an interview takes place. If the first interview goes well, there is a second interview. When Atteberry got the call that she was going on to the second interview, she decided to tell her husband, Scott, about her hope to compete in the race – and even though Scott thought the idea was crazy, he was very supportive.  

Atteberry paid the $12,500 entry fee, not including her travel and other expenses, to compete in the 2020 Mongol Derby. In order to compete, Atteberry had to take up a new sport, the sport of endurance. At that time, she did not own an endurance horse. But in a community like Ocala, Atteberry did not find it difficult to locate great horse owners who would allow her to train on their horses.

Things were moving along quite well, when COVID-19 hit, shutting down everything. The Mongol Derby, slated to run in August of that year, was canceled. Attebery was so disappointed. The 2021 Mongol Derby did not run either . And just when Atteberry thought it might never happen, she heard that the organizers were holding derbies in 2022 and so the adventure resumed.

The race, whose inaugural run was in 2009, is based on Genghis Khan’s horse messenger system that began in 1224. There are typically approximately 40 riders, both men and women. The terrain includes rolling hills, open areas, forests and wetlands. The weather changes frequently and no one knows what to expect. Horses are changed out every 25 miles and are semi wild, small, and hearty animals that are well suited to this adventure. Riders can cover 100 miles a day, but only in daylight hours. Penalties are applied if the horses do not pass their vet checks.

True Grit on Horseback

The start of the race was everything Atteberry imagined it would be and so much more. She drew a chestnut horse that looked really fit and seemed to be a quiet horse during the mounting process. His owner, an older man, helped her on and handed her the lead rein, looking her in the eye, showing her exactly how to use that rein to make that horse run fast. The Naadam horse was a prized race horse in Mongolia, maybe even a champion. To quote Atteberry, “It was no different to these Mongolians than me being handed the reins of American Pharoah.

Steadily, the number of riders readying for the start of the race increased. Atteberry had already decided that
she wanted to be towards the front of the pack. She had heard stories of horses and riders falling in holes left by foxes and other animals. Feeling her heart beating in her chest with hands sweating in her gloves, it was about to begin.

True Grit on HorsebackThe race was off to a great start. Atteberry’s horse was picking up steam “like a freight train” and heading down the hill, they were passing others quickly. Atteberry felt that this must be what it felt like to ride the great Secretariat, as her horse stretched out and she realized this is the reason she came to the Steppe to be a part of this. One hour later, she was alone and cantering down the green rolling hills.

As crazy as it might seem, it remains on my bucket list to also compete in this race one day. Despite lots of challenges, bad weather and even getting stuck in a bog for a little while, Ocala’s determined and brave Dr. Tiffany Atteberry, DVM, came in fifth in the world’s toughest and longest horse endurance race, a race that demands true grit, guts and raw courage. I am truly in awe of her accomplishment, and a little envious. I can only imagine how tough she really is, to not only have participated in the adventure of a lifetime, but to have excelled in it as well.

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