Some friends thought she was crazy.
So did horse people.
Heck, even Barbara Smith admits she was.
Smith raced more than 600 miles over eight days — just short of the distance from Frederick to Chicago — on ponies on the other side of the world.
On ponies through hail, rain and pitted terrain.
On ponies over rickety bridges with broken wood.
On ponies while avoiding hungry wolves and wild dogs.
And she paid $13,000 for the privilege.
“I don’t think you can top this, quite frankly,” says Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. “It’s the toughest equestrian race in the world, and you don’t ride normal horses. You ride little Mongol ponies — not broken, herded up off the plains.”
Smith, who at 61 was the oldest participant, finished ninth in the 2014 Mongol Derby, which traced Genghis Khan’s pony express route. The 13th-century ruler used a system of riders to carry messages. She completed the race on Aug. 16, her birthday — ecstatic and exhausted.
A warm Foster’s beer and a sense of accomplishment.
The event, sponsored by a British company called The Adventurists, started with 48 riders. Thirty-seven finished in the allotted 10 days. Some had to be airlifted because of injuries.
Smith, who runs a 50-acre thoroughbred breeding farm in Lothian, dealt with rogue ponies — including one that bucked and caused her to face-plant on the ground. Not to mention shaky directions, lousy food (with the exceptions of yak milk and butter) and a seemingly endless mud bog so deep the horses sank to their knees. Motorcycle bandits plagued other groups of riders.
Smith just kept going and even had the lead at one point.
“We’re all a little crazy — horse crazy,” says fellow competitor Mary Lee, 38, a fashion stylist who splits time between New York and Miami. Barbara is “amazing. She’s just so strong. If I could be like Barbara when I’m her age, I’d be very happy.”
Lee, who finished fifth, initially wondered how Smith would handle the race. She quickly learned never to doubt her friend.
Race organizers realized the same thing.
“She’s is one tough old bird,” says Katy Willings, derby chief.
Hitting the hay
“Want to say hi?”
Smith approaches a horse named Red in one of the 10 paddocks on her farm, which she essentially runs herself, and pats him.
Then she brings feed to three 6-month-old horses in another paddock.
There are two barns on the property, and she uses a John Deere Gator to shuttle from place to place to handle feeding as well as other chores.
The married mother of three grown children has 20 horses and, through the years, has had moderate success with the thoroughbreds. She and a partner had the Broodmare of the Year in Maryland four years ago.
The home she shares with husband Mike Peddicord, who works for the Department of Defense and is a distant cousin to Ross Peddicord, is filled with pictures of horses and horse sculptures.
She was born in Calgary, Alberta, and grew up in Montreal. Although her parents didn’t ride, she was interested in horses before she could walk.
Smith first rode at camp when she was younger than 5, and took lessons a few years later.
“My parents didn’t know to stop me when it might have been dangerous,” she says.
To pay for her education at St. John’s College, she galloped thoroughbreds at the Laurel and Bowie racetracks. She’d ride in the morning, then go to class.
It’s hard for her to describe why she’s so drawn to horses, but she says she gets along with them better than with people.
“There’s something about the relationship of a horse with a girl that’s empowering,” she says.
Even now, when Smith is galloping along in her fields, it’s a magical feeling, she says.
“You know how people talk about Zen? There’s a oneness with the world. Everything else fades away,” she says.
She’s fallen plenty of times over the years and broken “just about everything you can break” but has no plans to stop riding — or working the farm.
As long as my body can do it, I’ll do it. I’ll be one of those crazy 90-year-olds mucking around in the barn.”
Staying the course
The derby “directions” took up just up three pages.
Three pages for 1,000 kilometers.
And they sound simple enough: “straight down the valley” and “head up the valley and over the hill.”
“They were more like helpful hints,” Smith says.
Smith kept the directions and a rudimentary map of horse stations — the 28 places along the route riders had to switch ponies, about once every 25 miles — folded in quarters in her clothing during the race. The weathered, frayed documents speak to the conditions.
“Those were the notes that nearly got me killed pulling them out of my pocket,” Smith says.
She also had a small compass and GPS unit, but the device just showed a straight line, so riders often got lost.
“You’re looking at a mountain, but you don’t know which mountain. You don’t know which river,” Smith says.
This was the sixth time The Adventurists have put on the derby. Smith is the second-oldest to have competed; the oldest was a 64-year-old New Zealander in the event’s inaugural year. But Smith finished higher in the ranks.
Among the statistical breakdowns in the brochure provided by The Adventurists for the event is a list of the reasons riders have dropped out over the years — broken bones and soft tissue injuries among them.
Derby chief Willings says the event is risky but not “reckless. It’s a taste of life somewhere very different.”
The ponies, which were provided by herders at the horse stations, were about two-thirds of the size of the thoroughbreds Smith commonly rides. In Mongolia, they’re considered horses but meet the Western definition of a pony because of their stature.
Smith prepared for the race, which she found out about from a friend in the spring, by galloping horses around her farm for 25 miles a day — five miles on five different mounts.
Her former husband, renowned guitar maker Paul Reed Smith, called her the best “seat-of-the-pants” rider he has ever met. They bought the horse farm, called Dragon’s Lair (after her ex’s famous dragon guitars), in 1994.
“It wasn’t an accident she was in the lead,” he says.
Barbara Smith says her training helped, but she still lost 15 pounds from her tall, thin frame during the eight days she competed — and she had nightmares about the race for a week after she came home. The country was beautiful, the derby all-consuming.
Support vehicles followed the riders, but they had to navigate the obstacles themselves.
“I don’t think any of us knew how hard it was going to be,” Smith says.
She kept the rawhide bridle she used, and brought back a Mongolian gown and a fur hat. Other than that, she has only her memories. But that’s plenty, she says.
“She wanted a challenge,” says her friend Christy Clagett of the Marlborough Hunt Club, a fox hunting group to which Smith also belongs. “I mean, you know, the mountain is there — climb it.”
Through it all, Smith claims she’s not that much of an adventurer.
This is the same woman who once worked on the Alaskan pipeline and set off halfway around the world for a lengthy trip with only a carry-on bag and duffel full of gear.
But she has never been a fan of “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race” or any of those other extreme endurance reality TV shows.
“I don’t mountain climb or scuba dive or run marathons. The only thing I do is ride horses. When I found out about this, I thought, ‘I can do this. I’m 60, it’s the year of the horse (in the Chinese zodiac) and a great way to celebrate my 60th year.'”
All that said, would she do it again?
“Hell no,” she says.
“Childbirth hurt more, but this was hard for a longer period of time.”