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Mongolia adventure awaits 20-year-old local endurance athlete

by Kevin Reece / KHOU 11 News

Posted on July 10, 2013 at 10:25 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 10 at 10:40 PM

HUMBLE, Texas -- Devan Horn, 20, is a senior Criminal Justice major at Sam Houston State considering a path that will take her to law school. But the path she’s already traveled, on horseback, is taking her around the world.

Next stop -- Mongolia.

Horn, who trains daily at the Cypress Trails Equestrian Center in Humble just north of Bush Intercontinental Airport, has been competing in equine endurance races since the age of 10. Competitions have taken her throughout the United States and as far away as the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Australia. She’s traveled more than 3,000 miles total on horseback in 55 events.

But the next 650 miles will be the toughest.

"I don't have any idea how my body is going to react when I go past 200 miles,” Horn said. “I have no idea if my body is going to be able to withstand it."

She will try to withstand the punishment of the 650 mile, 14-day contest known as the Mongol Derby.

The horse race, where each rider is supplied with a series of 28 different semi-wild Mongolian ponies they’ve never ridden before, takes 35 contestants across the rugged and varied terrain of the Mongolian wilderness and is widely described as the toughest horse race in the world.

"It sounds like the ultimate fun vacation to me,” said Horn who is training for the endurance ride with the 2010 Mongol Derby winner Justin Nelzen.

If Horn wins she would be the youngest competitor and the first woman to cross the finish line first. Contestants are guided only by maps, GPS, and their own wits.

"My roommate in college when I first began dreaming of this said you're crazy that sounds like hell to me,” Horn said. “But I can't think of anything I'd rather do for a week. Seriously, if I had unlimited income, resources, travel plans, I can't think of anything else I'd rather do."

“I think that if any young lady could do it Devan can,” said endurance riding champion Darolyn Butler who owns Cypress Trails Equestrian Center and has competed in more than 130 endurance races of 100 miles or more.

She said Horn, her protégé, has every chance of winning, but the goal is always just to finish.

"She should be absolutely respectful of these Mongolian ponies because a lot of them are just half broke,” Butler said. “But she has experience with that."

“I call it trying to guide a wooly rocket more than riding horses. I hear they're formidable and impressive, ornery and stubborn,” Horn said.

Riders will be mostly on their own to survive the Mongolian wilderness when the race begins August 4. Medical assistance is available during the competition but the nearest hospital will be a 5-hour medivac helicopter trip to Seoul, South Korea.

But the enthusiastic college senior credits her parents with instilling in her a sense of adventure and courage. Her father is an endurance athlete who competes in ultra-running events of 100 miles or more. And her mother supports fully her adventures around the world.

"When one of her friends questioned why she would let me do this, she said you can't stop your kids from doing something that you are afraid to do. And I think that spirit and that attitude has been really helpful,” Horn said.

"I'm aware of the situation,” Horn said of the potential danger of the endurance race next month in Mongolia. “And I'm trying not to let it phase me because if you're scared you'll never do anything."

So next month a 20-year-old, apparently scared of very little, hits the Mongolian trail for the ride of her young life.