HOUSTON -- For six and a half grueling days earlier this month, Devan Horn, a 20-year-old college student from Sam Houston State University, was the best endurance horse rider in the world.
But even though she crossed the finish line first after 700 brutal miles across the Mongolian wilderness, judges gave her second.
"It was everything,” Horn said. “I mean it was terrible and awesome and amazing.”
Horn traveled alone to the Mongolian steppe to take part in what is advertised as the longest, toughest horse race in the world.
Participants ride a series of semi-wild Mongolian ponies, a new horse every 25 miles, through a network of horse stations recreating Genghis Khan’s legendary postal system.
Horn, who works and trains at Cypress Trails Equestrian Center in north Harris County, was in awe of the scenery and the vast expanse of the Mongolian wilderness.
"In the same day riding over mountain and prairie and then river valley and then deserts with sand dunes bigger than my house,” Horn said. “It was amazing.”
From the very beginning, following the advice of her coach Justin Nelzen who won this race in 2010, she raced into the lead a full 25 miles ahead of the other 29 riders at the end of the first day. A lead she held until day five, which she admits was her worst day of the journey.
It started with a horse kicking her in the pelvis.
"I got kicked and I flew pretty far and all the Mongolian children were just laughing at me,” Horn said.
Then during that leg of the race her horse bucked her off and ran away, not an uncommon experience with the Mongolian ponies they are required to use.
She hiked six miles on foot to get back into the race, and then she got what she politely described as “the worst stomach flu of my life.”
"So that was my worst day in the derby,” Horn said. “I got kicked, bucked off, and sick all in a 12-hour period."
After six and a half days, Horn crossed the finish line first. She’d done it on her 25th horse, one that a Mongolian herdsman recommended as his best horse at the final horse station. It was an honor she couldn’t refuse.
"I was so proud of myself for finishing,” Horn said. “It was an amazing experience."
But each of the 25 horses each rider uses during the course of the race must pass a veterinary inspection to see if the riders have pushed them too hard.
Race veterinarians wait an hour after the finish of each leg to take the resting heart race of each horse. Horn’s final horse, the one she was honored to receive from the Mongolian herdsman, never reached a resting heart rate fitting with the race rules.
Horn said the horse had a respiratory infection and its pulse rate would not come down within the acceptable range, but rules are rules and she had to accept them.
She was give a two-hour penalty and given second place.
First place went to Britain Lara Prior-Palmer who had finished an hour behind.
“I'm going to say it was about ten minutes of crying before I realized I had battled windstorms and terrain and sand dunes and wild horses and you know a thousand kilometers of trouble to get here,” Horn said. “And I wasn't going to be defeated by a chest cold."
“But considering what else could have gone wrong during that race -- I feel like I got pretty lucky,” Horn said.
Horn had set a course record. No one had ever finished the race that fast before, and she was the first woman to cross the finish line first.
"She pulled off the most fabulous race ever,” said endurance riding legend Darolyn Butler at Cypress Trails. "And the Mongolians loved Devan. She was their hero. I mean they couldn't get enough of this kid. And so when she lost it because of the pulse thing they refused to acknowledge it, and she was their winner and will be forever I think."
Horn, who starts her senior year at SHSU as a Criminal Justice major next week, said she hasn’t yet decided if this will be her only attempt at winning the derby.
"I can't fathom doing this again right now. I think that will change though and I have a feeling that I'll end up back in Mongolia some day," Horn said.
"I'm still questioning my sanity,” Horn said. “Everybody did from day one that I even wanted to compete in this race, but at least I came home in one piece.”
And she comes home to Texas with the ability to call herself among the best endurance riders in the world.
Just ask the Mongolians who call her their hero.