Curiosity fuels drive to derby
Chloe Phillips-Harris has written a book titled Fearless, about her adventure during the world’s most gruelling horse race — the Mongol Derby. The 1000 kilometre emdurance race across Mongolia pushed her to her limits. About half the competitors dropped out along the way, but Chloe kept going. We asked her some questions. ■ What motivated you to get back on the horse?
The derby was something I’d worked towards for years. I entered it knowing full well at some point I was going to reach breaking point, and I knew I would have to push myself to keep going. I didn’t realise it was going to be this bad, but when I reached the lowest hour there was still some little voice that said, “Well Chloe this is your chance to see if you really can do it, get back on the horse or give up.” The thought of giving up was so abhorrent I couldn’t face it, so I got back on the horse.
■ You grew up on a rundown farm in Northland. Your first pony terrorised you and another fractured your skull during the first few weeks of owning him, but you turned him into a champion. Others might have baulked at some of the challenges thrown your way but you grew with them. Why is this?
I guess it never occurred to me that it was going to be easy, so I wasn’t surprised to face these challenges. I always knew it was going to be hard work and was just really curious to see what was possible. I just worked at everything step by step as well. Kind of not looking too far ahead but always pushing for that little bit more just in front of me. I enjoyed the challenge.
■ While your friends headed off to university you went to live at a big stable as a working pupil. Long hours and hard work — why did you choose this path? Do you regret this?
I have never regretted it. I would never choose to repeat the experience or necessarily advise people to follow the same path, but it gave me a lot of resilience. I immediately saw what it really took to succeed. The hard work, dedication and the hours of practice. I will forever be grateful for seeing that so early in my career. It allowed me to really confront if this was a path I wanted to follow. I had great role models in that regard. Even though I do a mix of equestrian sport and expeditions these days, I think some of the drive, determination and skills I developed early on are very similar.
But it definitely felt for many years that everyone else was partying and having fun while I was just working non-stop day in and day out. Both when I worked for other people and myself those early years I just worked continuously, but was always trying to learn and progress and always pushing to do better. I think that was my saving grace — my work fascinated me even though — like every job — it could be mundane and hard at times.
■ Your work with wild stallions is highly respected. What do you see in these animals that others might class as dangerous?
I think because I grew up experimenting with training horses and spending hundreds of hours alone with them, I could see no reason I couldn’t train wild horses and especially the stallions.
By the time I took on Kaimanawa horses I’d already trained so many difficult and dangerous horses and figured out ways to work with them, I figured the wild ones couldn’t be any more difficult. At least the wild stallions were a blank canvas that had never had any interference with humans — they didn’t come with bad habits or learned problems.
I think what people quite often forget is that a horse is at heart an animal that doesn’t like conflict and only resorts to it in extreme circumstance. So really when you step into a pen with a stallion that has no experience with humans and has just come from the wild, you have to understand it’s an animal that doesn’t really want to fight you.
My job is to make it feel safe enough throughout training that it doesn’t feel the need to resort to aggression. The stallions are challenging but they are far more complex and intelligent creatures than how they are often portrayed.
■ What led you to ride the 1000km Mongol Derby race on difficult native horses across a remote region of Mongolia?
I saw images of galloping horses on the wide-open Mongolian steppe and just couldn’t think of anything better — it looked like heaven. I was fascinated and hooked from the moment I first heard about the race. The Eurasian steppe is where horses were first domesticated and where they remain the least changed, and to see them there truly fascinated me. My curiosity was a huge driving force. As far as the race, the chance to ride that many horses over such amazing landscape and to face such a physical challenge really appealed to me.
■ Your new book Fearless is has just been released — what else does the future hold?
Hopefully more work with animals in remote areas. I have a few expeditions planned for some very remote areas in 2020 and two more trips to Mongolia this year as well. I’d love to get back to the Australian desert and work more with camels there, too.
■ Meet Chloe Phillips-Harris Where: Wardini Books When: Wednesday, March 13, 6pm.
Where: Horse of Year at the NZ Horse & Pony stand When: Thursday, March 14 and Saturday 16th.