Burbank’s Madliene Haim Completes Mongol Derby, “The Longest And Toughest Horse Race In The World”

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Madliene Haim rides her horse at the equestrian center. (photo by Austin Gebhardt)

Burbank resident Madliene Haim has achieved a major feat by finishing the Mongol Derby in August 2023.

The derby was launched in 2009 and is known as “the longest and toughest horse race in the world,” as stated by the Equestrianists, the group that puts on the race annually. It consists of a 1,000-kilometer path through the Mongolian steppe that mirrors Genghis Khan’s horse messenger system. Along the way, there are 28 stations where riders stop, recharge, and switch to a new horse while equine veterinarians make certain that the animals are in good health.

Throughout a total of 10 days, each rider in the 2023 race set out on horseback and journeyed across the Mongolian countryside from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. 42 riders attempted the contest, which took place from August 3 to August 12. Haim was one of the 25 who closed out the derby in competition. 

Haim first learned of the Mongol Derby years ago while watching a documentary about the race at Burbank’s Los Angeles Equestrian Center. More recently, she began participating in a polo group of the HYT Polo program that plays at the equestrian center and Will Rogers State Historic Park. Her cohorts here, as well as her spouse, encouraged her to enter the competition and provided funds to assist Haim in this endeavor.  

(photo by Austin Gebhardt)

“The people in this small group of polo players are just really amazing people,” Haim said. “The entire group of people surrounded me and helped me get there… The amount of people that stepped up behind me to do this was really incredible. So even going into this, I just felt so much love and just warmth from everyone.”

She added, “My husband was a huge part of the support in my being able to get this race done, both emotionally and financially.”

In the summer of 2022, Haim was accepted as one of the riders for the 2023 derby. To prepare, she went through a months-long, dedicated training process in which she rode 6 to 10 horses every day and lost 30 pounds. Haim also consulted with an architect friend to become familiar with Mongolia’s topographic map and better navigate the terrain. Furthermore, she studied the Mongolian language in the year leading up to the event, as Mongol Derby competitors sometimes need to ask locals if they can stay in their home between riding days. 

After the start day of the Mongol Derby, Haim noticed physical aches such as pain in her knees and legs. She states that a “mental hurt” ensued due to the demanding conditions. Toward the end of the experience, however, Haim’s mind and body had adjusted, and she concluded her pursuit on a positive note.  

“When I finished the derby, I wasn’t sore, I wasn’t hurt,” Haim said. “I had very minor scrapes. I had heat rash early on, but it went away. Your body kind of adapts. I think it’s incredible what you can put yourself through. And I think that a lot of it, even beyond physical preparation, is really just the mental stamina of being able to handle the quote-unquote suck.”

Derby riders may face penalties if they bring back a horse who doesn’t pass health inspections upon their return. From start to finish of the derby, Haim shares that she received zero vet penalties. This outcome was ideal for Haim, as she “wanted to treat the horses right” during the expedition, she says.

When recalling the weather in Mongolia, Haim details that it varied between “sweltering heat” and steady rainfall and hail. She and fellow riders were permitted to bring a kit with a maximum weight of 5 kilograms, or roughly 11 pounds, and their total weight in their riding attire couldn’t exceed 85 kilograms. Haim selected a few small items for the kit and wore garments to help her adapt to the area. This included a pair of socks, a rain jacket, and a sun shirt, in addition to extra riding breeches. As she braved the elements with limited supplies, Haim was taken aback by the breathtaking beauty of the natural environment surrounding her. 

Haim rides in the Mongol Derby. (photo by Kathy Gabriel)

“I think one of my favorite memories was, I was riding, and a herd of 100 horses came running down the hill, over the road that we were riding on,” Haim said. “And when I say road — dirt road; there’s not actually pavement. [The horses were] running over this path and then into the river, but they were jumping, and you were seeing actual wild horses. They weren’t bothered by us, and our horses weren’t bothered by them because it’s how they live. That’s a moment I’ll never forget. And just seeing 100 wild camels with baby camels, running; it’s just beautiful, and just the vastness and the almost movie-esque kind of landscape, and then the horses themselves just being so awesome.”

Haim has been riding horses since childhood, and she has three horses and chickens of her own. She moved from her previous Van Nuys residence to Burbank in past years in order to be closer to her animals. Now, Haim has lived in the city for nearly a decade and has remained pleased with the charming characteristics of the community. 

“I love the fact that, obviously, it’s an animal zone,” Haim said of Burbank. “It’s nice to go outside into my yard, get my eggs, and then go off to having those really nice restaurants, having places to go hang out, and then being able to also get that small-town feel in a big city.”

Haim plays for the HYT Polo program. (photo by Steve Williams)

Next, Haim plans to stay focused on caring for her animals and playing on her polo team. She may also join other equestrian endurance races in the future at the local and state level like the 100-mile Tevis Cup Ride in California. Following her Mongol Derby triumph, Haim says she has walked away with an emphasis on the notion that perseverance is a key to reaching success. 

“You become what you need to become if you set your mind to doing it, which I think is the big takeaway from this, is you can accomplish anything if you want it badly enough,” Haim said.