Author: Krystal Kelly
Julie is a Canadian girl with the true heart of an adventuress. Growing up in the far North of British Columbia, she was accustomed to brutal winters and wild lands. Horses weren’t a part of her childhood though, in fact she held onto a fear of horses well into her adult life. Her interests of anthropology and travel eventually led her to Mongolia with her husband, where at the age of 50 she decided to challenge herself as part of understanding the Mongolian culture. She sat on a horse for the first time and was only led around the paddock by a small boy, but when she dismounted a whole new passion had been ignited inside her and she was never the same again.
“I had no clue that I was going to turn into the crazy horseback riding lady,” she chuckles before continuing. “Now, I am an associate member of the Long Riders’ Guild with about 25,000 kilometers under my belt and a fervent desire to hopefully make 100,000 before I die.”
Her interest in the Mongolian culture was a crucial factor in learning to ride. “I wasn’t planning on learning to ride,” she says, “It was just that I saw all these gorgeous little Mongolian children thundering by on their horses out in the wild steppe…” She realized that if she wanted to understand the culture, she needed to learn to ride. How else would she know what it’s like to herd thousands of animals or experience what it’s like traveling from one Ger—the nomadic homes also known as yurts—to another on horseback as the Mongols have done for thousands of years? She wanted to know what the Mongolians already knew: what it feels like to be “at one” with an animal.
After that initial ride, she was eager to learn more. “I couldn’t believe the feeling of movement on a horse, of the vantage point of looking at the world from horseback, the power and grace of working with such a large animal.” She had become friends with and sometimes stayed with a Mongolian family and although she knew they would be more than happy to help teach her to ride, she didn’t want to be a burden. Julie came up with a plan to invite other women interested in learning to ride to visit once a week and thus the “International Equestrian Club of Outer Mongolia” was born. Many ladies from complete novice to experienced riders have come out and ridden over the years. The riding program is still going strong and people from Ulaanbaatar (the Capital City) come out on a regular basis to ride.
“The way I learned to ride bears absolutely no relation to how almost every other person in the western world learned to ride.” Julie was being instructed by a local man called, Baagii. “Every lesson was held in the million acre arena and lasted between 2 and 12 hours.”
Julie recounts her experience learning how to ride at the age of 50 from Baagii, “One of my first lessons was a 3 hour ride-out where I was on a lead. Before leaving Baagii asked me if I really wanted to learn. When I replied ‘yes,’ that set the tone for the lessons. We set off at a trot ..a slow trot… a trot that carried on without a break for 3 hours while I figured it out. Imagine your first time riding you trot for 3 hours…there was great motivation to learn how to stand in that particular gait as it became clear that banging repeatedly into the saddle was not only not going to be good for the horse, but also not good for a lot of very important parts of my body! By the end of 3 hours I had it worked out…and yes, I am just a wee bit stubborn which helped enormously!”
“As time went on and my Mongolian improved, I had many long conversations on horseback with Baagii and the guides. I tried valiantly to learn everything I could about horse care but soon realized that their knowledge was so deep and detailed and had applications to every single situation or weather complication that you could imagine that I would never be able to remember and/or apply all of it, so I decided to just focus on the main swathes of horse knowledge and work on my riding. Women are much more equal in Mongolia than in many asian countries and there was never any ‘Male Dominance’ issues. That might also have been because I was older than all of them and there is the typical reverence for the aged. I think after a while they were all very impressed that I actually was learning to ride and persevering with it.”
Julie might have been satisfied with simply learning a new life skill and moving on with her life, but that’s not what happened next. Instead, she went on to become the Vice President of the Veloo Foundation and the Gobi Gallop Chief as well as the International Marketing Manager of Horse Trek Mongolia. “Learning to ride in Mongolia, especially at my age, has completely altered my life. I am much more likely now to look at a new challenge with a shrug and ‘why not?’ than I was before and find that I am approaching new challenges of every kind with the kind of abandon and confidence that you usually see in 20 year olds.”
While she had been learning to ride horses from Baagii with other riders from the city, Veloo Foundation started a charity project which helped children who had otherwise been living in the “garbage dump.” This charity builds and runs kindergartens, summer camps, community libraries and other outreach projects and helped to feed, clothe and educate the children. In 2007 she started the Veloo Foundation with excess proceeds from the sale of a rental house her husband and her owned in Utah. Their mission was simple: “To make a difference, one child at a time.”
Meanwhile, Julie felt increasingly more comfortable in the saddle and decided to take her riding to the next level. “There was a beautiful snow capped mountain in the distance when we would ride out from the camp,” she said, “it called to me.” She asked Baagii if they could ride to the mountain and, although astonished by the question, he didn’t hesitate. By the end of Julie’s trek to the mountain she was on top of the world. She had wild camped, mastered the art of galloping and had spent 9 days out in the wild. “I was nervous about galloping, but it was absolutely my goal. After a year of being very happy in trot, I knew that going on the wilderness trek with 3 other very experienced equestrians was going to mean that I would have to suck it up and take on the gallop. During that trek, I galloped across the wild steppes alongside Baagii and his son for about 10 kilometers, just going and going and going! The exhilaration and pure joy of my first gallop is captured forever in my memory.” When she returned from her trip she shared her tales of adventures with other foreigners. The idea was proposed to have another ride, across the Gobi Desert this time, and to do it for her charity, the Veloo Foundation.
“The first Gobi Gallop we auctioned off our first original Mongolian Comfort Saddle,” she reminisces, “and we raised about $4,000 for the charity. Now we’ve done the Gobi Gallop for 6 years and I’m proud to say we’ve raised over $450,000 for the children. I am most grateful to be able to have found a way to bring horse people from around the world together to help eradicate the problem of the children in the dump in the last surviving horse culture on the planet. I absolutely love seeing the looks on peoples’ faces when they actually get to see that their tourist dollars are well and truly making a difference. To be able to show them the brick and mortar outcome of the support that their riding has accomplished and be able to introduce them to the children… it’s beautiful, powerful and very moving.”
“Initially many people were worried about the “crazy” nature of Mongolian horses as they had seen other rides where people have difficulty mounting or stopping their ‘wild horses,’ but we are very proud to say that in the 6 years of doing the Gobi Gallop, we have never had a serious injury to person or horse.” Of course, the success of the event as the “longest annual charity horseback ride on the planet” is due in large part to the wonderful work and organizational skills of both Baagii and his wife, Saraa. “They have both been great supporters of my work since the beginning and now in addition to the Gobi Gallop, they also donate 20% of all of their rides to help Mongolian children. Imagine that, 20% of the tariff! Not 20% of the profit….20% of their entire business goes to help children. I often get a lot of credit for my work with the kids but people need to understand what a wonderful giving family this is when they are not, in any way, shape or form, rich. It is one of my daily inspirations.”
For anyone interested in doing something similar, Julie has very simple advice: Just decide. “Once you have decided to do something it’s just a matter of time until all of the kinks are worked out. There are a lot of organizations out there struggling to do good work with no supporters. If there’s someone already doing the thing you would like to do, approach them and see if you can help. Most likely they’ll say ‘yes,’ and your support will have more impact than two struggling programs. Even if you end up not staying with them, the lessons you will learn will be invaluable when you move forward to undertake your own program.” Julie also recommends seeking legal advice from the country you intend to work with. “My journey was more difficult at times than it needed to be because I was working with a Canadian understanding and approach to rules and regulations.”
When asked what being an Equestrian Adventuress means to Julie she had this to say: “Some of us tend to become more cautioned and reserved as we age. One of the greatest things about being an Equestrian Adventuresses is getting to spend those long and precious hours where the only sound is the footfall of the horse on the crunching leaves or the snort and grunting as you climb the hill, or the splashing and laughter that always comes with a trot across a crystal clear flowing river.
Nights under that blanket of the milky way and sleeping outside where the air is not only clean but somehow silken and sparkling can’t be believed if not experienced. Curled up in my very, very good sleeping bag under the stars with the dogs from the trek curling up for warmth and horses munching peacefully beside me while I watch a shooting star or follow the track of the moon across the night sky are pages in my memory book that cannot be written any other way. These are all moments that connect me directly to the pulse of the history of humanity. It is what all of our ancestors did for thousands upon thousands of years and it speaks to the heart of me.”
“I have ridden over 25,000 kilometers now and have a list of golden moments that is miles long. Riding has given me such richness and depth of experience in a way that I don’t think anything else could have. It is a relationship with horses and people and mother nature all together wrapped up in one glittering package.”