Solana Perez knows how to embrace the wild, having grown up with horses all her life. While preparing to join the Mongol Derby—the world’s most ambitious horse race—the world was put on pause, and she wrestles with her place.
“When I first rode him, I thought, shit, I don’t think I can control this guy.” It’s just after sunrise and Solana Perez is driving us through the winding mountain roads of Baguio City in her beat-up pickup, still coated in ashfall from the Taal Volcano eruption. We’re heading to Itogon, Benguet, to catch a wild horse. Sol, a 25-year-old Baguio-born artist, is referring, of course, to her first love, a horse named Viper.
Most kids in the 90s grew up with rollerblades and skateboards; Sol and her friends, they were riding before they could walk. She met Viper when she was 10 or 11.“We were at that age where we wanted to do really stupid things,” she laughs.
Sol will be the first Filipino to join the Mongol Derby, the longest, most grueling horse race in the world. Participants ride barely trained horses 1000 kilometers across the wild and windswept steppes of Mongolia, through mountains and valleys, rivers and sand dunes, wetlands and forests. There are stations every 40 kilometers where they swap their rides for fresh mounts and fill up on water and food. Other than that, there’ll be absolutely no support. The race is self-navigated, and at night they’ll sleep in a tent under the stars, or else knock on the doors of local families when it’s too cold.
The race retraces the route of Genghis Khan’s horse messenger system, when the surefooted swiftness of a horse and the skill of its rider could determine the outcome of a battle, or the security of an empire—such a time reminds us that the power of information is only as effective as its delivery. To qualify as finishers, riders need to complete the Mongol Derby in less than ten days. Less than half are expected to reach the finish line at all.
“I joined the race on a lark, actually.” Sol had been following the race for a few years, and in 2019 the winner was a 71-year-old man from Idaho.“You know how it is, before you have coffee and there’s nothing going on in your head? I was just sleepy, scrolling… and click, I opened the application, filled it up, and click, submitted it.”
THE TWO STALLIONS we’ve brought with us can smell the mares before they see them. Nostrils flare, necks arch, they whinny at the band of horses in the trees across the dried-up riverbed. Nemo, the younger of the two, paws at the dusty red earth and rears. There are 20 or so feral horses living in this river valley in Itogon—some were let loose, some ran away, and still others have never been tamed. The pony boys are going to show Sol how to catch and ride a wild one.
The mid-morning sun burns overhead as they jump out of the pickup and get to work. Melzon Silvino, the best horse wrangler among them, hops into Nemo’s saddle and with a whooping heeyah gallops straight at the other horses. His legs are straight and stock-still, Western style, but instead of boots he wears tsinelas. With one hand he holds onto his cowboy hat as the horse-tail of his mullet flies behind him in the hot, dry wind.
With much shouting and clapping, the pony boys drive the horses into a small tributary, a dead-end, stringing up a rope across the mouth of the canyon.
Sol points out Rain, a soot-coloured stallion that her horse mentor Gina Capito Damian had started to train as a yearling before hard times forced her to let him run free. The plan is for Sol to train him.
Melzon attaches a looped rope to one end of a massive bamboo pole and walks straight towards the frightened horses. His cut-off t-shirt exposes huge, powerful arms from years of breaking in horses. He singles out Rain and swings the pole, trying to anticipate his movements. On the third attempt the noose slips over Rain’s head and tightens.
Dropping the pole, Melzon grabs the rope slithering on the ground and loops it around a nearby tree trunk. Two more men help him winch the rope tighter. Rain bucks and screams in fear and rage. His eyes and teeth flash white. The veins in his neck bulge under the noose. If they don’t bring Rain under control quickly, he could strangle himself in the attempt to flee.
The hoots and hollers have stopped now. All I can hear is the sound of bodies wrestling for control, my heartbeat counting down like a referee. Melzon grabs Rain by the ear, trying to get him in a headlock. Another guy slams his weight against the horse’s withers. A hoof connects with a solid thud against a shoulder. Melzon twists Rain’s neck under his arm and down they both go.
Two more pony boys spring forward to restrain the flailing horse. More fleshy thuds. A leg. Some ribs. Toes and fingernails. Melzon keeps Rain’s head pinned to the ground as a pony boy puts a halter on him and removes the lasso.
Just as quickly as they sprung on the horse, the pony boys release him. Rain stands shakily, eyeing his captors and testing the rope tethering him to the tree. All of us—horses and humans—are trembling with adrenaline.
Sol asks if she can give it a go. If pony boys are nervous about the idea, they don’t let on. After a couple of tries with the heavy bamboo pole, she manages to bring in a lean, leggy youngster. She wrestles him to the ground, but the horse manages to get a couple solid kicks in before she can secure his feet. I gasp but the pony boys stand back. They give her tips, holler their encouragement, ready to help if Sol asks. Sol doesn’t ask.
“HOW ARE YOU?”Sol sends me a text message. I tell her I’m quarantining in San Juan, La Union, with my sister. Sol is in Baguio, still, with her grandmother, but separated from her mom and sister who are in Manila. The Derby has been postponed until next year. The pony boys have lost their entire peak season and are out of work, indefinitely. Weeks after that cloudless day in the Itogon river valley, President Duterte announced a travel ban on the country, closing the borders on all of our seven-thousand-plus islands.
“The feeling of helplessness is so hard to shake off,” she tells me via Whatsapp. She and Gina distributed relief goods to the members of the Kabadjo Horse Handlers Association, food for the pony boys, feed for the horses.
The organisers of the Mongol Derby eventually offered a full refund to participants who wanted to withdraw their entry—should they want to re-enter in another year, they can at a 10-percent discount. At one point, Sol considered taking it.
“I lost sight of why I should be in the Derby. There were so many more pressing issues at hand, and I was tired of feeling like my outspokenness on social media wasn’t doing anything.” She’d already started to realize how the race operated in a world vastly different from hers, most of the participants coming from wealthy western countries. Instead of joining, she would ask her race sponsors to donate the money from her entrance fee to the frontliners, or the pony boys, or any organisation that was actually doing something during this lockdown.
And then someone asked her,“How do you think the pony boys would feel about you doing that, after all the help they’ve given you?”
The question snapped her out of her spiral of anxiety and shame, returning her to reality.“I realized how my sense of urgency rode along on my privilege, giving me this self-righteous worldview.” If she really wanted to help, backing out of the Derby wasn’t the only way. It wasn’t even the best way.
Complicity can’t be opted out of so easily. The task at hand is subtler and far more gradual than a cash refund. And if Sol turned away from the online buzz to take a look around, alternatives were already all around her, growing in the dirt. She decided to keep training and stay in the race.
The reality is that most people in the Philippines are already living this way: hand to mouth, getting by as best they can. The loss of livelihood has made a difficult life even harder. Gina’s family started to grow their own vegetables, and Sol helps them sell the excess produce. Sol explains that even if Happy Hollow, Gina’s neighborhood, is just on the outskirts of Baguio City proper, it functions more like a mountain village.“Neighbors help each other to plant, to harvest, and even to slaughter backyard-raised animals. In a way it already has the underlying structure for sustainability that could help a small community to survive this pandemic.”
However, the romance of the idyllic pastoral burns away in the light of what others call the new normal. One of Gina’s neighbors had to slaughter all her pigs because a few got sick. No one would buy the meat of the clean pigs, for fear of disease. Without buyers, the price of carrots dropped drastically, and farmers started throwing their lost profits away by the truckload. The pony boys collected the carrots and fed them to the horses, who are running out of feed and grass.“The Wright Park guys started selling black soil mix by the sack, fertilized by horse manure. They share the profits as an association.”
The resourcefulness is incredible, but is it enough?“Even before this pandemic, the interest in the pony boys has been waning,” Sol says.“Horseback riding is part of the heritage and history of Baguio. I don’t want to envision a new normal without the pony boys.”
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