After taking care of farm animals nonstop at Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield for more than a dozen years, farm owner Jessie Dowling is finally becoming more aware of the need to take care of herself.
The recent death of two fellow dairy farmers by suicide over a one-year period convinced Dowling to take a break from milking and inspired her to make a major life change.
When Dowling heard about the annual 621-mile Mongol Derby, the longest horse race in the world, she said she knew it was the right project to help focus her mind and heal her heart. She trained for more than a year, and her hard work paid off with a 13th-place finish in the 10-day race that concluded in August.
Although she is still fond of cheese and the goats and sheep that charm the pastures and barns of Fuzzy Udder Creamery, her true passions are horses and helping others in need.
“Like most Maine dairy farmers, I was working long hours and was tethered to the farm due to my daily responsibilities,” Dowling said. “The Mongol Derby presented me with a challenging adventure and an opportunity to dive into the professional horsemanship that I’ve always longed for.”
Dowling also saw it as a way to fundraise for worthy horse-related causes and to refocus her business by integrating horse services.
The race course traces the route used by the horse mail system created by Genghis Khan almost 800 years ago. Much like the legendary messengers that needed to keep horses healthy while using that historic system, Mongol Derby riders switch to fresh horses approximately every 24 miles. The untamed horses ridden in the event belong to Mongolian families that live along the race path.
The course across the Mongolian-Manchurian steppe is unmarked. Although riders are provided with a series of GPS coordinates to generally steer them toward each of the 25 horse-switching stations, competitors can choose their own path based on instincts, weather, and reading the landscape.
Dowling rode an additional 186 miles according to her GPS measurements, she said, due to navigating around mountains and streams.
“The terrain included mountain passes, wooded hills, green valleys, river crossings, wetlands, sandy semi-arid dunes, rolling hills, dry riverbeds, and open steppe,” she said.
Dowling isn’t the first rider with Lincoln County ties to compete in the event, but she is the first to finish. Newcastle native Julia Stewart competed in 2016, but was unable to complete it after being thrown from a horse and injured.
Stewart’s experience is not unusual. Forty-three riders started the derby this year and only 25 finished it, according to Dowling, dropping out due to broken bones, a concussion, a punctured lung, food poisoning, and dehydration.
A year-long training plan was a key part of Dowling’s success. She said being a farmer also helped her endurance for the 13-14 hour days.
This year’s derby was one of the hottest, she said, which meant the horses could not be ridden as fast or as long.
She also prepared with a targeted fitness plan, regular runs, and riding classes. Dowling went to Oregon for three boot camps with a trainer who focuses on the Mongol Derby, along with two races by the American Endurance Riding Conference and a clinic in Ohio teaching rider biomechanics.
Dowling also spent almost a month in Idaho training with Martin Black, known as a leading horsemanship trainer.
“I was working on reading terrain, learning how to navigate in mountainous rocky areas, riding horses that were young and not super broke and putting the first rides on mules,” she said.
Eleven riders were sent to the hospital this year, but Dowling said she did not have trouble with her horses because of the techniques she learned.
“One challenge is marmot holes, which galloping horses fall in and people go over the horse’s head,” she said. “If you sit back and give the horse its head and let it choose its terrain it’ll jump out and keep going.”
She also took a 100-mile ride in April to learn to avoid chafing her legs and using the saddle she rode with in the derby.
Dowling’s only problem was a cracked stirrup, which pinched her foot and affected her speed.
“Thankfully, that was the only equipment failure and injury I encountered,” she said.
Horses have an important role in the Mongolian culture aside from riding. Herders milk the mares and make a fermented drink called airig, according to Dowling.
Being a dairy milker herself at Fuzzy Udder, Dowling took a keen interest in airig. She watched a mare being milked, and also milked a yak and a reindeer.
These Mongolian horses are incredibly fit and tough, according to Dowling.
“There’s no fences, and they overwinter in the steppe by foraging without hay all winter. The horses are cared for, but they live semi-wild,” she said.
Mongol Derby horse safety and wellness is paramount. Each horse is walked as the rider approaches the station, with penalties for riders if the horse’s pulse does not come down within a certain time. Too many penalties disqualify a rider.
“The herders are trusting us with their horses, which are sacred in Mongolia,” she said. “They’re also inspected to make sure there’s no indication you weren’t taking care of the horse.”
Dowling also studied the Mongolian language for a year.
“Knowing the language came in handy, especially building relationships with local people – it earned their respect,” she said.
After the race, she spent two weeks in the farmlands of Mongolia to decompress.
Early in her preparation process, Dowling set out to make her adventure about helping others as well as improving her own well-being. She fundraised to help cover her costs and raise money for two nonprofits: BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Steppe and Hoof. She has raised more than $12,350 for the nonprofits and is still pursuing donations.
Steppe and Hoof is a Mongolia-based nonprofit that strives to preserve the unique culture of nomadic herders by providing modern tools, services, and training to keep livestock healthy and productive, including the veterinary training that Dowling is specifically fundraising for.
Founded in 2002, BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding is the largest healing horsemanship program in the nation. The nonprofit connects horses with people as a catalyst for wellness by offering therapeutic horseback riding and a comprehensive program for military veterans.
“Their programs felt dear to me because there’s been a bunch of farmer suicides in Maine and there were no prevention programs that are horse-related,” Dowling said.
Her commitment to the Mongol Derby sparked changes in her life and at Fuzzy Udder. While preparing for the race, she adjusted the business to do less dairy production, buying local milk instead, and stepped back herself from day-to-day operations to business manager.
Now, Dowling wants to turn her love of horses into her occupation.
“With the help of our team, I’m looking to find a buyer that is passionate about cheesemaking and loves Fuzzy Udder,” she said. “It has a culture and commitment to healthy products, and we’ll sell the business to someone that can carry the mission forward.”
She said the best part of the derby was meeting people far away who love horses as she does.
“My goal is to continue my horsemanship journey,” she said. “I plan to continue to develop my riding skills and to delve into the world of equine therapy and the healing power of horses.”
She is already planning for her next endurance race, the 2025 Gaucho Derby in Argentina.
“The day I got back to Whitefield from the Mongol Derby, I sent in my application,” Dowling said.