9 February 2024

Warwick and Duncan saddle up for greatest test of horsemanship on Earth

| Edwina Mason
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man on horse in desert

Young’s own Warwick Schiller will face the vast Patagonian wilderness in the 2024 Gaucho Derby. He is pictured here on a recent endurance ride at Fire Mountain in southern California. Photo: Warwick Schiller.

Eight Australian equestrians, two of them from the south of NSW, are stepping into the boots of the hardy, brave nomadic cowboys of Argentina as they embark on a gruelling 500-km endurance ride across the vast mountainous Patagonian region of Argentina.

Young’s world wandering Warwick Schiller joins Duncan McLaughlin of Bodalla, and 39 other international riders from Britain, the US, Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, Chile and New Zealand on the 10-day Gaucho Derby, billed as the greatest test of horsemanship on Earth.

The derby is one in a world series of horseback endurance rides that don’t just test the mettle of the riders, who have notched up years in the saddle, but the loan horses on which they rely – ‘criollo’, all of them from the enormous – 100,000 acres large – Argentine ranches known as estancias, which cover vast swathes of Patagonia.

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Nimble, sharp, strong and with incredible stamina, these horses will be relied on by the riders as they set out into the unknown, the elements uncertain, in a race that is one of survival and adventure first but fittingly also acts as a fundraiser.

Equestrianists World Series races are built to have a positive lasting impact on the communities who host them and over the years their participants have raised more than $1 million for charity. In Mongolia – where they’ve run the 1000-km Mongol Derby for well over a decade – they are supporting the Mongolion NGO Steepe and Hoof.

In the 12 months since California-based Warwick Schiller first tested the Argentinian wilderness at a Gaucho Derby bootcamp taking part in navigation rides, overnight wilderness rides and campouts and a 150-strong wild horse muster alongside local ‘gauchos’, he’s been in prep mode amid his worldwide speaking and training engagements.

“I really didn’t know what I was letting myself in for,” he said. “I thought, I’ve ridden 300 miles across the Gobi Desert on camel, I can ride 500 kilometres across Patagonia.”

He signed up for the 2023 derby and while he was at a training camp in Oregon he learned it had been postponed until 2024.

“This was September 2022 and about day two of the training I was so glad to get that news because I knew that I wasn’t prepared for boot camp let alone prepared for the actual Gaucho Derby,” he said.

Man on horse in desert

Duncan McLaughlin of Bodalla will be enjoying his honeymoon with wife, British endurance rider Fran McNicol, in Argentina. Image: Duncan McLaughlin/Facebook.

Warwick said this first real experience of distance riding was around 12 miles.

“I think it was the longest I had ever ridden since maybe I was a kid especially at a trot like those endurance horses go and I found after a while my knees and ankles were just killing me; one foot would go numb,” he said.

The race itself is broken down into 40-km legs of mountainous and flat country where rider fitness – mental and physical – is paramount. There’s an 85 kg weight limit, a 10 kg pack allowance, including tent, but not water, survival equipment, personal satellite trackers, GPS units with support offered in horse and vet checkpoints and way stations dotted along the route.

It demands a quiver of characteristics from the very top drawer encompassing sportsmanship, determination and the ability to laugh in the face of severe hardship.

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For most, training has consisted of eight-hour daily rides, longer preparation rides, navigation training, first aid and campouts, but Duncan McLaughlin has also included yoga, weight training and a bit of free diving ahead of the ride.

He will be joined by his wife British endurance rider Fran McNicol on this, their honeymoon, after marrying late last year.

No stranger to the sport of endurance riding – he’s completed the Tevis Cup Ride, Shahzada Endurance Test and earned Quilty buckles, but it was in Mongolia where his and Fran’s worlds collided as they traversed 3600 km of Gobi Desert in 2022.

Warwick, Duncan, Fran and the riders also took part in a four-day pre-race training camp before they set out.

The Gaucho Derby will have live tracking from the race start on Thursday (8 February).

Warwick is personally fundraising for non-profit Friends of Mio.

Duncan is raising money for Veloo Foundation’s Children of the Peak Sanctuary.

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