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They ride with him in world’s longest horse race

Air Force Capt. Tim Finley rides Honor, his thoroughbred. Though he will ride Mongolian horses in the August Mongol Derby race, supplied by the derby organizers, Finley said riding Honor has prepared him well for the grueling relay.
Air Force Capt. Tim Finley rides Honor, his thoroughbred. Though he will ride Mongolian horses in the August Mongol Derby race, supplied by the derby organizers, Finley said riding Honor has prepared him well for the grueling relay. Courtesy photo

Stretching 621 miles, the Mongol Derby bills itself as the longest and toughest horse race in the world.

It’s common for riders who enter the 10-day competition to drop out before the finish line.

That doesn’t faze Air Force Capt. Tim Finley.

Finley, 36, has trained for the 2016 derby throughout the past year, working out seven days a week and traveling around the country riding “everyone’s horses under the sun” to prepare for the many different horses he will ride during the derby.

621 miles, the distance of the Mongol Derby horse race

The derby is modeled after the legendary Genghis Khan’s relay postal system and provides riders with semi-wild Mongolian horses switched out every 40 kilometers. It brings about 40 riders each year to the steppes of Mongolia, a country nestled between China to the south and Russia to the north. The 2016 race will be run Aug. 1-14.

For Finley, completing the race is not only a personal goal but part of a larger mission: He’s competing in honor of veterans who commit suicide – 22 on average each day – a cause with which he has personal experience.

Finley, who was stationed in Iraq, said he struggled with thoughts of suicide himself. When he returned from a nine-month deployment in June 2015, he was in a bad place, he said.

“Even the things that I used to enjoy, I was getting no enjoyment from them,” he said.

He had been to counseling, where he said therapists provided him with tools and insight to cope with his feelings. But he had not found what he was looking for until something clicked while he was on a night ride with his horse later that summer.

His problems weren’t fixed, he said, but on that ride, he found a perspective that allowed him to see past his own sadness.

A month later, watching the 2015 Mongol Derby on his laptop, he was hit with another revelation: Instead of just watching, he should compete.

It was about doing an empirical, tangible thing, doing something for myself to move forward. I made myself literally get in the saddle and go do it.

Capt. Tim Finley of the U.S. Air Force

“It was about doing an empirical, tangible thing, doing something for myself to move forward,” he said. “I made myself literally get in the saddle and go do it.”

Finley is being sponsored by Nine Line apparel, a veteran-owned clothing company that designates a portion of its proceeds to helping wounded veterans and their families.

In addition to naming each of the 25 horses he will ride throughout the race after a veteran who committed suicide, he will write their names on a “22 a day” Nine Line shirt.

I’m most looking forward to crossing that finish line, falling off my horse, being broken and beaten and bloody and holding up that shirt and saying, ‘They rode it with me.’

Capt. Tim Finley of the U.S. Air Force

“I’m most looking forward to crossing that finish line, falling off my horse, being broken and beaten and bloody and holding up that shirt and saying, ‘They rode it with me,’ ” he said.

Finley, who lives in Chapman and grew up in Kansas, said he first became interested in endurance riding when he moved to Fort Riley with a thoroughbred he had rescued from slaughter. He had been racing the horse, Honor, in Oklahoma but didn’t know what to do with him once he moved to Kansas.

“I was looking at some of the other options, and someone brought up endurance racing, and I thought, ‘Well, hell, I’m good at endurance, and so is my horse,’ ” he said.

It proved to be an unusual move, he said, because most people in endurance racing ride Arabian horses rather than thoroughbreds. Finley and Honor took to it, though, and rode extensively.

Now, he said, riding a thoroughbred in endurance races – and, on occasion, being thrown off that thoroughbred – will work to his advantage in the Mongol Derby.

The Mongolian horses used in the derby, though at times difficult and not entirely tamed, are “teeny tiny,” Finley said: around 4.6 feet tall, or 13 hands, to Honor’s more than 6 feet, or more than 14 hands, measured from the withers.

The horse I ride is a dragon, at times uncontrollable and at times unpleasant to ride. If I could take 1,200 pounds of thoroughbred falling on me, I can take those horses.

Capt. Tim Finley of the U.S. Air Force

“The horse I ride is a dragon, at times uncontrollable and at times unpleasant to ride,” Finley said. “If I could take 1,200 pounds of thoroughbred falling on me, I can take those horses.”

“Unscheduled dismounts,” as Finley calls them, are common for the derby’s riders. Finley is preparing by keeping all his supplies – riders are allowed only 11 pounds of gear – in a pack on his back rather than in saddlebags. He said he has planned his equipment down to the ounce, calling upon his military training to help him use his allotted weight wisely.

Finley leaves for Mongolia on July 26, his first trip using his civilian passport. Though he’s paying his entrance fee and travel expenses himself, he started a GoFundMe page to raise money for Horses and Heroes, a Montana-based horse program that trains veterans in basic horsemanship before taking them out on survival trips with the horses.

He hopes his decision to race will serve as a model for other service members struggling with thoughts of suicide.

“I wanted the 22 guys considering (suicide) that day to see the example and do something like that for themselves – take something you know you’re passionate about and make a goal from it,” he said.

It doesn’t even matter if you reach that goal or not – make it obscene, make it absurd, make it so ridiculous that you know there’s no way you can get there, and then run at it. And then look up, look around, and all 360 degrees, you have new horizons.

Capt. Tim Finley of the U.S. Air Force

“It doesn’t even matter if you reach that goal or not – make it obscene, make it absurd, make it so ridiculous that you know there’s no way you can get there, and then run at it.

“And then look up, look around, and all 360 degrees, you have new horizons.”

Madeline Fox: 316-268-6357, @maddycfox

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