Equestrian, pilot and 2022 Mongol Derby competitor By Christian Weaner | Photo By Adair Media Group
Local horse trainer and pilot Lena Haug has enjoyed many incredible life experiences. Over the past decade-plus, she has spent a year in Chile leading horse trekking tours, earned a bachelor’s degree in political geography, studied abroad in Berlin, ski instructed in Tahoe, ran her own equine business and is now 30 hours from achieving her commercial pilot rating—just to name a few.
This year, she checked a new, equally compelling adventure off her to-do list: competing in the 2022 Mongol Derby—a 1,000-kilometer marathon horse race across the scenic terrain of Mongolia.
Q. What initially sparked your interest in horses, and how has that passion grown over the years?
A. It probably started as a young child. When I felt more like a wild animal myself, I guess —being intrigued and wanting to ride fast and have this connection with this animal. When I was a kid on my way to school, I would look out the window and dream that I was riding alongside, blasting off next to the cars on the horses. Horses are just kind of one of those mystical, magical creatures that caught my heart.
Q. How did the training you received growing up from your coaches and mentors help shape your skills as an equestrian?
A. I could not have done it without them. When I was 16, I started to travel to intern with professional trainers. I’d go away from where I grew up and live on these ranches. They took me under their wing in a way where I got to learn not only high-quality training techniques and the business aspect of it but also mentoring about how to be a person in the world. I learned a lot of independence and a lot of ways to communicate with customers, clients and adults. I was basically working with and for professionals, and working with their clients who were also adults, at a pretty young age. So, it really helped me kind of shape my own professional position in the horse world.
Q. Your life experiences are quite incredible. What guided you to pursue all these different adventures, and how has that shaped who you are today?
A. I never felt like I couldn’t do anything, and I think that is really special. I don’t know if that was just how I was raised or my education, but if I thought something sounded interesting, I would just start thinking about it. Then, small steps and opportunities would come up, and I would realize that those were going to lead me to this new idea that I had. I have gotten really good at saying “yes” to small opportunities that then bring me to these bigger opportunities.
Q. What drew you to North Idaho—and Sandpoint specifically?
A. My best friends live here. I have known them since first grade, and we have lived in many places together, including Tahoe and Sonoma County. When they moved up here five years ago, I came to visit and started to fall in love with the remote wilderness and learned about the flight school up here. I made my full move about four years ago to permanently be here. But really what I love is the community, the landscape and the wilderness.
Q. The Mongol Derby is called “the longest and toughest horse race in the world.” What drew you to this type of endurance horseback riding competition? Also, getting selected is not easy, so what did the application process look like?
A. I have known about the Mongol Derby for about six or seven years now. It’s been an item on the back of my mind that I’ve wanted to try and do, but it never felt like the right time because of the cost, and then to train for it is incredibly time consuming. It was one of those things I had on my “yes, but maybe” list in my mind. I hadn’t quite completely committed to doing it, and then in 2020 I applied. I decided that I was just going to apply because chances are I was not even going to get in because there are so many applicants.
I was working as the sales manager at Tamarack Aerospace at the time when I started to get the call backs for my Derby application. It basically started as an interview process with a written application as well as referrals and videos—footage of me riding, etc. I then started to get interview call backs, which meant that I was on track to get approved into the race (they usually only accept 45 riders per year). I was accepted for 2021, but at that point, COVID was still in full force, and three months before I was supposed to leave for the race, it was canceled. I was pretty bummed about it at first, but then I realized what a blessing it was because I was still working full time and trying to train for the race very late at night and early in the morning, and I would not have been nearly as prepared as I was this year.
Q. The Pend Oreille Arts Council—one of your biggest supporters in fundraising for the Mongol Derby—is hosting an event November 17 at the Panida Theater to honor you and show a documentary about the race called “All the Wild Horses.” How has this group helped support you, and what can visitors to this event expect to learn?
A. They were incredible. I have a friend who is on the board, and she asked if I wanted to pitch the idea to the arts council. So, I met with the board and essentially just shared with them how this is more than a horse race—it is a dive into the Mongolian culture and people. We were riding Mongolian horses; we were staying with Mongolian families; and the whole country is totally developed and wrapped around the horse in general. As a rider racing in that country, it was like riding through a history book.
The idea was to bring back cultural experiences, stories, and a new understanding based on my trip. I will also discuss what it means to have a dream and pursue it. The arts council has done a lot of work bringing visual arts into the community, and they also want to add a whole cultural aspect to that. That was something I can help bring from my experience with my trip to Mongolia.