Pinay horsewoman at the Mongol Derby

Solana Perez, the horsewoman

Solana Perez, the horsewoman

She calls herself “a mountain girl” who never enjoyed going to the beach even as a child. What sets her apart from family and friends is her being a horsewoman, the friend of Baguio’s pony boys and the sole Filipino competitor in this year’s grueling, 1,000-km., 7-10-day Mongol Derby.

As the first Filipina to join the competition, she wants to prove that “we have what it takes to pursue our dreams, our passions.”

Solana Lim Perez, 25, traces her lineage to suffragist Pilar Hidalgo Lim, art patron-social entrepreneur Adelaida Lim, filmmaker Butch Perez and her mother, anthropologist-poet Padmapani. She said, “I can’t remember being put on a horse before I could walk or being put to sleep cradled between a pony boy, the saddle and his trusted horse, but I know these happened. The first horse I had any memory of was Simba, owned by pony boy Bai Nelson. I was seven the first time a horse went wild while I was riding and I hung on like a champ.”

Perez learned riding from the Wright Park pony boys. The Lim-Perez family is not all horse-mad. She said her mother “used to ride quite a bit while she was growing up in Baguio, as well as Fifi, her younger sister. While Fifi went on to have her own horse, my mother had her heart stolen by mountain biking.”

She described her affinity to Fifi: “She brought me on trails, handed me books about horses that she had already read and introduced me to pony boys and even horses.”

It helped that her mother and aunt had an extensive library. Perez laughed and said, “Our family has a book hoarding problem. My mother and Fifi opened Mt. Cloud Bookshop inspired by said problem. We have fiction about horses, a plethora of children's picture books, coffee table and photography books, travel/photography journals, practical horsemanship guides and collections of short non-fiction stories and even on more academic approaches.”

Her curiosity about Mongolia was aroused by amazing stories and photos from her aunt who went on a 10-day horseback riding and camping trip across the Mongolian steppe. She said, “Fifi turned me on to the derby on social media. We've followed it on Instagram every year since she first stumbled upon it. Majority of the competitors are women.”

Bob Long, 71, won the 2019 derby and set a new record for fastest race. Perez got curious and gave the application process a shot. She recalled, “The reasons came after when I realized ‘Sh_t, what have I done?’ because my application passed. The expenses to join are massive. There’s no cash prize. The prizes are bragging rights.”

The derby offers “intangible rewards. You push yourself to the limit. You meet new people and situations. You ride across a foreign land and briefly brush the daily lives of the locals. Best of all, you’ll always have a horse with you. Who needs a cash prize at the end of all that?”

She continued, “The work I’ve been doing with the pony boys has been rewarding. I’ve never felt healthier in my entire life. I’ve never felt so warmly welcomed by a community of people as I have been with the pony boys. People take their livelihood for granted as a tourist attraction. When other people say ‘horseback riding,’ what comes to mind are fancy box stalls in a neat row with hay bedding, hired grooms to feed and care for the horses, nice tack and equipment, trailers for transport and maybe even a pedigreed horse that can do show jumping or dressage. That’s not what pony boys do. They are up at five a.m. every day, their hands soaked in incredibly cold water because they personally stir the feed for their own horses, bathe the horses, sometimes even medicate and treat the horses and still find it in them to treat customers with a smile and good service, on top of providing for their families with an income that barely meets minimum wage.”

Solana Perez and her horse

At the derby “each rider has their own special story about their lives with horses. I’m no exception. After training with the pony boys, one realization that I hold dear is that I’'m no longer joining the derby in a desperate bid to fix my mental health issues—this is a notion that I perpetuated somewhat. I'm joining as the pony boys' representative. They've taken great care of me during my training. I couldn't ask for better coaches. I'm going to be giving the derby my best for them.”

As for the Mongolian terrain, “The course changes every year and is designed to take you mostly across the steppe so there are rolling grasslands and hills riddled with marmot holes that can trip your horse. There are rocky and mountainous portions, bogs and river crossings. There might even be some brief dips into desert portions.”

For her training, Perez teamed up with horsewoman Gina Damian and her husband who own and operate the Kabadjo Horse Handlers Association in Camp John Hay. Perez rotates rides with three horses for a total of about six hours a day. During the derby she has to be in the saddle about 12-14 hours a day so her training is not enough.

She continued, “The biggest challenge in training physically for me is that I’m underweight. I can't train as hard as I'd like to because the danger there is that I’ll lose weight too quickly and become malnourished. This is because I have adrenal issues which I'm working on with the help of my doctors. It's also one of the underlying physiological causes for my mental health issues. The two are closely related.”

The derby requires mental preparation. She said about her bipolar disorder, “I’ve put a lot of work into my mental health over the past five years that has involved many doctors and sessions with a brilliant therapist who helped me develop mental exercises and fail-safe systems in my mind. The training involves mindfulness, not the kind that involves sitting in meditation for long hours but the kind that has to be up and running for as long as I am. For example, as I’m responding to an email, part of my mind is taking notes that sound something like ‘I’m writing an email. I'm constructing a sentence. This is simple. I’m doing fine.’”

She maintains this level of awareness so her mind doesn’t become overactive from overthinking which can lead to anxiety attacks, which, when unresolved, run her down into long periods of fatigue and depression.

In a TV documentary on her, she disclosed how close she was to losing her life, but horseback riding helped her recover from her suicide attempt.

She recalled that low point in her life: “I dropped out of the University of the Philippines Baguio and was trying to complete a vocational course in dress-making. I was stressed and undergoing my hormonal treatment to alleviate my mental illness. It wasn't working well. I attempted suicide and was brought to the hospital by my grandfather. My family and a group of incredibly talented and considerate doctors saved me. The work that I did with my therapist in the months that followed was what started me on my path to recovering from this experience. One of the things that my therapist and I concluded was that part of avoiding further suicidal episodes was returning to Baguio and returning to activities that I loved. Horseback riding was a given.”

Her family is helping manage her crowd-funding. Perez has never been employed or active socially on any level (she never joined orgs in college). Her family connected her to a wider audience, getting friends to listen and pass on Perez’s story.

She said, “That’s the biggest reason I’ve made it through more than half of the installments for the entrance fee on crowd-funding. My family is reaching out to friends and friends’ friends and so on until I meet the right people willing to donate and contribute to my endeavor. I haven’t had any pressure from them about finding a job, they’ve been a hundred percent understanding that the derby is something that I have to do and concentrate on. They understand that it’s opening more doors for me than any other path I’ve chosen.”

Perez is sourcing funds for her training and journey through this site: https://gogetfunding.com/first-filipina-in-the-worlds-longest-horse-race-the-mongol-derby/?fbclid=IwAR09_UOXPJBoHypINdNdxOpFNe2cBtxv9JslsGdEsUQhjpc0fvA-FtXZ10Q or email svaryen.sol.perez@gmail.com for details.

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