Invited to Bhutan to Start the ONLY Horse Riding Program

Some countries still believe horse riding is for MEN. An advocate for women’s empowerment, Krystal is determined to continue to bring education and her love of horses to young girls worldwide. 

Five Bhutanese mountain ponies ridden by Krystal and the soon to be trail guides

I’ll never forget when I was invited to the country of Bhutan in order to introduce the very first equestrian program in the entire country that wasn’t affiliated with the royal military. I was both ecstatic and bewildered with the amount of responsibility and good fortune that landed in my lap. I hadn’t known what to expect when I took the assignment. I had assumed that after two years living in India I was just about ready for anything… how wrong I was!

Krystal and two horses relax during a riding break in Bhutan

Horse riding in this small, landlocked country was not a familiar sport or hobby. Only the military were known to ride horses. The small local Himalayan Mountain Ponies were merely used to carry heavy supplies up the mountain side. The herders would chase the ponies carrying the large packs with long sticks while the sure-footed creatures carefully made their way up steep, rocky slopes and crossing shallow rivers while treading lightly on the wet stones, careful not to slip and careen down the dangerous path.

Krystal and her horse Firefly at the top of the Febila pass in Bhutan
Bhutan Horse Riding Adventure and Equestrian Holiday

After two weeks of intensive training to the staff about everything horses, I was thankful for a much needed break. Although the Bhutanese men were extremely friendly and polite, I was looking forward to some girly time. Luckily, one of the daughters of the owner of the homestay I was living in offered to take me out. The girl wrapped garlands of silk around my waist in the traditional style dress and we set off on foot towards the nearest temple only a couple miles away. Girly talk ensued the entire round trip and I was fascinated by this young girl, who had been raised with such foreign customs to my own. I hadn’t known, in my past life back in America, that working with horses would give me the opportunity to have amazing encounters with people much like the one I was experiencing in this moment and I felt grateful for it.

The riders on their Bhutanese mountain ponies are passing a group of children
People in Bhutan aren’t used to seeing horses being ridden! The children were so excited!

The girl smiled brightly as she admired me in the traditional dress. My blonde hairs and green eyes contrasted to her features as she looked up at me. My long legs caused me to tower over her like an awkward Amazonian. “Krystal,” she said to me thoughtfully, “I really think it’s amazing what you do for a living.” I pursed my lips in confusion but before I could say anything she continued, “You know, I didn’t even know that it was possible for girls to ride horses.” The words hit me like a kick to the chest. “But now, thanks to you, I know it can be done! And the idea that you can make money for something like that?! Riding horses!?” She laughed in disbelief. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.”

This wasn’t the first time I had been confronted with the notion that “horses are for men.” Nearly three years living in Asia and two years in the Middle East had taught me that I was a woman living in a man’s world. I had been matched against countless Retired Military Generals and men shouting at me in various languages. I had dusted myself off after being launched from my horse and slammed into wooden jumps only to spring back into the saddle and try again without a tear shed to prevent the men from thinking me as “weak.” I had survived men making the assumption that the only possible reason for me being in their country was because “she’s here with her husband,” only to disappoint them. I had been tested, tried, sexually harassed, embarrassed, and tormented all in masochistic attempt at “proving myself.”

A group of Riders on Bhutanese mountain ponies in front of a temple

In all my efforts and all my hidden tears, I had spent countless nights wondering if any of my hard work was actually accounting to anything. What good am I doing? I used to think. I’m not making any difference…

“Krystal,” the girl had said, “I didn’t know it was possible until I saw you.” And then I realized how much of a difference I was making. My realization didn’t stop there. Girls from countless cities and remote villages where I continued to spread my love of horses continued to approach me and thank me. They thanked me for showing them it can be done. They thanked me for showing the men it could be done too, and that it wasn’t “a man’s sport,” as they had previously believed. Then I realized that the men too would approach me and shyly ask me questions. They wondered how a woman with much less physical strength and force and power than a man could control a wild beast of a horse without brute force or a whip. They asked me why the horses were listening to me when they couldn’t even see me ask the question.

Two riders arguing about directions during horse riding in Bhutan

Maybe empowering women and girls in other countries doesn’t just mean teaching English or volunteering at a charity. Maybe it means doing what you love, travelling solo and showing to the world that it CAN BE DONE. That women can go out and do daring things and be bold and beautiful and independent. Maybe the more women that go out and travel and do what they love the more we will inspire other women to do the same thing. And the more women we motivate to follow their own path, the more stereotypes and stigmas we will break and the impossible will suddenly be possible. I am lucky that horses exist around the world. It is because of horses I have gone to places and cities and faraway lands that as a little girl I could never have imagined possible. Horses have brought me together with people and women in all cultures and languages and beliefs and I am forever grateful to these noble animals for giving me the world. Now go out and break down the barriers, climb the mountains, scale the walls, and go the distance! In 2019, I am returning to Bhutan with 8 persons! Find out more about the Bhuran Horse Riding Adventure 2019!

Riders are crossing a bridge behind a couple of prayer flags while horse riding in Bhutan

Working in India with Horses

Riding Marwari horses while working in India
Marwari Horse

Back in 2012, I was dying to go to India. I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to go somewhere unique and see a culture and place that was so far and different from America that it could only belong to a mystical land. And no other country is as different than California than INDIA!

Although I couldn’t Google Search any horse riding stables, I trusted my gut and booked a one way ticket to this incredible country. I was a solo 22 year old blonde girl. I had read awful things online about women travelling solo, but hell I had survived living in Egypt at this point so I figured I could handle it…

After living in India for two years I can say, “veni, vedi, vechi.” I came. I saw. I conquered. Although I didn’t make a dent in the grand scheme of things, in the horse community I am proud to say I spent my time wisely. I traveled everywhere in India, North to South all with various stables and start up riding clubs throughout the country. Word spread like fire that there was an American girl that was a professional horse trainer and I was booked back to back with offers.

Stay Safe While Traveling Solo

krystal kelly FEI II coach in punjab india training and coaching students
Training my students in Punjab.

 

I worked as a consultant and manager, starting up several riding clubs and I actively tried to get women to ride horses. Not only that, but I tried to change the mentality of the men that worked for me. They had a preconceived notion based on their culture that horse riding was a sport for men and many of them were not happy to find out that their new boss was a girl! I had to fight to convince the men and retired military colonels that not only was horseback riding a sport for both men and women, but that often times women did it even better! After all, horse riding is the only sport in the Olympics where men and women compete EQUALLY and my pursuit of my big goals as an elite show jumping rider strove to prove that.

I trained hundreds of students while in India, most men or young boys, and they all grew to respect me and were inspired to work with horses in a way they had never realized possible. They followed my FEI curriculum and teachings, they groomed horses to high standards and I even helped to design riding clubs to have proper arenas and facilities to host competitions and start their very own International riding club!

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Tuk-Tuks and traffic don’t bother us!

I had no money in my pocket when I first flew to India and I had many ups and downs but through will and determination I survived living in India for TWO YEARS! I hope that this inspires others to pursue their passions, no matter how big or scary their goals may seem and to keep following their heart! You never know where it may take you!

Listen to my podcast about India on the Travel Tales Podcast

How Polo Found Me in Egypt

I was working at a Show Jumping Stables in 2015 in Cairo, Egypt for the second time when I got drafted by a fellow American Expat to come and watch a local polo match. Little did I know, that the owner of the polo club would have a pony ready and waiting for me to try. He had heard that I was a professional rider and was eager to watch me attempt to hit a ball with a stick on the back of a horse.

After attempting my best for about 20 minutes I was grinning ear to ear! I was addicted! Polo was very different than my love for Show Jumping and shortly after I ended up switching to the Polo Club where I stayed for One Year. I coached new polo players and trained under a 7 Goaler from South Africa where I dedicated myself to the Sport of Kings. Polo Ponies are amazing! They drive like a Ferrari and I enjoyed my time playing polo so much that even after I left Egypt I continued to seek out polo clubs and join in on the fun!

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Get the hat: Utopiat

I have now played polo in the USA, Indonesia, England and Egypt to name a few! I hope to continue to play (just for fun!) and have already trained several young and green horses into becoming low goal polo ponies. It’s amazing how versitile these horses are and I look forward to connecting to my fellow polo community! If you are a polo patron or player and would like to contact me, please drop me a message. I would be more than happy to represent a member of your team throughout the world and am also currently organizing polo trips around the world to help promote female riders in male dominated countries!

*Let’s Connect! Message me if your interested in having me join your team abroad or are looking to form a woman’s team in a crazy country!  (Always Happy to Show these Boys how it’s done!)

Completing the Mongol Derby, 1000 km on Horseback!

Semi-Wild Mongolian Horses, the Empty steppes…and me.

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Photo Credit: Richard Dunwoody

“Khorton muur un mara bon.”

I look the Mongolian man directly in his eyes as the words escape my lips. The only words I could speak in Mongolian translated to: “Give me your fastest horse please.” The hardened man’s eyebrows lifted out of both curiosity and respect. He sized me up, as if assessing which of the line of 40-summod horses would be most suitable for me.

Standing at 5’8 and with natural blonde hair and green eyes, I stood out to say the least. Not to mention the fact that I was a woman. And I was solo…

In Mongolian herder’s eyes, horse riding is a man’s sport. Funny, considering you often witness small children of both sexes galloping bareback atop these ferocious animals backs during the Nadaam horse races. I was not unfamiliar with the mentality of the Mongolian men standing before me.

After all, I had spent the past four years living in male dominated countries with horses—all of which had similar experiences with the local men. But if being in charge of a stable full of 70 horses while managing Indian and Egyptian grooms during my international work abroad taught me one thing it was this: Act like a man, talk like a lady.

By looking him in the eyes while addressing him in his mother tongue, I was given respect.

He motioned for one of the younger men to grab the horse he had chosen for me and I watched as three of them struggled to throw the saddle and bridle on. The horse leapt and jumped in the air, as if it had never seen a saddle before.

I was used to this sight and spent my last few moments of stable Earth checking the GPS coordinates. I flung myself onto the horses back and before I could get both feet in the stirrups the horse launched into a full-blown gallop.

The power behind his stride was enough to cause tears in my eyes from the force of the wind, even with my ray bans. I let the reins dangle loose as the horse raced through the steppes.

I knew it was marmot territory and that one wrong foot could end my riding career—or life—forever but something inside me told me to trust the thundering hooves beneath me. He knew the land better than I ever could, I rationalized.

The horse tore through the valley before ascending a mountain.

I smiled as the speed of the horse beneath me reached a hidden 6th gear. I was astounded by the force of this incredible creature. It hadn’t looked like anything special when the herder brought him to me, but the grin from his face and shine in his eyes told me that this horse was indeed special.

40 kilometers to the next horse station with no brakes and wonky-steering made for a spectacular ride. I was floating on the clouds as I reached the next horse station.

The vet began through the procedure of checking the horses pulse and I was astounded again to find out that although this mighty pony had spent the past two and a half hours galloping full speed, he wasn’t even breathing heavily. I passed the vet check and approached the next line of horses.

I found the man in charge, the herder keeping a curious gaze on me as I made a bee line towards him.

“Khorton muur un mara bon,” I eyed him directly. The man sized me up, letting a coy grin escape the corner of his mouth as he pointed towards my next mount.

At this point you might be asking yourself, “What is the Mongol Derby?”

To that I would say, it is the “World’s Longest and Toughest Horse Race” according to the Genesis Book of World Records. This 1,000-kilometer horse race takes you through the Steppes of Mongolia on over 30 semi-wild Mongolian ponies. You have between 8-10 days to finish this brutal race (though only half the people who enter typically finish) and you win…nothing.

That’s right. The winner only gets respect. And the entry fee is enough to make you gag. (About 10,000 GBP.)

“Who would be crazy enough to do something like this?!” You ask.

Mostly skilled equestrians from all disciplines compete. The Mongol Derby is very strict and selective about who can participate and riding experience is necessary. That having been said, it has happened now and again that someone trained for a year or more JUST to participate. Some of which may even have finished…

“Is it really all that tough?”

The Mongol Derby is downright extreme. It takes someone with a serious pleasure for pain to consider participating. I personally am a professional show jumping rider and FEI II Coach and I’ve worked with horses in over 13 countries.

“Did you finish?”

Yes, I finished on Day Ten without any assistance from the crew. I finished with a total of 1,128 Kilometers under my belt (I got lost a few times.)

If after reading this, your still hooked on signing up, here are my Top Ten Survival Tips for the Mongol Derby:

1 – Learn a little bit of Mongolian. Even just to say hello or to be able to ask for the fastest horse paid off!

2 – If you’re a woman, never sleep in a Ger camp with only men. These are bachelor Gers and if there are no women present, ride on to the next Ger. Also look for Gers with families and be sure the men don’t drink too much in your presence.

3 – Most derby riders lose before the race begins. They over-psyche themselves or don’t prepare mentally or physically for the challenge. This is NO PICNIC. You must train any way you can.

4 – A lot of riders drop out due to food poisoning or stomach / digestion issues. Living on the local traditional airag and fatty soup might not be your cup of tea, but its all your have access to for 10 or so days. Eating street food in India for two years allowed me to develop the ability to digest steel. I never got food sickness while there. Now, dining in India may be unrealistic if you live in America, but it doesn’t hurt to start eating from local street vendors and checking the yellow pages for the lowest rated places to dine nearby!

5 – If you don’t find joy and pleasure in challenging yourself to the physical and mental limits, you may want to reconsider the Mongol derby

6 – Having a piece of paper that’s been translated into Mongolia—for example: Hello, My name is Krystal. I am competing in a horse race. May I stay here tonight? It is a great way to break the ice when you wander into some family’s home.

7 – Don’t be afraid to make friends and team up! Only one person can win the derby, but plenty can finish! In my opinion, finishing is winning. Better to make everlasting friendships to help you through the shit-bits than to nearly kill yourself for a fifth-place finish

8 – It will suck. Period. But at least you will have some awesome stories to tell afterwards! Stay positive and keep your focus towards the horizon…no matter how bad it gets!

9 – Never refuse a sip of the local airag, but if you can’t handle the taste or just don’t want to get drunk, pretend to take a sip. They won’t notice the difference. Politely decline the 2nd or 3rd offer but always take a “sip” of the first round.

10 – Follow your gut instincts! Maps and logic won’t be of any use to you on the steppes. Throw it out the window and trust that inner voice inside you.

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In 2014, Krystal completed the “World’s Longest and Toughest Horse Race,” the Mongol Derby where she rode over 1000 kilometers on semi-wild Mongolian horses! Photo Credit: Richard Dunwoody

I can’t say I am not a competitive person, heck I’m a professional Show Jumping Rider and Coach!!! Of COURSE I am competitive! But when it came to the Mongol Derby, to finish is to WIN. (Let’s face it the winner only get’s bragging rights and two days less riding time…) I didn’t want to win, so much as I wanted to FINISH. I was hungry to conquer this Derby. I wanted to prove myself and do it on my own, blonde girl style! 

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Finishing after 10 grueling days with my new best friend, a show jumping rider from France. Photo Credit: Richard Dunwoody

I had been living in Egypt, India, Romania and remote places so I knew I could digest steel and the local Mongolian “Airag” (Fermented Mares Milk) and cuisine wouldn’t be a challenge for me. But being a woman in this male dominated country WOULD BE. So I was smart.

For me, this race was originally meant to be a solo trip. A true test of survival skills, horsemanship and strength as I braced myself to tackle the steppes with nothing more than me, myself and a half-crazy horse. The first two days of the adventure, I did exactly that. I hardly had time to eat as I worked like a machine, riding one horse to the next and galloping wildly from sun up until sundown until my body would collapse in the evening from exhaustion.

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The fastest horse I rode in the Derby! Listen to his story on my podcasts page!

And then something inside me changed… I had a revelation. A gut instinct. A feeling within. Hadn’t I already been working and living abroad solo for nearly half of a decade? Hadn’t I already proved my skills and solo prowess while living alone in India, Egypt, Bhutan and more? The answer was yes.

Around day three I teamed up with my new best friend from France and we ended up riding the grueling race to the end. We finished together on day ten after 1,128 kilometers in the saddle. No showers. No beds. And string after string of crazy Mongolian Ponies! But we did it! [Read the full article-Why I Stopped Being a Solo Traveler During the Mongol Derby-published on Pink Pangea]

So, if your thinking about tackling the Derby, be sure to get in touch with me or check out my podcast below where I was featured on WHOA! Podcast. I share lots of stories which you can listen to on my podcasts page. Listen in and ENJOY! 

*Krystal is still active in the Endurance community and has a new goal in sight. She plans to CROSS AND ENTIRE COUNTRY on horseback!!! Be sure to check back regularly on her adventure and if you would like to invite her to ride at an endurance ride hosted by your facility or to hire her as a Mongol Derby coach in preparation to your big ride, don’t be shy!*

Gypsy Gold, Werewolves, Dracula and Me. My Time Working in Romania as a Trail Guide

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Here I am on the white horse, leading my trail group through a typical Romanian village.

Back in 2012, after my job in Cairo, Egypt came to an end I had ZERO money to afford the costly flight back to the United States. So I did the next best thing! I bought a flight to visit a friend from Romania, whom I had met whilst working in Belgium back in 2010. She happily invited me to stay with her and her family in her home in Transylvania and I got on the next flight. I had little money in my pocket, and probably should have been job hunting instead of exploring a random country, but hey I was young and in my twenties, single and had the world at my disposal! A job could wait! Or so I thought…

Horse Riding lessons in Romania

I was in Romania for a grand total of TWO DAYS before my friend was invited to help out at a local riding stables due to an overflow of tourists coming in for a visit from nearby Germany. The stable was in desperate need of help with the horses and customers and she convinced them to bring me along and stay with them in exchange to work for my keep for the weekend. Sure enough, once there I was quizzed by the owner of the stables and without realizing it, I had been interviewed for a new job! He hired me at once, to start pronto! I wasn’t even looking for work! I was on VACATION! I protested. 

Riding horses and working in Romania
Fun leading my group through a Romanian village

I fell in love with the country of Romania and ended up staying twice for six months in two different locations. In my time in Romania I saw many Gypsies and heard the stories of Dracula. I also learned that Transylvanian people eat way too much Garlic! (Seriously.)

I wandered up and down the countryside atop beautiful horses because unlike America where I grew up, there were no fences to keep me in and no mountain too high or river too wide! I visited castles, I learned some of the language and had a jolly great time! I will forever be grateful for being “drafted” into staying in Romania to work even though I was on Holiday! I even got to work on set for a Hollywood movie during Halloween and had to dress up like a man in a mustache! (Long story!) 

Werewolf film set Romania
Werewolf film set Romania

My best advice to you is to BOOK THE TICKET and GET ON THE PLANE! You never know what wonderful country and adventure life has in store for you, even if you didn’t plan on it!