Shortly after moving to Hartsville in 2008 to accept a position as a psychology instructor at the local liberal arts college, Julia Fisher realized something was missing from her life. She had raised two children, earned her Ph.D., spent nearly two decades in corporate marketing and communications, and dedicated another 15 years and counting to academia. “You define yourself as a mom for 20 years, and then when they go away you think, ‘Who am I?’ It really becomes a matter of self-discovery,” she says.
Her process of self-discovery resulted in a fast and furious introduction to endurance riding, an equestrian sport in which riders traverse distances of 50 miles or more on horseback over varying terrains, altitudes, and weather conditions. It was, by all means, a niche hobby to pick up at age 58, but she welcomed the challenge. “I felt like, ‘Why not?’” she says.
Less than a year after picking up the sport, she completed her first endurance ride. “I’d never really done any kind of demanding physical sport, and I learned over the first year or two what that means. People think horseback riding is ‘just sitting there’ while the horse does all the work. The horses are undoubtedly the athletes in this sport, but you need to be fit enough to get out of their way and let them do their thing.”
In 2017, she ponied up for the big leagues: specifically, the Mongol Derby on the Mongolian Steppes, where she and roughly 40 other riders mounted up for a grueling 10-day expedition across mountains, rivers, sand, and grasslands. It was the adventure of a lifetime, but for Julia, it ended abruptly with a fall prior to crossing the finish line.
As a result of being thrown from her horse — an experience that is all too familiar for Derby riders atop what the event’s organizers describe as “semi-wild horses” — Julia suffered a mild concussion, a shattered rib, and utter disappointment. “We had a big clunky GPS and our water bottles at all times because if you got dumped and the horse ran off, you needed to have your water and GPS. I had my GPS in a pack on my midriff, and that’s what broke my rib when I fell off.”
Julia completed the Blue Wolf Totem Expedition this past year, giving new meaning to the word “endurance.” Eighteen riders, 17 crew members, and 52 horses set out on an 84-day journey spanning 2,250 miles, anchored by natural landmarks and both cultural and religious sites. While it offered significantly more cushion and less competition than the Mongol Derby, Julia estimates that, on average, she and her fellow riders logged between 8 to 12 hours per day on horseback. “Every single morning, you get up, get breakfast, get your gear, get on the horse. Our job was to ride.”
This expedition was a combination of challenges — riding into lightning storms and navigating social relationships with perfect strangers as well as an opportunity for equestrian adrenaline junkies to marry adventure with philanthropy. All riders participated in a group fundraising effort to support the Children of the Peak Sanctuary project, which benefits Mongolian children. “The project offers a glorious opportunity for these kids that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Julia says with a smile. And it certainly is an incredible opportunity for her as well as she returns to Mongolia in June to ride the 10th anniversary of the Veloo Foundation’s Gobi Gallop 2023.