Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Horsewoman rides 600 miles in Mongolia

Orange County Register

photo: Kathy Swigart of Orange Park Acres gets ready to take her horse Windy for a ride. Swigert was chosen to compete in the 2010 Mongol Derby last August. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

There are times when we take a deep breath, leap over the precipice that marks the end of our comfort zone and discover we can fly.

In many respects, Kat Swigart embodies the bold men and women who built Orange County astride thousand-pound animals that could carry them from San Clemente to La Habra in a single day.

In short, Swigart is a self-described horse person.

But you might call her a horse whisperer. She doesn't just ride, teach riding and care for horses. This woman who chucked her MBA and a Wall Street career tackles the tough horse stuff too.

She transforms untamed beasts into animals that stand stock still when you tighten a saddle beneath their belly and climb aboard.

But as talented a horse whisperer as Swigart is, nothing prepared her for looking out the plane window at the vast steppe below and seeing for the first time the quest on which she was about to embark.

Riding 600 miles, on horse, across Mongolia.


Swigart and I ride through Santiago Oaks Regional Park. I'm on a big boy named Jackson, a powerful animal with the loyal disposition of the Lone Ranger's horse, Silver.

Swigart is working. She rides one of her four horses, a frisky pony named Windy. As she rides, she clutches a short green rope tethered to a larger horse that she is exercising for its busy owner.

This means Swigart is riding with one hand – a significant thing considering what happens next.

We break into a trot. Then a canter. Soon, we're going about 15 mph, slow in a car but not so slow when you are seated five feet above the ground bouncing along over hilly terrain.

"You only have as much control as the horse lets you have," Swigart reminds me. "The horse is in control."

Like, I get that.

I resist reaching for a leather strap at the front of the English saddle. But I grab it with my left hand and hold the reins in my right, doing my best to avoid bouncing down on Jackson's up or up on Jackson's down.

Swigart canters with the grace of a dancer. Horse and human move in harmony. It's the kind of moment when someone is so good at what they do, you think, "Hey, that's easy."

And it is – when you've chosen to live your passion.


The connection between horses and Orange County goes back half a millennium, to the Spanish conquistadores. It continued through the rancho and ranch periods when men with names such as Jose Yorba and, later, James Irvine hired cowboys to run huge herds of cattle.

How many horses today in Orange County? Swigart estimates at least 5,000.

For some, horse people are difficult to fathom. But, fortunately, Swigart, of Fullerton, is as adept with analogies as she is with riding.

If you're a dog or cat person, you share a similar gene with horse people. If you're a motorcycle-loving dog person you're even closer to being a horse person.

Part of the appeal for many is the majesty and power of the animal, Swigart explains. Imagine something so strong it can easily carry its 1,000-pound weight – plus a human adult and saddle. Now imagine that something bounding uphill with you on top.

Exciting? You bet.

Jackson waits at the bottom of a steep rocky trail. Swigart and horses move up. With a twitch and a nod, Jackson signals he's ready. With a little more give on the reins, so do I. Jackson surges.

Massive shoulder and haunch muscles click into action. The pure power is something I've not felt since climbing on a Harley. And this is bigger. Much bigger.

But the real magic of riding is the bond with a living, breathing mammal. Riding is a partnership; you may be smarter, but the horse is stronger.

Swigart started riding bareback as a kid on neighbors' horses. She was 25 when she bought her first horse, her current stallion's father. He was untrained, "unbroken" in horse-speak.

Soon, Swigart discovered she had a gift for breaking horses. And it reached deeper into her soul than corporate finance. These days, she cares for up to 10 horses a day and averages 30 hours a week in the saddle.

She's had her nose broken and her feet stomped. She's been pushed against walls; bitten, flipped.

But that's nothing compared to what happened in Mongolia, where riding is more than a livelihood — it's a way of life.


As the plane drops out of the clouds, Swigart sees nothing but grassland and a few dirt roads.

"That's what I'm going to be riding across," she tells herself. "Boy, that is a big empty place."

And she's right. Mongolia, which shares a border with northern China, is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Mongolia has 100,000 fewer people than Orange County, but they are spread out over about 600 times more land.

Swigart has signed up for something called the Mongol Derby. It is an endurance race over nine days that requires riders to navigate their way from yurt to yurt over land they've never seen – with endless plains and few distinct markings.

They will ride a breed of horses that has changed little since the days of Genghis Khan.

And the horse whisperers for such beasts? Mongolian nomads, who are considered some of the finest riders on the planet.

Swigart, however, was a Boy Scouts of America Explorer, (yes, Scouts!), and has ridden 100-mile endurance races that meant 22 hours in the saddle. She knows her way around a GPS unit.

Her stirrup leathers break after a few days. She fixes it. A horse falls, her with it. Her metal water bottle is crushed. But her helmet saves her skull. A fellow rider gets lost overnight. But Swigart stays on course, her spirit in flight.

"There's nothing better than galloping across an open field," she tells me.

She doesn't win, but she doesn't come in last either. When you hurl yourself over the precipice in Mongolia, finish times don't matter.

The only thing that matters is discovering you can fly.

On a horse with wings.

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