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'It's about doing the hard things': Dunlap woman returns from horseback race with new perspective

Laurie Kaplan on a horse during the Gaucho Derby, the snow tipped Andes of South America visible just over her shoulders.
Kathy Gabriel
Laurie Kaplan is shown on a horse during the Gaucho Derby, the snow-tipped Andes of South America visible in the background.

A Dunlap woman is back home in Illinois, after taking part in one of the world’s most grueling endurance horseback races on a different continent.

Laurie Kaplan set off from the Gaucho Derby’s Patagonia base camp in February. The 10-day, 500 kilometer race includes camping overnight, switching horses and maintaining their health, and trail finding through a wide variety of biomes.

“Everything from high desert to desert with strange scrubby bushes. Cliffs with shale and loose pebbles, bogs, green bogs and rock bogs,” said Kaplan as she pets one of her dogs in the barn of her rural Dunlap farm. “The first day we were galloping in an ancient lake bed that had no water in it anymore. The Andes were on our right, just galloping, seeing the snow covered Andes. And that went on for days to be able to do that. I was just pinching myself. It was amazing.”

Kaplan said there was a strong sense of camaraderie among the 40 riders from all around the globe. Some were more competitive, while others were in it for the experience. She describes the field of equestrians as funny and kind.

“We all pushed, we all got pushed, we all got triggered,” Kaplan said. “But to come back around and really support each other at the end, no matter if you finished or you didn’t. It was an exceptional group of people.”

Part of the challenge is switching horses throughout the race. Kaplan describes all the horses she rode as “lovely and sweet,” even if they were a little slow.

“My first horse I called ‘Little Tank,’” she said. “And then the last horse was Spirit, because he looked just like the one from the movie.”

The biggest challenge of the race, Kaplan said, was breaking down camp and getting back on the trail in the morning.

“It didn’t matter how early you got up. It still always took two hours,” she said. “You had to graze the horses, water the horses. Fold up your tent, fold up your gear, put your gear on the horse, get saddled, eat something, hopefully, maybe wash your face a little bit, sort of brush your teeth. Then decide what to wear because it was hot, cold and windy all at the same time.”

After nine days, five different horses and about 420 kilometers, Kaplan had to exit the race. During a checkpoint, where veterinarians monitor the health of the horses, Kaplan said she was suddenly taken down by heat exhaustion.

“It’s incredibly dangerous,” she said. “Heatstroke will kill the fittest people in a matter of hours. So, the medics came and said ‘You’re done. You can’t ride on.’”

Kaplan said the final stretch of the leg was among the most challenging, and with no medic access except by horseback, they couldn’t allow her to continue on.

Despite what others might take as a disappointing conclusion, Kaplan said she got everything she hoped for and more out of the massive undertaking. For work, Kaplan is an epigenetics coach, asking others to make changes in their lives. So, part of her motivation to participate in the race was a desire to get out of her own comfort zone.

“I still did the majority of it,” Kaplan said. “I was there. I went through all the ups and downs all at once. And I was beating up on myself for a little bit: ‘what could I have done differently? Did I make a wrong choice? A bad decision?’ And then I let go of that after a while.”

Iif she ever gets the opportunity, she would absolutely attempt the Gaucho again.

“It’s about doing the hard things. And we’re all so conditioned to want to be comfortable and lay on the couch and not get up and push because it’s easy, when in fact it keeps us small,” she said. “We’re, again I say this, we’re here on earth for such a short time. Make the most of it.”

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.