Brenda Johnson and the Gaucho Derby
Beyond the borders of nations and across the sands of time, horses have captured human attention. Be it for utility, transportation, food, or companionship, horses are intrinsically tied to the human experience; a bridge to nature that many people cross. For Brenda Johnson, horses are her first memory, safe harbor, and wilderness companion. They are also path to overcoming adversity, and to a better understanding of herself. Horses are her everything.
Brenda grew up in rural southeastern Minnesota, in a bucolic lake town where hobby farms dot the landscape and kids learn the basics of animal husbandry by taking care of their horses. Brenda was one of those “horse kids,” as she calls them—always riding and learning, becoming a lay-veterinarian through experience alone. No matter where life took her, Brenda always found a way to ride.
Her Minnesota childhood also frequently drew her deep into the woods, hiking, camping, and hunting with her father. When she was 13, she began joining her family at Deer Camp each hunting season in the place where her great-grandfather had been hunting since childhood—a slice of oak forest in northern Minnesota with bog swamps, logged patches of land, and spruce thickets. While it was a challenging place to hunt, Brenda was naturally proficient with her great-grandfather’s 7-30 Waters lever-action rifle and a sturdy fixed-blade hunting knife.
“Last fall, I skinned an entire elk with a three-inch blade, all from my experience doing it as kid with a deer,” she laughs.
Brenda eventually combined her outdoor survival skills with her preference for solitude into a do-what-you-love lifestyle in a small town in northeastern Oregon. Living and working on a ranch with nine horses, five mules, a donkey, one dog, and five cats, Brenda got by as a farrier, a vet assistant, a ranch hand, and a backcountry guide.
Photos By: MaryAnn Tervo, Shannon Power
“I'm a survivor.”
Unfortunately, four years after moving to Oregon, Brenda’s happy life was violently shattered by an abusive ex-boyfriend.
“Support for domestic violence victims is near and dear to my heart, because I’m a survivor,” Brenda says as she describes her newest mission to help survivors of domestic abuse and their pets. “My ex had come over to get his stuff, he was moving out when he attacked me.”
He strangled Brenda, but she was able to break free and escape. She ran out the front door, jumped in her truck, and drove straight to her neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1. While she was gone, her ex set her house on fire, killing her pets and destroying everything she owned.
For four long years, Brenda worked hard to come to terms with the trauma of what happened, before she had a lightbulb moment that changed the trajectory of her life.
In 2019, she read a story about a 70-year-old man who won The Mongol Derby, the longest and toughest horse race in the world. Brenda was inspired and knew immediately that she wanted to do the same, but the steep entry fee made her feel it would be impossible.
“The whole time I was with my abuser I was under the impression I couldn’t do something until I could do it all,” Brenda explains. “Like I couldn’t buy a horse trailer until I had every dollar saved.” She didn’t want to live that way anymore—so she didn’t.
“I don’t have to have all my ducks in a row to try something.”
“One random day,” as Brenda puts it, she decided to just go for it. She applied and was eventually offered entry into The Gaucho Derby 2022, a 10-day, 311-mile race of endurance, horsemanship, and outdoor survival skill across the dangerous and formidable terrain of Patagonia, Argentina. The entry fee was $14,500 with an additional $1,000 mandatory donation to an organization of the participant’s choosing. Brenda’s first challenge was already upon her.
Brenda picked up extra work and started fundraising to meet the financial requirements within the two-year timeframe. With the help of family, friends, and even strangers in the community, Brenda not only raised the entry fee, she was also able to donate $1,000 to Shotzy Sanctuary, which aids survivors of domestic abuse and their animals, plus an additional $500 to her local Safe Harbors chapter. She also secured from her sponsors all the gear required for the cold-weather endurance race. She met and surpassed her goal.
“The Gaucho Derby became a human experience, and I didn’t expect that. I expected to be alone in nature with horse on terrain,” Brenda says. “The riders were helping each other out, getting through crazy situations together, terrible weather, getting lost, injuries... There were 17 countries represented by the riders, but it was all community in the end. It was beautiful.”
Photo By: Sarah Farnsworth Photography
Two black eyes and a broken nose later, Brenda finished the race. “I learned so much about myself. I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was, but I was prepared enough to do it and I wanted to prove to myself that I don’t have to have all my ducks in a row to try something,” says Brenda. “The Derby opened up all these opportunities that I never would have dreamed possible, and now the sky is the limit. I can do anything I want. I just have to make it happen.”
Today, months after her purple racoon eyes have faded, now just part of a compelling campfire story told over a cold beer, Brenda continues to raise money for local nonprofits, helping survivors of domestic abuse and their pets, be they equine, canine, or feline.
Support and follow Brenda's Adventure here.