Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race



"Taking off on a horse into the Mongolian Steppe sounds like the bracing inverse to an overpopulated, busy urban life, but having the skills and grit to pull it off is another thing entirely. . . . Lara Prior-Palmer attempted the Mongol Derby not really knowing what she was getting into; she ended it knowing much more about herself, and a race champion besides." ―Estelle Tang, Elle

At the age of nineteen, Lara Prior-Palmer discovered a website devoted to "the world's longest, toughest horse race"―an annual competition of endurance and skill that involves dozens of riders racing a series of twenty-five wild ponies across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland. On a whim, she decided to enter the race. As she boarded a plane to East Asia, she was utterly unprepared for what awaited her.

Riders often spend years preparing to compete in the Mongol Derby, a course that re-creates the horse messenger system developed by Genghis Khan. Many fail to finish. Prior-Palmer had no formal training. She was driven by her own restlessness, stubbornness, and a lifelong love of horses. She raced for ten days through extreme heat and terrifying storms, catching a few hours of sleep where she could at the homes of nomadic families. Battling bouts of illness and dehydration, exhaustion and bruising falls, she decided she had nothing to lose. Each dawn she rode out again on a fresh horse, scrambling up mountains, swimming through rivers, crossing woodlands and wetlands, arid dunes and open steppe, as American television crews chased her in their jeeps.

Told with terrific suspense and style, in a voice full of poetry and soul, Rough Magic captures the extraordinary story of one young woman who forged ahead, against all odds, to become the first female winner of this breathtaking race.

"Think the next Educated or Wild. Palmer's memoir of beating the odds to become a horse champion is an inspiring saga of perseverance--and a classic underdog tale." --Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

$16.95  $15.59
Publish Date
April 28, 2020
5.5 X 0.9 X 8.2 inches | 0.65 pounds

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About the Author

Lara Prior-Palmer was born in London in 1994. She studied conceptual history and Persian at Stanford University. In 2013, she competed in the 1,000-kilometer Mongol Derby in Mongolia, sometimes described as the world's toughest and longest horse race, and became the first woman to win the race, and the youngest person ever to finish. Rough Magic is her first book.


Praise for Rough Magic

National Bestseller

Winner of the Steppes Travel Adventure Travel Book of the Year Award

An American Booksellers Association Indie Next Pick

A BuzzFeed Book Club Pick

A Real Simple Best Book of the Year

One of Esquire's Best Nonfiction Books of the Year

An Official Junior Library Guild Selection

Special Jury Mention in the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition Awards

Electric Literature, 1 of the 15 Best Nonfiction Books of the Year

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Fall 2019 Selection

"If you like your memoirs to revolve around singular experiences, Lara Prior-Palmer's Rough Magic delivers." --John Williams, The New York Times

"An inspirational tale of struggle--dehydration, injury and isolation--ultimately overcome through grit and sheer willpower." --Thomas Gebremedhin, Wall Street Journal Magazine

"This is no fresh-forged mythic hero, but rather a young woman who's still doubting, still equivocating about her right to seek greatness . . . To her credit, the heroine of this story never claims to be flawless, nor even to be a heroine. Ultimately, the book lingers in the mind partly for its fearless prose and partly for its refusal to obey that tired old victorious arc of the journey narrative. Prior-Palmer both embraces the race and disavows it. She pulls back to observe the minutiae of the moment, the marmot holes that riddle the steppe and the infinite, individual blades of grass that paint it green. She offers no easy morals on these dual modes of life and of narrative . . . As Prior-Palmer senses on her journey, reconciling the wisdom of the everyday with the instinct for timelessness and mythmaking is a life's work--work to which Rough Magic is an engaging guide." --Ellie Robbins, The Washington Post

"Excellent prose and rigorous honesty . . . An unusual pleasure to read . . . Prior-Palmer writes with a dash and boldness few writers possess; her language seems sui generis . . . Her narrative alchemy is remarkable; in every chapter, she turns boredom to suspense and back again. The Derby is at once heart-stoppingly close and a miserable slog to which we already know the ending. That shifting--heroism to comedy, glamour to stinking holes in the ground--creates a tension far more interesting than the question of who's going to win the race, or how." --Lily Meyer, NPR

"Her book about the iconic horse race blends humor with a sense of enchantment and wildness . . . Join her for the race of a lifetime." --Jen Rose Smith, Condé Nast Traveler

"Think the next Educated or Wild. Palmer's memoir of beating the odds to become a horse champion is an inspiring saga of perseverance--and a classic underdog tale." --Entertainment Weekly

"In this sensual, spiritual memoir, Prior-Palmer recounts her grueling journey through immense physical hardship, and her surprising transformation from underdog to champion." --Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire

"The author's writing is joyful. She has a quick, dry wit . . . As she writes, her thinking about life and relationships shines through . . . Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race is an honest book and readers are privileged to witness the author maturing as the pages turn. This is Prior-Palmer's first book. I hope it is not her last." --Joan Kletzker, The Missourian

"The author's prose is poetic, and while the race and Mongolian landscape are conjured beautifully and intensely, the book's emotional impact lies in the nuanced portrait of its subject searching for answers beyond the life she's lived so far." --David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

"What unfolds, Cheryl Strayed-like, is her thrilling gallop to the finish line." --O, The Oprah Magazine

"In her stylish, thrilling memoir, Rough Magic, Prior-Palmer charts the grueling physical and mental race and shows how she embraced her ambition to become the first female winner." --Elizabeth Sile, Real Simple

"Rough Magic succeeds on its realness and Prior-Palmer's unsparing analysis of herself and the scene . . . Even in the down moments, when one of her ponies is temporarily injured and she's struggling, the fast-paced book is lyrical and full of tight, action-packed sentences. It reads like it came bursting out of her." --Heather Hansman, Outside

"An instant classic memoir . . . With whip-smart sass and achingly beautiful observations on life, Prior-Palmer easily breaks us in as she canters across the wild verdant steppes of Mongolia, where the vastness is matched only by the author's unbridled spirit of adventure. We're reminded that despite battling bone-deep fatigue in sweat-soaked clothes, we too have what it takes to stay upright--no matter how many times we may get knocked down." --Lauren Matison, Shape

"An astonishing and hair-raising memoir that you, too, will race to finish." --Newsweek

"Taking off on a horse into the Mongolian Steppe sounds like the bracing inverse to an overpopulated, busy urban life, but having the skills and grit to pull it off is another thing entirely. Lara Prior-Palmer attempted the Mongol Derby not really knowing what she was getting into; she ended it knowing much more about herself, and a race champion besides." --Estelle Tang, Elle

"It feels so tired to call a book inspiring, but that's exactly what Rough Magic is . . . Thanks to Lara's uncanny ability to make the reader feel like they're in this race with her, you'll be captivated from start to finish--and find yourself missing the book when it's over." --Mehera Bonner, Cosmopolitan

"This riveting memoir recounts the author's extraordinary experience completing--and becoming the first woman to win and the youngest person to finish--the world's longest horse race." --Caroline Rogers, Southern Living

"Forthcoming, perceptive and humorous . . . Prior-Palmer's account of her race across the Mongolian steppe is consistently joyful. It reminds us that joy can encompass chronic stomach pain, jammed thumbs, soaked jodhpurs, lost maps, angry boys throwing stones and the brutal tedium of 1000 kilometers on horseback . . . Her gleeful words alone are worth the ride." --Morgan Hunter Thomas, Ms.

"Charming, self-aware, and mercifully devoid of clichés, it's just the sort of breezy travel memoir we've been looking for." --Lale Arikoglu, Condé Nast Traveler

"First-time author Prior-Palmer transforms from hopeless 19-year-old underdog into surprising champion of the grueling 2013 Mongol Derby in this exhilarating, visceral account of her attempt to win a 1,000-kilometer horse race across the Mongolian countryside . . . Filled with soulful self-reflection and race detail, this fast-paced page-turner is a thrill ride from start to finish." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[A] stunning debut memoir. . . . [Prior-Palmer's] tale could be pulled from the pages of a Hollywood script, with its sweeping, scenic descriptions of the Mongolian steppe and the allies and fierce competitors who emerge among the unique cast of characters . . . Rough Magic is a true page-turner, told in gorgeous, descriptive prose that readers will tear through like the ponies racing across the plain." --Becky Libourel Diamond, BookPage (starred review)

"Regardless of her ability as a storyteller, Lara Prior-Palmer would have always had an incredible story to tell: as the youngest person to finish--not to mention the first woman to win--'the world's longest, toughest horse race, ' the ten-day Mongol Derby, hers would be a memorable memoir no matter what. Luckily for us, Prior-Palmer turned out to have a voice almost as unique as the race she won, which is organized based on the messenger system used by Genghis Khan, in which Mongol horses are ridden across the forbidding Mongolian steppe in arduous relays. At once humble and humorous, Prior-Palmer benefits--as both writer and rider--from not quite grasping the enormity of her aspirations, and pulls off a victory (and story) for the ages." --Jonny Diamond, Literary Hub, 1 of Our 50 Favorite Books of the Year

"Page by page, Prior-Palmer tunes us in, slows us down to her speed, to pony paces, and we begin to attend to the present moment just as she does . . . At every turn, Prior-Palmer's writing is brilliant and clear-eyed and demonstrates more wisdom than any philosopher's theories . . . Presenting such an awe-inspiring page-turning narrative that plumbs the depths of all that's to be found in the present moment--the body, mind, and soul--while dissembling one's own ego with tender rigor is Rough Magic's finest achievement. Lara Prior-Palmer is a writer to watch." --Abby Travis, San Francisco Chronicle

"A gripping, self-searching, triumphant debut memoir . . . The winning vulnerability on display . . . throughout this exceptional coming-of-age tale keeps the pages turning and the reader rooting for this unlikely heroine . . . A breathtaking ride." --Kathleen Rooney, Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Rough Magic doesn't just describe one triumph: it constitutes another, and in a whole new territory." --Mekiya Walters, The Arkansas International

"We are all lucky she did write it, because it's the rare read that offers what Rough Magic does: a type of pure exhilaration, the kind that snakes through your body in moments both still and hurried. Reading it is a visceral, sensorially charged experience; a, yes, rough and magical ride through one of the planet's most desolate landscapes, and into the mind of a young woman whose fearlessness and curiosity take her--and us--to countless unexpected places." --Kristin Iversen, NYLON

"Absolutely riveting." --BuzzFeed

"[Prior-Palmer's] gorgeous, sensual depiction of this race is a literary marvel; it feels like you are riding alongside her across the desolate steppes; her verbal acuity makes vivid the most elusive of landscapes; her triumph becomes ours." --Kristin Iversen, NYLON

"Forthright and exhilarating . . . A frank and delightful blend of extreme sports and travel writing." --Erin Keane, Salon

"Rough Magic is [Prior-Palmer's] chronicle of the experience, and if her debut as an author is half as strong as her maiden effort in racing, it will be well worth the read." --Travis Waldron, HuffPost

"Prior-Palmer may be a gifted equestrian, but also she's a born writer . . . The journey, told through Prior-Palmer's voice, would've been interesting even without the satisfaction of victory." --Elena Nicolaou, Refinery29

"Rough Magic is Prior-Palmer's wry, no-holds-barred account of how she went from finding herself at the starting line of the 1,000-kilometer Mongol Derby with zero training and zero business riding in the race to becoming the youngest person and first woman to ever win . . . Her self-awareness and refusal to take herself too seriously will have you galloping through this batshit crazy romp of hardship and hilarity." --Allison McNearney, The Daily Beast

"[A] stirring new memoir . . . Many, many readers are going to be charmed by Rough Magic, whether they can tack up a horse or not, and rightly so. The setting is exotic. The challenge is extreme. The protagonist is winsome and imperfect . . . The magnitude of what she ultimately achieves 'stun[s] her into writing, ' but it's not healing that Prior-Palmer seeks, or even liberation. It's the 'world in the raw, ' something many of us have learned to crave." --Alyson Hagy, Literary Hub

"From the opening pages of Rough Magic, readers understand they are entering the mind of a unique personality . . . Prior-Palmer describes the Mongol Derby as 'a perfect hodgepodge of Snakes and Ladders and the Tour de France on unknown bicycles.' As a former horseback rider with and adventurous streak (who also happens to appreciate the Tour de France), I was predisposed to enjoy this book. But it was turns of phrases like that, I quickly realized--surprising, playful, unexpected--that were going to make me love it." --Halimah Marcus, Electric Literature

"An awesome (like literally awesome) memoir of how Prior-Palmer became the youngest person to finish, not to mention the first woman to win 'the world's longest, toughest horse race.' That would be the ten-day Mongol Derby, which is organized based on the messenger system used by Genghis Khan. So, no big deal or anything." --Emily Temple, Literary Hub