Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Andrea Maitland and Lilly - 2018

Obligatory Race Report!

The Tevis Cup, 2018

Now that I’ve been back home for a few days, work is back under control, and I have had a few nights of good sleep behind me…time for a recap! Tevis needs no introduction really – it’s in a league all its own, was the first endurance ride I’d ever heard of, and was the ride that got me interested in riding a horse for long distances over challenging terrain. It is the granddaddy of endurance - the Boston Marathon, the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, and the Tour de France of our sport. To say it’s iconic is an understatement of significant magnitude.

So back in 2014, when I first started training for the sport with my trusty mustang Lilly, it was with Tevis in mind. And then I did my first 30-mile race, thought I was going to die, and wondered what insanity had possessed me to even consider riding longer than that? The insanity passed quickly (or perhaps intensified), because soon I was riding 50-mile distance, then 75 miles, and was training for a 100. Lilly and I got our first 100-mile completion earlier this year, and with that last hurdle covered, set our eyes on the last Saturday in July – Tevis! I even convinced fellow Zonie MJ to come with me (it didn’t take much convincing), and we spent the next several weeks getting our crews organized, a logistics plan laid out, and conversed with as many Tevis riders as we could to get some insight into the trail and strategy on how to ride it. One does not simply show up and ‘ride’ Tevis!

Tuesday, Travel Day 1 – first leg was to Barstow, to a simple but very pleasant Horse Motel about half-way between here and Auburn. Of course, we left on the hottest day of the year, 117 degrees in the shade. Ugh. To mitigate some of the nastiness, we left around 5 PM so that at least there would be some respite when the sun went down. Barstow was still over 100 degrees even in the middle of the night but 1) it was a dry heat (that’s a joke) and 2) the Horse Motel had electrical hookups, so I got to run the LQ’s AC all night without pulling out the generator. Of course, ‘all night’ meant 4 hours, as we only wanted to rest for a few hours before hitting the road early to beat the heat again as we traveled the rest of the way.

Wednesday, Travel Day 2 – we made it to the Auburn Fairgrounds, the ‘finish line’ of the race, only to find out that our designated horse camping area had inadvertently been leased out to another group, so whoops! – no where to park the horses. Fortunately, there were still 2 open stalls in one of the barns, so we dropped a check to reserve them for the weekend. Whew! Tevis Gremlins #1 averted! We had a lovely “Official Tevis” BBQ dinner on the fairgrounds that night, and I got to catch up with my 20 Mule Team 100 partner Lucy (who is about as knowledgeable as they come about Tevis, and was an IMMENSE source of information and encouragement). If you had a chance to check out the Tevis live cast throughout the weekend and heard a lovely voice with an English accent – that’s my girl Lucy. She’s in a league by herself for sure!

Thursday, Pre-Ride and Robie Park – we took a quick pre-ride to cover the last few miles of trail in the morning, before heading up to the starting line camp, Robie Equestrian Park, 100+ miles away. It was on this portion of the journey that Tevis Gremlins #2 struck, in the form of a massive trailer tire blowout that took half my fender with it :( MJ and her husband circled back to transfer Lilly to their trailer while I waited for US Rider to get a driver out to assist, and angel-in-disguise Stacy (one of MJ’s crew) stayed with me to keep me company. 3+ hours later the fender was cut away, the spare slapped on, and we were back in business! On to Robie! It was there that I met up with Crew #1, Christina, who would be staying with me for the start and then doing all of the rig-moving on Saturday.

Friday, Ride Meetings, Horse Vetting, Crew Prepping, and Bear Sightings – Friday was a whirlwind of activity – there wasn’t enough time in the day it seemed for what we wanted to do! Crew #2 (Rianne and Pam, collectively known as RIPA) showed up, and we spent some time getting their SUV loaded up with all the gear they were going to need for the first one-hour hold vet check (Robinson Flat, 36 miles in). Tevis is an exercise in logistics, being a point-to-point ride. In my case, RIPA was spending the night in Auburn and going directly to Robinson’s, which meant that everything I needed (or MIGHT need), needed to go with them before they left Robie, so it would be waiting for me at the first check. Everything else would stay with the trailer and go with Christina, who would drop the trailer at the second one-hour hold vet check (Forest Hill) before meeting me at an intermediary check during the canyon section of the ride. But more on that later – suffice to say that it was quite stressful going through the multiple checklists to ensure that I got all my gear split correctly between my crew!

In-between gear prep, I also attended a First-Time Rider Meeting, where an experienced Tevis Rider gave us additional tips about how to ride the trail (and where we had our first sighting of the Camp Bear, who waddled in from the meadow like he owned the place - which I imagine he did), and meandered his way through the trees and into the camp area. Robie Park is huge though, so he quickly disappeared out of sight…for a bit anyway. I got checked in, Lilly got vetted in, my crew attended the official Crew Meeting, we all went to the main Rider Meeting (which was when the Camp Bear stole a grain baggie before being chased away by RIPA, who left the meeting early to get on the road back to Auburn), ate a nice dinner, and tried to get some sleep for the Big Day!

Saturday, Tevis!

3 AM came quite quickly, though I didn’t get much sleep the night before. I went to bed reasonably early, but the Camp Bear decided to visit some of our neighbors at about 130 in the morning, and I was unable to go back to sleep after that. Christina got Lilly prepared, I got myself prepped, and at 430 I swung my leg over and walked out of camp to the start. The official starting line is a couple of miles away, but that works in our favor as the horses get a nice walking warm up before the insanity begins. I was a little worried about the start, mostly because my sometimes-grumpy mare takes great offense to having strange horses crowd her (she sometimes takes great offense to even her closest equine friends crowding her), but she was the perfect angel even when there was some bustling and jostling around while we waited for the magical 515 start time.

And we were off!

With about 150 horses all starting at the same time, it’s a little challenging to ‘ride your own ride’ for the first few miles – the herd takes off, you settle into wherever you start, and that’s the pace you ride at until the trail opens up a few miles in at the base of the long climb up Squaw Valley to Emigrant Pass. It was a brisk ride to the base of the climb, but then we settled down and took it slow up to the top – every Tevis mentor I had spoken to had reiterated the same thing – do NOT blast up the long Squaw climb, even though the footing is great and your horse feels fresh. A lot of horses who catapult up the mountain end up on fluids at Robinson’s or pulled later for being too tired. We took our time, walking the inclines and only trotting when we got to the flatter areas. As a result, the horses felt great at the top, and we continued through the Granite Chief wilderness area.

I think this was my favorite part of the ride. Despite the smoky air, the views were breathtaking, the terrain technical and challenging, but we made decent time as we travelled, navigating the imbedded boulders obscured by the ubiquitous dust, sloshing through boggy wet areas (not too much in the way of bogs, given how dry it’s been this year), and rock-hopping over rocky sections.

About 20 miles in when got to the famous Cougar Rock, and my intention had always been 
to go up and over (assuming there wasn’t a line of horses in front of us). There wasn’t, so I pointed Lilly to the Rock and away we went. The secret to getting over this giant somewhat vertical outcropping is to keep the horse moving forward (not a problem with go-go-go Lilly), head straight up to start (again, not a problem), then turn to the RIGHT and follow the last section up and over. Lilly missed the memo on going RIGHT, and pilot-error on my part, I didn’t have a tight enough hold on the right rein to keep her pointed in the correct direction. So, mustang started to go LEFT, which is a one-way ticket to no-where-good/good thing I have air-vac insurance, so I hauled her to a stop and tried to get her turned around. She did, but only so far as to face DOWN the direction from where we just came from. HEAVY SIGH. Cougar Rock is scarier looking down than up! I decided that trying to go up the Rock was not meant to be this year, so carefully navigated back down (which mostly meant holding on for dear life and hoping the pony didn’t stumble) and took the bypass. Next time I’ll have my sh*t together and we’ll make it up and over!

Our first vet check was a few miles later, at Red Star Ridge. It is just a ‘gate and go’, which means as soon as the horse passes the vet check we can hit the trail again. We were able to get vetted in pretty quick, Lilly scarfed down some water/alfalfa in a bucket (her favorite treat out on the trail, and great combination as it gets both fluids and food into their belly at the same time). Just a few short miles later and we pulled into Robinson Flat about 1130, our second vet check and the first mandatory 1-hour hold period, at the 36-mile mark.

My wonderful, amazing crew of RIPA met me on the road and got to work untacking Lilly and sponging her off to get her cool and to pulse criteria. It was already warming up – the cool morning air had been left hours behind us. Lilly pulsed down quickly, and we vetted in at the same time as both Ashley Wingert and MJ, who we had been riding with off and on throughout the morning. Once vetted we went back to the lovely crewing area set up for us, and while I relaxed and ate some real food, Rianne and Pam took care of Lilly and me respectively. I changed into my ‘cooling gear’ clothes for the next section – the hot, humid, and dreaded canyons – and our hour was up just like that.

Unfortunately, I was destined to ride the rest of the trail alone. Despite vetting in at the same time, I think my scribe did the math wrong, as my ‘out time’ was 5 minutes behind MJ and Ashley. Drat! MJ headed out first, and it turns out that Ashley ended up pulling at Robinson’s due to her horse not doing as well as he should. I wasn’t worried about riding alone, as there are always people out there on the trail with you in different sections, and Lilly is fine with forging her own trail. So off we went!

Out of Robinson’s and it’s a bit of an overall downhill trek to the next water stop (Dusty 
Corners, which lives up to its name because the dust was everywhere), then past Pucker Point at mile 48. I shared a video of Pucker Point on a previous post, and honestly it’s not that bad. I wouldn’t have even known that this was the infamous landmark had the riding buddy I picked up after Robinson’s not pointed it out :) Then it was on to Last Chance, another vet check and gate-and-go, and the literal last chance to reconsider your decision of setting foot into the canyons. I didn’t reconsider, and off we went!

Canyon #1 – the longest, steepest, and most perilous of the bunch. A lot of riders hop off and walk/jog down to the bottom to be efficient and save their horses for the climb out, but my body doesn’t allow me to be that lucky. Lilly has to cart my arthritic ass everywhere, but she’s such a good downhill horse that we didn’t lose any time going down the steep switchbacks. I just needed to hold on and stay balanced, and she wound her way down the narrow trails until they spit us out at the Swinging Bridge. Once across (and yes it does swing a bit), we encountered the one and only snarky rider on the whole journey. Before crossing the Swinging Bridge riders can take a short trail down to the river to cool off in the water directly. When I crossed, there were probably 15 horses down there and I could already hear people yelling about something – too much drama for me, and I had already planned on stopping just past the Bridge where a natural water source bubbled out of the rocks by the trail about 1/8 mile up. A few other riders also had that idea, so there was a short line of horses on the single-track waiting their chance to get a drink prior to making the brutal climb out. The rider who crossed the bridge after me had come from the river, where apparently one of her horses (being ridden by a catch rider) was stung by some bees, and in a panic to get away scraped up his leg on the rocks. She was bound and determined to get out of the canyon as soon as possible to tend to her horse, and was understandably upset. She was yelling at everyone to keep moving and not stop so she could get out, nearly ran into Lilly in her desire to get past (and got a fairly serious double-barrel kick backwards from that bad decision – Lilly wore red ribbons on both ends to warn others to not crowd her – fortunately I don’t think Lilly connected, but the rider began yelling all over again). When it was Lilly’s turn to drink, I let her do so, for as long as she wanted. The rider began yelling again, ordering me to keep moving so she could get out of the canyon. Ummm…no. I politely, but firmly told her that I was going to let my horse drink, and when there was room on the trail I would be happy to let her pass…but my horse was going to get hydrated first. She didn’t press me after that, and about 30 seconds later we were on our way. I was able to pull over on one of the switchbacks not much farther up, and the two horses and riders were out of my hair finally. I did hear additional yelling for most of the climb, as the trail didn’t allow much passing and there was a LONG line of horses trudging up at the same time. I hope the horse ended up being okay – from what I could see the wounds seemed mostly superficial, and I know it was a scary thing to be at the bottom of the toughest canyon with an injured horse.

First and last drama behind us, we made our way out of that b*tch of a canyon. We weren’t fast, but fairly steady. Lilly is a better downhill horse, but is a decent climber if not overly fast. It did seem to go on forever, and just when I thought the end was in sight, there were more switchbacks. But finally it ended, whew! We spent a few minutes at the top in Devil’s Thumb, which was a water check/aid station, in order to slosh Lilly with water to cool her out. The volunteers were super helpful all day, and Lilly met a couple of her ‘Facebook fans’ who were volunteering and recognized our neon green colors!

After Devil’s Thumb it was just a mile to Deadwood, another official vet check and gate-and-go before descending into the next canyon. Lilly passed with flying colors, I dunked myself in more ice water and had my water refilled, and off we went. The second canyon wasn’t as bad as the first, but it was still rocky, steep, and long. And hot. I heard that the temps in the canyons reached 115, and I could really feel the humidity in the air. But onwards and upwards we trudged. It spit us out at Michigan Bluff, another water stop/aid station, and a busy and bustling whirlwind of activity. I spent a few minutes getting Lilly cool, and once again the volunteers were so helpful in holding her while I used the porta-potty and got my waters refilled. I did do a good job of staying hydrated all day, as I peed at almost every check :)

I was definitely feeling the heat at this point though, and the first signs of ‘uh-oh’ were on the horizon. I dunked myself in ice water again, and made my way 1.5 miles away to the next vet check, Chicken Hawk (i.e., Pieper Junction). My wonderful crew Christina was waiting for me there (along with MJ’s crew Stacy, as they had driven together). We got Lilly vetted in – she still looked really good – while I sat on a park bench and rested for a few minutes while Lilly ate. I was definitely starting to feel it then – I wasn’t (yet) nauseous, but I’ve been heat-sick enough times to know when my core body temp has been exposed to too much for too long. But, I had one more canyon to go, the sun was starting to go down and it was a *little* cooler, and I hoped that the upcoming one-hour hold at Forest Hill 4 miles away would be enough to perk me up and see me through to the end.

So off we went! We were totally alone at this point, with riders still coming in behind me but no one really in front of me. Lilly was not impressed at being pulled away from her delicious snack to once again forge on into another canyon, and though she walked out at a decent clip, she really didn’t want to do more than that. And I really didn’t have the energy to kick-kick-kick her into maintaining a trot, though we did manage some trotting going down into the 3rd canyon, whose descent was not that steep. It was fairly steep coming out though, so we walked the rest of the way into Forest Hill.

I have never been as happy to see my crew as I was at that point! I was beat, dizzy, and probably partially delirious. Lilly looked great, no surprise there! Rianne got her vetted in and she passed with flying colors – we didn’t even cool her off, as we were pushing the extended cut-off time as it was, and just walked up to the vet area and pulsed her through. Good pony!

I was carted (literally) back to my LQ – another luxury of Forest Hill, our trailers can make the journey – with Pam clearing a path with the “I got this, I’m a doctor” – don’t leave home without at least 2 doctors as part of your crew! I stumbled into bed with water and some electrolytes, and my medical staff conferred with me regarding what was going to happen next. They were willing to duct tape me to the saddle and send me out into the night, but in the end I decided to take the Rider Option. Had I not been pushing cut-off times and had the opportunity to walk the majority of the way to the finish, I may have been able to do it. But as it was, I was going to have to hustle every step of the way to not get pulled for overtime, was still dizzy and a little nauseous at this point, and I had some tough trails ahead of me. If I was going to get pulled, it was better to do it where I could easily be hauled out, as opposed to one of the more remote checks where I would potentially be waiting until morning (without any LQ creature comforts). Creature comforts won the day, and I was done.

Christina had joined us by then, so my three crew got everything packed up, Lilly loaded, and me piled into the back seat of the truck so I could lay down for the trip back to Auburn. I don’t remember much, other than Christina doing a stellar job at navigating the windy and narrow roads in the middle of the night without missing a beat. She got Lilly tucked into her stall, me tucked back into bed, and then kept semi-watch on both of us until morning. As anticipated, I did end up driving the porcelain bus in the middle of the night, but felt so much better after – I joked that in the future just make me puke immediately!

Even though I didn’t make it to the finish, Lilly looked fantastic and I have no doubt that she would have been strong enough to complete had I not been the weak link. And I was proud of two of my friends who also completed this year – MJ and Tammy. And, as a super bonus – 2 mustangs finished in the Top Ten, and one of them, MM Cody, won the prestigious Haggin Cup, awarded to the horse in the best condition at the end of the ride. It’s the first time that a mustang has won this title, and I was thrilled to be there to see it!

We hit the road Monday and overnighted at the Horse Motel in Barstow, then Tuesday I made my way to Prescott Valley so Lilly could do her post-ride resting at Julia’s, and hang out with Wyatt. She showed up at Julia’s ranch in raging heat, and has been tormenting the geldings since.

Next up, I’ll be taking both mustangs to Virgin Outlaw XP at the end of September. I had been thinking of going to the Virginia City 100, but that’s another 2 day haul each way and after the Tevis journey, I’d like to stick with something a little easier and closer to home for the next outing.

Next year I’m planning to be back at Tevis – a plan has been percolating about how to successfully complete this bad boy – I won’t say more than that as the plan is still in its infancy and things could change, but I know that Tevis hasn’t seen the last of me and Lilly quite yet!

And I have to give a final shout-out to my crew: Christina, Pam, and Rianne. They were absolutely fantastic all weekend, and made everything so much easier from start to (almost) finish. We had a wild and crazy adventure together, and I couldn’t have asked for nicer gals to share it with! And to honorary crew Stacy, who stayed with me for the whole tire blowout fiasco, went to the local tire store the next day to pick up my spare, helped me at Chicken Hawk, and was ready to pitch in and assist with whatever I needed all weekend. You’re a star!

2018 Ride Stats

Wyatt “On Vacation” Earp, 9/10 165 LD Miles, 150 Endurance Miles
Liliana “The Horse is Fine but they Pulled the Rider” Vess, 7/8 135 LD Miles, 150 Endurance Miles

Happy Trails!

Andrea, Wyatt, and Lilly

Susan Garlinghouse DVM and John Henry (TWH) - 2012

This year’s Tevis is just over a month away and I find myself wishing I was ready to be lining up again for another try at those mountains and perhaps another buckle. Bruce Weary has posted his story about how, after numerous attempts, he eventually earned his Tevis buckle with the help of a stubborn, heavily muscled Tennessee Walker named John Henry, a horse who typifies the concept of Atypical Endurance Horse.
In the interest of perhaps inspiring others to give grabbing for the brass ring a try, I thought some might be interested in my continuing the story of how John Henry helped me also earn my first Tevis buckle. He has since been my partner in earning a total of three buckles in a row, plus one for another rider in 2016. Five Tevis completions ties John for the record of Tevis buckles by a gaited horse, a record that has stood for over forty years. I think we just might need to go bag that record before we are done, but here’s the story of our first Tevis journey together. It’s long, so I’ll break it up into several chapters as I write them, and if it’s not of interest, then just scroll on past.
I began having trouble with my knees some years ago and in 2010, Bruce invited me to come to Arizona to ride John Henry in the Las Cienegas 50 and see what a gaited horse feels like. I did, had a great time and proved that even riders with many years of collective experience between us could get so caught up in swapping stories that we completely missed a turn that was all but marked with cheerleaders and a fire bell. We went an extra seven miles, finished mid pack anyway, and I was in love with this smart, tough, endlessly kind horse John Henry. I said thank you, goodbye and flew back home.
A year or so later, Bruce called me up and asked if I would be interested in owning John Henry. I joke about having compromising video of Bruce playing golf with Satan, thus blackmailing him into selling John to me, but the reality was that Bruce had accomplished his goal by finally earning that buckle. He was kind enough to think perhaps John and I were a better fit long term. I brought him home to my barn very soon thereafter.
During our first 2011 season together, John and I did 660 miles together, including several multidays of up to 250 miles in five consecutive days. Tevis was definitely in our sights, but I wanted to bring John into tiptop condition and make sure I knew him inside and out before we sent in our entry. I had only attempted Tevis once before in 1993, pulled at Robinson Flat and had not tried since—-both busy finishing my vet degree and more than a little intimidated by the mountains and canyons I’d seen firsthand but had yet to conquer.
2011 was the year that snowfall forced Tevis to be rescheduled to October instead of its usual summer start, and then caused the ride to be run backwards from Auburn from its traditional start in Robie Park. We planned to be there. Our last tune-up was to hopefully do all five days at the XP Paunsagaunt multiday, riding through the tough trails and hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, Utah. I had been working to really dial in both John’s and my nutrition, fitness and electrolyting regimen, using a portable blood analyzer to verify I had everything just right before and after our rides. I thought we were getting pretty close to optimum fitness for a horse that didn’t have the metabolic advantage of Arabian blood, and was built more like a truck than a race car..
John was more than willing to go at Bryce and he eagerly roared through like a freight train. He scored his first Fastest Overall Time for horses finishing all five days with fuel still left in the tank, ate and drank all day like it was his last meal, and was going faster on Day Five than he did on the days leading up to it.
I had learned not to try dictating what gait he chose—-our deal is that I attempt to suggest (sometimes to no avail) the speed and he chooses the gear, most of which I can’t even name. I tell people that all four legs go back and forth, but in no particular order. I’ve sometimes been offered well-meaning advice of how to train John Henry to hold a run-walk or rack more consistently, but my conclusion had been If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It. As long as it was efficient, comfortable and got us down the road at a good clip, that was fine by me. This wasn’t a show ring we were aiming for, it was one of the meanest courses on the planet, and style doesn’t count.
At this point, John could cruise all day at 10 mph with a heart rate of 130 bpm and jog into the vet checks already at pulse criteria without having actually stopped yet. His strange gaits allow him to fly down hills without concussion on the forehand, which would help us at Tevis. I planned to tail him up the canyons and was working out five days a week to get myself fit enough to do so.
However, one of John’s few weak links is that his odd way of going means he is difficult to fit a saddle to over 250 miles. A week after our return from the Utah ride, I found a dry, scabby patch of skin that, when scrubbed up, was hiding a significant friction rub underneath. He’d never shown a sign of a problem during the ride (I always check every night and morning), but here it was a week later, and just a month before Tevis’ October 8th start.
Although the lesion healed well, I didn’t trust that his current saddle wouldn’t cause more problems over a 100-mile course. I wasn’t going to try a new saddle out on any race day, and certainly not at Tevis. I decided it would be safer to wait until 2012 rather than risk hurting this good horse.
About this same time, a friend and fellow endurance rider Gesa Brinks was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She also had yet to earn a Tevis buckle, and although she was sick and weak, she attempted a last try that year. She only managed about ten miles before turning back, and passed away four months later.
Gesa and I talked about our Tevis dreams and the the regrets we’d had about opportunities we had let go by. The great Julie Suhr had sent one of her own 22 buckles to her during the last stages of her illness, something to hold onto and inspire her to keep fighting. Knowing the end was not far off, I asked Gesa if she would want her ashes spread along the Western States trail when I attempted it with John Henry. She said yes please, and our mutual friend, ride photographer Lynne Glazer, was put in charge of keeping her remains safe until ride day.
A month after Gesa’s death, I was packing to attend the Cuyama Oaks three-day ride, where we hoped to do well and continue prepping for Tevis. I received a call from my doctor—-I too had been diagnosed with an invasive form of breast cancer and the oncologist was recommending a bilateral radical mastectomy as quickly as possible. Surgery was scheduled for a week later, but I decided to go to Cuyama and attempt all three days, anyway. I didn’t know what the next few months would bring and I didn’t want to let this opportunity pass me by.
John Henry loves the Cuyama course and he was on fire all weekend. After Top Tenning the first two days and winning Best Condition the second day, I wondered if perhaps we should call it good and head for home. I had a lot to do to prepare for my upcoming surgery and it had rained all night, meaning the trails would be slick in places. John had worked hard for me but was eating and drinking well, his legs were tight and cool, and he had dragged me all over camp that evening during his after-dinner walk. I decided to trust him to call the shot the morning of the third day and tell me if we started again or not.
As I stepped from the RV in the early morning, John turned to look at me and nickered, as he always does—-the boy knows and likes his job and he’s a talker. I saddled him up and then held out his headstall to him, waiting to see if he would turn away. Instead, he stepped away from his breakfast and pushed his nose into the bridle, grabbing for the bit. I took that as, “Let’s go, Mom” and we went.
We won the ride that day (no, my competition didn’t know about my diagnosis, we had to work for it), won our second BC of the weekend, as well as Fastest Overall Time and Overall Best Condition. Two days later, I delivered John Henry to his Assistant Mom and very good friend, Julie Herrera, who would keep him ridden and doted upon while I recovered. Three days later, I checked into the hospital...
It was now April of 2012, and several weeks had gone by while I recovered from a difficult surgery. I was home from the hospital, had spent several weeks mostly sleeping with the help of heavy painkillers and was just starting to get up and around a little more. There was still more surgery and other treatment ahead, but I wanted to get back in the saddle, hoping John Henry and I could get back on track headed for Tevis that summer of 2012.
My good friend Julie Herrera had been riding John Henry for me, and he had benefitted from a break from competing, getting stronger and putting some weight back on. My master’s thesis data had been collected at Tevis measuring the effect of relative thinness to completion rates in 100-mile horses and I knew Himself would perform better if he toed up to the starting line carrying good cover, neither too fat or too thin.
I was also mindful of the advice of many successful Tevis finishers, including Julie Suhr, who had warned it’s better to show up with a horse in good weight and only moderately fit, than one who was overtrained, tired and thin.
John Henry was rested, in good weight and feeling full of himself, but now I was by far the weakest link in our chain. With dire warnings from my surgeon to wear a body protector so as not to undo all his work, I was back in the saddle for careful training rides a month after surgery. While I wouldn’t have tried this with just any horse, I’ve often said that John Henry is always exactly the horse you need him to be on any given day. He sniffed me over very carefully and refrained from bashing me with his suitcase-sized head as he usually does by way of friendly greeting. As pig-headed and exasperating as he can be when he knows all is right with the world, he walked with me like he was carrying eggs for those first few tentative rides while I was still recovering.
My doctors were rolling their eyes at me, but gave me a grudging go-ahead to enter a ride, as long as I rode bandaged, with a body protector, and didn’t try running, especially on the downhills. Nine weeks after surgery, we went to Descanso 50, a hot, rocky and technical ride often used by Pacific Southwest riders as a last tune-up before Tevis.
John can be a freight train, especially early in the ride, but he carried me like he was a kid’s lesson horse all day long. As expected, it was hot and difficult, but we finished mid-pack. John looked great, but I was utterly drained, nauseated and miserable with pain. I could barely lift my arms the next day, a far cry from previously being ready to go out again day after day.
We had done what we came to do that day, but the real take-home message was that I wasn’t in the physical condition I needed to be to tackle Tevis. I had promised John Henry that when we started, I would do my part to help him out, especially in those blazing hot, steep canyons. I wasn’t going to be able to do that and so, once again, I decided this wasn’t going to be the year for us. Instead, I scheduled the second of three surgeries I ultimately needed, and sent John Henry off with Julie to have a good time riding in the Sierras at the Eastern High Sierra Classic.
The next fall, I was feeling stronger and took John through a careful 50 miles at Manzanita, making sure I was fully recovered after my second surgery. I felt good afterwards, so three weeks later, we went to the Bill Thornburgh 50 to see what we could really do. John was up on his toes, wanting to go and I turned him loose.

When John is ‘on the hunt’, he will pick out the next horse on the horizon and steadily chase them down until they are behind him and gone, then start looking for the next—a habit he had picked up from his previous barn and conditioning buddy, Maximum Heat, who had finished in fourth place at Tevis in 2011 with Bruce’s wife, Dayna. We finished the Bill Thornburgh in 4th place and first Middleweight out of 30 starters in just over six hours, a very respectable pace of 11mph for a horse that looks more like a cow pony than endurance horse. Will we ever make an international team on our best day, nope. Will we ever win a really big race, nope. John Henry’s and my goals are about working with what we have, overcoming our own challenges, maintaining our partnership and the well-being of my horse. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Now finally back on track, I didn’t want to compete John too hard or too often, but needed to work on peaking him for the following summer. We did another 255 endurance miles together that spring, with an LD for good measure with his second mom Julie. At Julie’s suggestion, we added in swimming at a local thoroughbred facility, a good cardiovascular activity that didn’t add stress to his legs. Most racehorses in training will swim, at most, perhaps a dozen laps of the pool. John Henry still holds the “record” after swimming 68 laps on one occasion, and 50-60 laps on many other days, a distance of about 2 1/2 miles.
In addition, I started trailering him up into the mountains to a local ski resort for some training at altitude after the snows had melted. We didn’t do long miles, but clambered around the mountains and did short galloping wind sprints up the steep maintenance roads and ski trails, getting a lot of bang for our buck without excessive wear and tear. I’m guessing that John Henry is likely the only horse that has summited Mt. Harwood at 9600’, casually climbing up narrow single track called the Devil’s Backbone, usually only occupied by hikers and bears.
Finally, we added in heat training down in the valley. The weather was pleasant and much cooler than the 100-plus degrees we needed to be ready for in the canyons. I put a waterproof rain sheet on between the saddle and pad and we walked and jogged, with stops every ten minutes to check his temperature with a rectal thermometer. I aimed to raise his temp and maintain it at 103 degrees, but stopped and let him cool down when the temp reached 103.5, the point at which hyperthermia becomes potentially dangerous if it continues to climb. This strategy developed more neovascularization, the extensive network of surface capillaries that helps efficiently transport heat from the body’s core to the outer skin to be dissipated. Since John is built more heavily muscled than the average Arabian, handling the heat of Tevis could make or break our day. By the middle of June, John’s neck and shoulders were looking as veiny as any pumped-up Kentucky Derby runner.
Fair is fair, and I needed heat training, too. Every time I asked John to go jogging in his rain sheet, I rode in a heavy sweatshirt and jacket as well. Other riders on the trails would look at us as though we were crazy when we jogged past looking decidedly steamy.
John’s last tune-up was again Descanso 50, the same ride where I’d decided the year before that 2012 wasn’t going to be our year for a buckle. My partner in crime, Julie Herrera, had worked as hard as I had at getting John Henry ready, and she’d earned the right to ride him in the 50. They had a great day and finished in sixth place, just where John needed to be fitness-wise six weeks before Tevis. It was our green-light ride and we were good to go to make a try for a Tevis buckle.
Our entry was in the mail. From here forward, we would keep John tucked away in bubble wrap, resting, eating and getting ready for our trip north to the starting line at Robie Park.
It was August of 2013 and finally we were encamped at Robie Park, ready to take our best shot at Tevis. Three days prior, we had hauled up from 600 miles south, stopping often along the way for water and leg stretchers. John Henry travels with a big bucket of sloppy mash in front of him, and it’s always gone by the time we arrive—-another two gallons of water inside to the good.
Our stall at the fairgrounds finish line was set up with fingers crossed, and I had ridden John down the last few miles of trail. His entire demeanor changed from his at-home goofy village idiot to Game Face. He’d been here before, and I had no doubt he knew exactly where he was and why.

I had piles of crew bags, lists and ice chests ready for my SuperCrew. As John’s second mom, Julie Herrera was crew leader, but I’m pretty sure she was mostly there to smite me dead on the spot if I did anything to put John at risk. We vetted in uneventfully, with just one casual comment from the Tevis vets, “We’ve never seen a horse jog with three different gaits, a buck and a fart, all in a 100-foot trot-out lane.” Yeah. Welcome to my world.
At the ride meeting, Dr. Jeff Herten MD, a long-time member of the WSTF Board of Governors, stood up to tell us that a hoped-for cool weather forecast had failed to materialize. Instead, we were in for record hot weather all weekend, with temps probably over 110 degrees in the depths of the airless and baking canyons. He advised us, “If you’re not drinking a liter of fluid every hour on the hour, you won’t be able to keep up with your fluid losses.”
He was right—-a number of riders didn’t drink enough and pulled with a Rider Option later in the ride even when their horse was cleared to go. It turned out to be one of the lowest completion rates in Tevis history at just 46.88%. I had four big bottles on my saddle, two for me and two for squirt water, as well as snacks and human electrolytes that worked well for me. John’s electrolytes, long since dialed in to a tee, were mixed up and in the saddlebags and crew bags. John was getting a plain salt slurry syringed in the days and night before, and before the start to trigger a good thirst response early on. We knew from research that few horses start the ride fully hydrated due to fluid loss during travel and we needed to start with our tanks full. John was given approximately 24 ounces of electrolytes during the ride, well buffered with kaolin-pectin. He was syringed every hour during the ride and at every vet check. Research teams analyzing blood at the 36 mile point demonstrated our electrolyting regimen had really helped. His blood results were perfect, he never stopped drinking like a fish, eating voraciously, or pulling like a train.
Ride photographer Lynne Glazer had also arrived at Robie Park, bringing our friend Gesa Brink’s ashes, divided into five baggies. After the ride meeting, Lynne and I took one portion out into the meadow and carefully buried it in the shade beneath an enormous pine tree, near the natural spring and Tevis hopefuls grazing nearby. We knew the tree’s roots would take up those minerals, making Gesa a permanent part of it. We thought she would have liked that. I know I would have.
Another portion was going to go with Lynne as she hiked down to the creek crossing beneath the Swinging Bridge, a highly anticipated cooling and photo op spot at mile 52 in the depths of the first monster canyon. The other three portions were to travel with me during each of the major legs of the ride. I’d installed a small grommet at the bottom of my pommel bag (visible on our Cougar Rock photo) and each baggie slowly trickled out with an occasional tap as we rode.
John Henry was cool as a cucumber during the pre-dawn start and it went off without a hitch. We slipped right into a bubble well behind the front hot shoes, but a bit ahead of the main pack. We stayed in that bubble for most of the ride, and moved up through attrition. Much of the first few miles of the trail leading to Highway 89 is downhill with good footing, and I knew no one can travel downhill as well as John does with his strange gaits. I wanted plenty of space on the downhills to move out when we could before we started the 2550’ climb to Emigrant Gap at 8750’ elevation.
A steady march up through the Squaw Valley ski resort, picking our way through muddy bogs hiding submerged boulders and scrambling slippery scree rocks through the spectacular Granite Chief Wilderness. I remembered the advice of Julie Suhr not to forget to turn and tip the brim of my helmet towards the rising sun, not just for the beautiful view, but perhaps a bit just for the mojo of it. And onwards towards Cougar Rock at 23 miles.
I had not made firm plans about whether we would go up and over Cougar Rock, getting that iconic photo but risking more slippery footing, or take the bypass around. Robert Ribley, with sixteen Tevis buckles, had once cautioned me that “lots of riders have the photo, but not the buckle”. Good advice.
When we saw the Rock, there was just one rider ahead of us and no line of horses waiting. Without discussing it with me first, John Henry plowed straight towards the trail going over the top. Arrows painted on the slippery trail point out the turns, but John already knew. I got myself forward, off his mouth and stayed out of his way as he climbed up and over. We will never have a spectacular Cougar Rock photo leaping like a deer up the steep climb, but we made it without a slip and that was all I wanted (okay, and the photo, too). Off we went at a steady clip towards our first gate-and-go at Red Star at 28 miles, and then our first one-hour hold at Robinson Flat.
We cruised into Robinson Flat at 10:56 a.m., in 72nd place—about mid-pack—amongst all starters, but in 48th place amongst those who would eventually finish the ride. It was a good place for us to be, and we were feeling great. I had previously calculated when I wanted to be at each checkpoint and we came into RF exactly on schedule—well ahead of cutoff but within the pace I knew John could keep up all day. We knew that we needed to average 5 mph, but that nine vet checks would eat into our time available. So would technical, steep trail that slowed us down to a walk. When the going was good, I asked John for a faster pace at 10-11 mph to eat up the trail.
Coming into Robinson’s, crowds of crew and onlookers lined the trail, clapping and cheering for every horse and rider as they jogged past, an amazingly inspiring feeling. As I ran in, leading John, I heard comments of, “What breed is THAT?” and, “Is that a gaited horse?!” My intrepid crew was waiting for me and stripped off tack to wash John down and offer a slightly salty bucket of water before taking him to pulse in and vet. We cruised straight through and after a break to eat and refuel, we were back on the trail headed towards the canyons. The temps were already climbing well into the nineties, so this time I carried frozen bottles of water to squirt on John’s neck to keep him as cool as possible.
Down a steep, rocky trail to the bottom of Deadwood Canyon and across the Swinging Bridge. We skipped going down to the river itself in the interest of time management. I had been told of a natural spring before the trail starts to climb that, although not as photogenic as the river itself, provided plenty of water even in the middle of a five-year drought. John drank deeply and got more electrolytes, I wetted him down, soaked my shirt, filled my squirt bottles and we started tailing up the notorious 73 switchbacks, climbing 1700’ in 3/4 of a mile to Devil’s Thumb.
It was just as well I didn’t know just how hot it was as we climbed. Later I was told it was 112 degrees in the depths of the canyon, without a hint of breeze. John kept up a steady march and I tailed behind, praying for the top to arrive. Several lifetimes later, it finally did. I was ready to faint, but when I checked, John’s heart rate as we crested the last switchback was just 76 bpm. By the time we reached the vet check, he pulsed through in less than four minutes with a heart rate of 50. A few bites to eat, more water and we swung into a ground-eating stepping pace towards the next two canyons.
The total distance between the start of the first canyon and the end of the third Volcano Canyon is only eighteen miles, but it took us over five hours to get it done. We had climbed 3,790’ and descended 5,091’—-a lot of it on narrow, rocky trails but with heartbreaking scenery, traveling past historic mining towns and the rusty bones of abandoned gold mining equipment.
As we made our last climb coming into the second one-hour hold at Foresthill, I felt John’s gait change just a bit. Looking down, I saw a bare foot—-his odd gaits make him notorious at overreaching and he had pulled off a shoe. We hand-walked him into the check, where he quickly pulsed through and over to the vets.
Head veterinarian Greg Fellers, DVM watched him jog out and back and told me, “Susan, it’s only 7:30 and you have just 32 miles to go. Even if you just put a boot on and walked him the rest of the way, you have time to make it in. You have a lot of horse left. Go take care of your horse and go get it done.”
My crew shooed me away to go eat, clean up and change clothes (oh, the joy of clean socks and a washcloth) while they scrambled to fit boots. Julie made the call to pull the other front shoe to keep him as even as possible, but our previously prepared boots weren’t fitting quite right. She and husband Ken ransacked the camp hustling up a pair of boots in the right size. At my out time, I came back to boots I’d never seen before, and that John had never worn in practice rides. Nevertheless, we mounted up and headed for the out gate, hoping the angels were on our side.
Did I mention John had never worn boots like this before? As we left, he was moving like he was wearing swim fins, trying to figure out this new feeling. Trying out something new at a ride is a cardinal sin in endurance, and an even worse idea at Tevis—-let alone 68 miles into the ride and about to head down the steep switchbacks of the California Loop in the dark.
As we walked down the main street of Foresthill, I thumped myself for not checking the fit of his tried-and-true boots just before the ride. How could I have been so dumb? I toyed with the idea of turning back and asking for a Rider Option before I made things worse. Later, my crew said that as I left the out-gate, with John walking like a duck, they all agreed, “She won’t make it. They’ll have to turn back and pull.” Gesa’s spirit would have to be satisfied with being spread over just 68% of the Tevis trail.
Just as I was picking up the reins to turn around and head back to quit, John’s walk smoothed out. He’d gotten the hang of these things now, and voluntarily picked up his pace to a big, swinging walk. He stretched his neck, asking for the bit and looking down the road, knowing where he was headed.
God hates a coward, and my horse was telling me he was good to go. So we went.
Final chapter of our Tevis story, and I sincerely thank every one for their kind interest. The point of this Nordic saga isn’t about me, or even about John Henry, though he is truly a great horse (I might be biased). It’s about all of us who meet our challenges with less than perfect bodies, a less than perfect life, and riding not necessarily the typical endurance horse. We all have other distractions in life. We all have a back story. We just need to tell them.
As we headed down into the California Loop, it was turning from dusk to twilight and then full dark. The moon would not rise for several hours, and when it did, much of its light would be hidden beneath heavy tree cover. I had put several glow bars on John Henry’s breast collar, but not for his benefit. His night vision is far superior to mine and he could see just fine. If I could barely see the outline of his head in front of me, I wouldn’t get vertigo and could balance better on the ten miles down through narrow switchbacks and alongside steep drop-offs to the American River. I had a red light on the brim of my helmet, and was carrying a flashlight, but left them both off. Nothing is more disruptive to the horse’s night vision, or to other riders around you, than flashing white lights.
I was hoping that John would maintain a good walk after learning how to move in unfamiliar boots put on as a spare tire in Foresthill. Walking steadily would get us in on time, barring anything else going wrong. However, as we traveled, his movement became more confident and he voluntarily picked up an easy stepping pace when the footing was good. We moved along steadily, and I concentrated on staying well centered. I couldn’t see the turns of the switchbacks, and John knows he’s the pilot after dark. As he swung around sharp rollback turns, it was my job to just move with him.
Seventeen miles and three hours after leaving Foresthill, we came into the Francisco’s checkpoint at 85 miles. It was now 11:30 at night, still in the high eighties without a breeze, but we were feeling strong. John was eating voraciously, his hydration and metabolics were good and he sailed through the check with a pulse of 56 four minutes after coming in. I grabbed a flake of wet hay as we left and handed down snatches of it for him to munch as we made our way towards the river crossing at 90 miles.
I had never crossed the river, certainly not at night, and was feeling uneasy about it, not knowing what to expect. With his swimming background, I knew John would plunge right into the water, and he did. He stopped chest deep to take a long drink while I scooped water onto his neck and shoulders, and then marched across. Glow sticks in floating gallon jugs marked our exact path and volunteers were standing by to help if needed.
Some riders advise pulling your feet up out of the water to avoid cold water cramps. Julie Suhr, undisputed queen of the Tevis trail, had advised me differently, saying that after 90 long, hot miles, nothing will feel better than that cool water on your feet. She was right, it felt fabulous. I knew I would be staying in the saddle from here on in, except at our last remaining check point and the finish line, and I wasn’t worried about blisters from running in wet shoes.
On the far side of the river, the trail narrows for a mile or so and we came up behind a string of riders with flashlights in all directions and glow sticks dangling everywhere, including off the tail of the last horse right in front of us. There was no way to pass, but the lights were starting to make me a little nauseous, and I could tell John was impatient, repeatedly pulling at the bit. I politely called ahead that we would like to pass when the trail allowed and heard a reply that they would pull over when they could.
A mile down the trail, now thoroughly tired of seeing flashlights ahead, I heard the call, “It’s wider here, would you like to pass?” YES, WE WOULD. With a grateful thank you for their courtesy as we jogged past, we were in the clear and alone again. I have no aversion to riding with friends at times, but here tonight, I only wanted to be out there with my horse, my ride and this trail in the moonlight, listening to the whisper of the river. It’s part of the magic of Tevis.
Once past the crowd, I dropped the reins onto John’s neck. He knows that this is my signal to him that our speed is his choice. He could walk if that’s what he needed to do, or anything else. I expected him to drop into his usual working gait, an efficient stepping pace of around 7 mph, but he had other ideas. As soon as he felt the invitation, he stretched his neck forward and broke into a 12 mph hand gallop. Surprised, I bumped him back just a bit, thinking he had misunderstood, but he’d understood exactly. He said it was time to go and he knew we were headed for home.
The thought crossed my mind that this was completely crazy, riding a horse at a gallop in the dark, on trail unfamiliar to me, after already having done 90 miles of the meanest trail on the planet in record heat. The moon was up but the trees overhead prevented me from seeing anything other than patches of light reflecting off the river to our right. I also thought to myself, “Either you trust your horse, or you don’t.”
I bumped John gently in the mouth once more, asking, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”. He tugged again, relaxed and moving easily, not putting a foot wrong, clearly telling me, “Mom. I got this. Just ride.”
So I did.
When asked what was the best part of their Tevis ride, many riders have replied it was receiving their award buckle, getting out of the saddle for the last time, or taking a shower afterwards to wash off the sweat and grime. For me, our best moment will always be galloping in the dark ten miles from the finish. Not seeing a hand in front of me, catching the breeze against my face, feeling the muscles of my horse beneath as familiar and necessary to me as is wind to a hawk. In that moment, galloping together, we weren’t just riding for a buckle. We were gods, if just for that moment, and that memory would have been enough to last a lifetime.
The lights of Lower Quarry at 94 miles, our last checkpoint before the finish, came into view and we jogged in, John as nonchalant as ever. I worried that having galloped the last two miles would affect his ability to reach pulse criteria without taking time to relax and be sponged down. He cruised in, pleased as punch with himself, took a deep drink and was at 56 bpms.
We vetted straight through and I let John slurp up some mash while I wolfed a half-sandwich from the table. Processed turkey and American cheese on Wonderbread had never tasted so good. I grabbed another flake of hay to hand down to John as we rode and we were off on the final six miles to the finish.
As we got closer to the Overlook, the trail narrowed to singletrack and at last John was content to just walk up the last 500’ climb behind a line of other dirty, tired horses and riders. After our long journey together, it was almost an anticlimax to see the finish line ahead of us and to give our number to the WSTF volunteers. I heard my husband call out to me, “Did you wait around on the trail so you could come in JUST then???” I didn’t know what he meant—he later explained that I had crossed the finish line within two minutes of our ride plan, something I never would have expected after all of our ups and downs of the day.
We finished at 3:12 a.m., with a ride time just shy of 20 hours, in 29th place. John was the only gaited horse to finish that day and one of only two horses to finish that did not have at least 50% Arabian heritage. The other non-Arab was a tough little Appy named Crow Pony, who finished at 4:32 a.m. with Robert Ribley picking up his 13th Tevis buckle.
We were five hours behind the winning horse (my friend Rusty Toth on his great horse Quake) and 2 1/2 hours out of Top Ten. It didn’t matter—-we hadn’t come for a placing, just for a buckle and to see what this kind, humorous shouldn’t-be-an-endurance-horse-but-let’s-do-it-anyway, endlessly tough horse could do. And what I could do with him, and myself, as well.
As we entered McCann Stadium for our ceremonial victory lap before going to the vets, I once again heard the now-familiar comment from onlookers, “THAT horse finished? What breed is he?” My friend Jonni Jewell, who was leading us down, turned with a smile and told them, “He’s a Tennessee Walker. That’s John Henry. He’s not the average Tevis horse.”
John picked up a jog and I remembered one last thing we had come to do. I reached down to my right pommel bag and gave it one more tap. The last pinch of the ashes of endurance rider Gesa Brinks sifted down onto the ground as we crossed under the banner. It was the best we could do.
John passed his final check and my crew shooed me away to go clean up, eat and nap while Julie and her minions took over taking care of John. After washing him, feeding and wrapping his legs, Julie curled up in a chair next to his stall for the next five hours to watch over him. While I get to wear the buckle, Julie and my crew had worked as hard and earned it every bit as much as John Henry and I had.
There is just one more chapter to our story. Later that afternoon, we arrived for the BBQ, still tired but exhilarated and looking forward to the awards. That was a year in which Legacy buckles were available—-buckles that had previously been earned by earlier riders, many of them multiple buckle winners, who had generously donated them back to be awarded again to a first-time finisher. I had signed up, but had no idea whose buckle I would be handed.
As I crossed the stage and headed back towards my seat, I couldn’t wait any longer. I pulled out the buckle that, while newly polished, had the patina of a sterling silver buckle that had been well worn and well loved. I turned it over to read the inscription, ‘Julie Suhr - Marinera - 1966.’ It was finally too much for me, and I burst into tears. Julie later told me she had picked out that particular buckle because her Peruvian mare Marinera had also been a gaited horse.
Some weeks later, I looked up the date that Julie had originally won that buckle that I now wore. It was her second of 22 buckles she eventually earned, and she did it on July 30, 1966.
Julie had no way of knowing, but that date was just three months after my mother, born the same year as Julie, had died of breast cancer. The same breast cancer that killed her, had taken Gesa Brink’s life and tried to take mine. Of the three of us, I was the only survivor. At the time of my mother’s death and Julie’s 1966 Tevis, I was six years old. I had no idea at all about what Tevis was, or about the buckle being worn by a tough, kind horsewoman who would give it to me, 47 years later. I was just a little kid that loved horses.
John Henry and I went again to the starting line at Robie the following two years, and finished both times. In 2015, I had terrible leg cramps for the last half of the ride that turned out to be a side effect from an infusion three weeks earlier as part of my ongoing cancer treatment. John had to work harder than I had planned to carry us through, but carry us through he did.
In 2016, I loaned him to a friend, Lisa Schneider, who rode him to her seventh buckle and John Henry’s fifth—-four of them in a row, and his fifth completion out of six starts. It tied him for the record for gaited horse completions, a record that has stood for over forty years.
As I write this at my desk, where we now live in Tevis country looking out onto Tevis trail across the road, I can see my horses out grazing in the pastures in front. It’s close to 100 degrees outside and John Henry—no dummy when it comes to heat— is standing in the water tank splashing around like a duck.
Will we go to Tevis again and try to break that forty year old record? Maybe. I’ve learned not to predict what John Henry is going to want to do next. I’ll just keep riding him, see if he says, “Let’s go” or not, and be grateful for this magnificent soul in my life.
Someday, I’ll have his name, and mine, engraved onto the back of that 1966 Tevis buckle next to Julie Suhr’s and Marinera’s. Someday there will be another gaited horse finishing their first Tevis, and we’ll pass along that buckle to them.
But not quite yet.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Crewing Tevis 2016 by Adrianne Buschling

These two extraordinary athletes took me on quite the adventure! Tevis Cup 2016 will forever be a treasured memory for me. Huge thanks to Bobbi, Willie, and Bobbi's husband Mark for the opportunity!  

We arrived in Sacramento on Thursday night, and were fortunate to have a lovely place to stay overnight. Early Friday morning, we got up, showered, loaded up, and headed out to Robie Equestrian Park, which is where the ride began. We got settled in, I braided Willie, and Bobbi checked in and got Willie vetted in (pic is them at the vetting in process). As suggested, I took lots of electrolytes and drank lots of water. We were at 7000' elevation in high desert, and we didn't want to get dehydrated or succumb to altitude sickness. Well, I now know that I can NOT consume ANY of the electrolyte products on the market - especially the caffeinated ones!! OMG, I thought I was going to die by about noon. My heart was racing, I was shaking so badly it was interfering with braiding, my whole body just flat out felt weird! But I survived, and by night time, I was starting to feel a little less wonky. 

The drive into and out of Robie Park was stunning. Everywhere you looked, there was a view worthy of a post card! I wish I had managed to get more photos, but I either didn't have my phone (camera) with me, or we were driving as fast as we could down dusty forest roads in a 4x4 pickup truck with a big camper, hauling a trailer - which doesn't exactly yield awesome cell phone shots. I guess I get to keep those memories tucked safely away in my memory bank. I hope to return to the area and explore at a much slower pace with my husband and our pups - I'll take pics then :-)
We set up camp, went to a bunch of meetings, checked out some of the vendors, and attended a pre-ride dinner down by the beautiful meadow (darn it, why did I keep forgetting my camera??? Oh yeah, I was spinning out on electrolytes, caffeine, and amino acids, lol!) After dinner there was one last meeting, then we went up to get ready for the start. We eventually settled down around 10 or 11 pm. Sleep eluded me, but I was happy to get to lay down for a while to let my muscles relax. By 2:30 am, Bobbi was up feeding Willie. After he ate what he wanted, I went out and did some pre-ride body work on him. By 3:30 am, Bobbi and her husband Mark were tacking him up.

It was glorious in the mountains, chilly at night, crystal clear skies, and so many stars. And the moon was vividly bright... The Tevis Moon! I massaged Willie by moonlight, and he was ready - he most definitely knew where he was! 4:30 rolled around, and Bobbie mounted up. She headed up to the starting line along with 171 other riders, the buzz of anticipation thick in the air. Shortly after the start at 5:15 am, we charged out of that park as the clock struck 5:30 am (per ride rules we couldn't leave before 5:30). We had to cover 90 miles to get to the first vet check we'd be crewing, Robinson Flat. With the obligatory Starbucks stop and quick pit stop to fill up the truck, we were lucky to make it with 5 minutes to spare before they cut off vehicles from entering at 9 am. Then it was our turn to get busy. 

Mark (Bobbi's husband), Lynn (her friend and neighbor) and I were Bobbi and Willie's crew. Considering we barely knew each other, I'm positively amazed by what an exceptional team we made! Bobbi had provided us a spreadsheet with all the things we needed to bring to each stop, and where to have what set up. She knows her stuff... As demanding as this event is, thanks to her guidance, we managed to make her stops calm, refreshing, and timely. Willie ate and drank like a champ - he was all business, and completely in his element! As we were getting ready to send Bobbi out of Robinson Flat, I noticed something didn't look quite right, and earned my keep by realizing she didn't have her cooling vest. We got it to her in the nick of time, and she headed off into the canyons.

We cleaned up our stop and headed back to the rig. We were on double duty as a horse ambulance, and thought we'd be taking 2 horses to the next stop, Foresthill. Since we also had to take the two horse's riders, Mark asked if one of us would volunteer to ride down with another ambulance, so there would be enough room in the truck. I volunteered and rode down with two riders who had been pulled due to their horse's being lame. Listening to their conversations really instilled in me that endurance riding is definitely a lifestyle, not just a hobby! Many of these people were raised doing endurance, and come from generations of endurance riders. Everyone seems to know everyone, and they have so many stories to share - some funny, some sad. 

Upon arriving in Foresthill, the first thing I noticed was the heat. I kept hearing, this isn't so bad, it's been way hotter in the past! Yikes!! I've been in Western WA for 10 years now... I haven't seen as much sun as I did on Saturday and Sunday in my past 10 years cumulatively!! I'm just glad it wasn't hotter! I immediately thought of the horses and riders picking their ways through those three canyons. Tough as nails really doesn't do them justice. 

Again, we got to work, scoping out the situation, picking out a spot to crew Bobbi and Willie, and eventually settling down in a shady spot to watch riders come up Bath Rd after their grueling ride through the canyons. Many residents of Bath Rd come out and set up chairs, cheer on the riders, set out hoses, buckets of water, and carrots - they're super supportive! Bobbi and Willie came riding in around 7:15. Willie pulsed down quickly. We took him to our crewing spot for feeding and massage, while Bobbie changed and got ready for their night time ride along the narrow trails. At 8:15, they set off into the night. 

We cleaned up, got the rig packed up, and set off to the Auburn Gold Country Fairgrounds. There was a specific parking area we were looking for, and it was tricky to find, especially in the dark, but we did eventually succeed in finding it. We got camp set up, both for us and for Willie, then took the gear we'd need down to the stadium. We came back and tried to get some sleep, but incoming rigs, chatty/sleep deprived/loopy people, and a particularly loud train made sleep elusive yet again. I decided to check my phone to see if I had finally gotten cell service, and I had... It was tenuous, but there! There were so many messages! I had pretty much forgotten about my phone by this time, as I don't think I'd had service since the airport! 

After a while, the influx of rigs slowed, and I managed to fall asleep for about an hour around 2am... Thankfully I set my alarm for 3am, cause Bobbi and Willie were making good progress, and we needed to get moving up toward the finish line. The actual finish line (where their ride time ends) is quite a ways up from the finish line everyone sees in the pictures. The riders cross the finish line, then their crew walks down with them to the stadium (but can't crew in any way yet). There they take their victory lap and cross under the more visible, commonly photographed finish line. 

We were so excited to see Bobbi and Willie coming up the hill at 4:30 am! We walked them down vet check, Willie pulsed down quickly and trotted out sound, passing with flying colors and earning their official completion! I went to work massaging him while he ate for an hour or so, at which point they did their final vet check and were deemed "fit to continue" (the unofficial theme of Tevis - the horse must always be fit to continue). We cleaned up the crewing spot, took everything back up to the trailer, and got Willie settled in to his pen for the evening. By the time all was said and done, I think it was daylight again. 

After a couple of hours failing to attempt to sleep, I got up and started to break down my sleeping stuff, and got all my things packed up. We went out for coffee/oj and got a quick bite to eat, then returned to watch Best Condition, where the horses who placed 1st - 10th in the ride are presented for evaluation. CRI (cardiac recovery index), soundness, and many other factors are evaluated and considered, and the winner receives the Haggin Cup.

All too quickly, the time came for us to make our way to the airport. I got checked in, met up with Lynn (we rode to the airport together and were on the same flights leaving from and returning to Portland), and after an hour and a half delay, headed home. I think I made it home around midnight thirty (this morning)... I was completely, deliriously exhausted. 

Whatta trip! I learned so much about this sport, and met many wonderful people. The horses and riders are true athletes. The ride was extraordinarily well organized, everything flowed seamlessly. Three people who hardly knew each other pulled together to make a top-notch Tevis crew for the incredibly well prepared and conditioned Bobbi and Willie. Well done team!!

Darice White and Beau Tia Maria (Tia), Tevis 2016

My Tevis journey. Saturday July 23rd. Tevis Cup race day!!!!

This is going to be a long one.  After a rather chilly night trying to sleep in the horse trailer we were up at 3:30 AM to get the horses ready to start the ride. The area is extremely dry and the amount of dust 168 or so horses creates is choking. I'm not sure of the official count but there were a lot. I know the ride # was down from previous years. All sorts of equines take part in this ride. At least 2 mules, Fox Trotters, Standardbreds, Appaloosas etc but obviously Arabians have the greatest representation.
I was shocked at how calm Tia was. Usually with a group of revved up horses Tia would be the ring leader however she stood camly waiting at the start. Good girl don't waste your energy as you'll need it. Trust me on this one. 

The dust was ridiculously thick! Tia was coughing from all the dust and I had dust in places I didn't know existed. It is a mass start however pen 1 is started first. Pen 1 are those who are vying for the win. That wasn't me!! I was quite content to settle for last place if it meant a finish. I was riding with my friend, Wendy. We ride together a lot on endurance rides. Our horses complement each other and will push and pull each other which is ideal for endurance. Wendy and I also have the same concept about our horses and that their welfare comes ahead of all else so it's a win win. 

The first vet gate was sheer pandemonium! Horses, riders, volunteers, scribes and vets everywhere. I somehow managed to get myself separated from Wendy. I have to say I totally panicked. I couldn't see her anywhere and I thought she had been right behind me. I walked to the out timer and asked if rider # 22 had gone through. She said yes. I thought well that's weird that she would have left without me. Bitch lol. I thought I'd better haul butt to catch up to her. I got to the next vet gate and no Wendy. Well Wendy was rider #24 not 22! I know that often you will end up riding these things alone BUT I wasn't expecting that at mile 36. AND our plan was to stick together as much as possible if we could.
Wendy said she saw me leave and the look of panic on my face so she chased to catch up to me. Ok all was good again.

After the initial vet gate the horses really start to spread out thank goodness. The craziness gets spread out however it is hard to settle in on a ride like this. So big, don't know the area and I've never ridden a point to point ride so that means I had to keep my vet card. Oh joy. How not to lose that when totally sleep deprived and a bit freaked out by it all. For those of you that know me calm has never been a word used to describe ME. I have a lot of Squirrel moments. I did manage to not lose my card but it was one grubby mess by the end of the ride. 

We decided there was no way we were giving up the photo op at Cougar Rock. We both ride sure footed mares and we were confident they could do it. The thought is you get the picture at Cougar Rock or you get the buckle. I hoped that this was a myth but the lure of the picture was just too much to pass up. Up and over we went and continued on our way. I hoped that the pictures would make me look tall, slim and younger. 

We headed into the canyons. This was the area I was dreading as the heat was supposed to be ridiculous. The cooling vest I bought was wonderful and saved me. Money very well spent!
Ok the canyons! Who knew there were 3 of them??? I guess I should have read up on that. They were brutal. Down, down, and down some more but let's throw in a ton of switchbacks just to make it interesting. I was so glad I worked with Tia in trotting down hills as well as going up. Once you get down the canyon then you get the joy of climbing back up the other side again with more switchbacks just for fun!! And 3 of them for your riding enjoyment. Ick! I can live without riding another canyon. Or at least no time soon. They have vet gates after the canyons and that's where a lot of riders get pulled. The heat, the climb and the descent take their toll on the horses and some riders. 

When we stopped at Forest Hills for our hold I thought I should think about changing clothes. I read where someone suggested changing your underwear. I sat down and went to take off my half chaps and I didn't have the energy to unzip them. So unless I put my underwear on top of my riding pants it wasn't happening. 

If someone tells you that you can ride Tevis without a light or glow sticks well they are just dirty rotten liars. The full moon does you diddly dot squat of good when you're riding through the trees.
As we didn't want to get lost in the dark we would join up with a rider with a light if possible. If they were moving out we would stick with them if not we moved ahead in the dark hoping we wouldn't lose our way or fall off a cliff. 

At about mile 86 disaster struck. I had been following a horse for quite a few miles when he suddenly balked and we got too close. He kicked out with both hind feet and caught me in the face. Off I came and smack onto the gravel road. I got back up quickly as this is Tevis after all. Mustn't tarry as you need to be constantly moving or you're out. Only 1 problem. My nose is bleeding profusely. Like call in the Red Cross as I'm giving a donation bleeding. I had nothing to use to stop the bleeding so Wendy gave me her bandana. My motto is unless you need an ambulance get back on that horse and I did. My husband would have said to me you've been hurt worse. He's very compassionate. My knee was also injured in the fall making it hard to get back onto Tia so Wendy had to come to my aid to get me back in the saddle. 

What I found out later is Tia spun away from the kick and started to go down the embankment. Tia's athletic ability saved her from tumbling probably to her death. (They didn't tell me this little gem until after the ride but maybe just as well). I wasn't sure if Tia was harmed and couldn't help but think (as my nose continued to flow like Mount Vesuvius) what a shame it would be if we got pulled so close to the finish. And yes that happens all the time. I got the vet that I had seen a couple of times and he assured me that Tia was fine. I asked him to tell me if he thought my nose was broken. Vet, Doctor. Whoever is handy. He didn't but found me some ibuprofen and we were off. Nose still bleeding but at least slowing. 

One section of trail is crossing a river where they use glow sticks to mark the route and you stay between the markers. We were told that the river would be 1 1/2 feet deep there. Well liar, liar pants on fire!! Imagine my surprise when the water was up to Tia's belly and now I had soaked shoes and socks. Squish, squish down the trail we went. At the vet check at mile 94 I could tell Tia was tired but we were almost home. She vetted in well and we were in the home stretch. Once the horses get close to home they really pick up the pace as they know they are going home. As we had a cushion on our time we kept them to a walk for most of the way in. 

We were very happy to see our crew at the finish line and know we had at least made it within the time allowed. We came in to the stadium and did our victory lap. I'm not going to lie. I cried. I was seriously tired having spent so much time in the saddle and relieved that I was done with just the final vet check to pass. Horses do get pulled at the finish and I hoped after everything I'd been through I wouldn't be a casualty of this. Tia vetted in very well. I believe a lot of A's but I don't have her final vet card. Wendy trotted her out for me as by now both my knees were totally useless. The trot out wasn't stellar but enough to get us the green light and our completion. I hugged the vet, cried some more and said a prayer of thanks.
I was surprised that I handled most of the ride well. I drank constantly, coped with the heat and didn't have a crash(well the one on the ground) or hallucinate. I guess some people do. I was a bit motion sick but that started after the fall so not sure if I would have had that or not if I hadn't fallen.
And once again was glad I had a helmet on my head. My knees ached though. One of my legs is seriously larger than the other from my fall. It will require icing and maybe some bute. 

The volunteers at this ride are second to none. Dianne Roberts brought us a cooler with ice to soak our cooling vests, another lady lent us her head light so we could see down the trail in the dark. They would offer you food, fill your water bottles, sponge your horse, saddle your horse, hold your horse while you ran to the loo(which sometimes was behind a downed tree) all with kindness, interest in your well being and wishing you a great ride as you headed off down the trail again. 

We were never aiming to win or to top 20. We just wanted to complete and get the buckle. Beginners luck? Maybe but I will cherish that buckle anyway. This was an amazing experience that I will treasure until the day I die. I have no doubt that I will still have some of that Tevis dust up my nose when that day comes.

Brenna Sullivan and Ebony's Blue Sky, Tevis 2016

Now that I've had time to think and digest, I wanted to write my Tevis story down so I remember everything later!

I hauled Sky up to the Auburn fairgrounds on Wednesday morning where Lora had gotten us a stall right next to Merlin. Merlin and Sky became fast friends and I was able to park my rig right next to Lora's below the horse stalls. It was literally the perfect set-up! Lora and I drove over to Echo Valley Feed to get some last-minute supplies and feed and got lunch in Auburn. I rode Sky down to No Hands Bridge and back that afternoon so we would know the last few miles up to the finish. Judy, Jen, Brian and Kelly showed up that afternoon and after the BBQ we all hung out on the lawn catching up while the horses munched in their stalls.
The next morning, I got Sky's boots glued on by the EasyCare team. Jesse Caswell helped me walk Sky back and I helped him by holding Apollo so he could see how the experts did the gluing. After that, we loaded up and caravaned with Lora, Judy and Brian up to Robie Park! It was pretty spectacular driving up 80, looking out over the Sierras and knowing we would be starting over the far range!
Getting parked at Robie Park was a chore and stressful for all involved. Brian helped me big time in backing the rig, re-backing the rig, getting frustrated and pulling it around. We also had to shuffle the horse corrals a bit because by this time Sky and Merlin were hopelessly bonded! But all ended well; horses ate, we set up our little camp and waited for the rest of Lora's crew to file in throughout the evening.
On Friday, we rode the horses, checked in, vetted in, bought some last-minute stuff at the vendor's and attended the pre-ride meetings. mom, Auntie Lynn, Katherine, Davina, Lu and my Dad showed up at various times throughout the afternoon and evening to get my crew stuff and work out a plan for the next day. I was endlessly stressing out about whether or not the horse was eating enough. She was literally knee high in 8 different types of feed which were of course, coated in a nice layer of Robie Park dust. I did everybody a favor and went to bed early.
I got up at 3:30am and saddled her under her blanket. I got on her early to give her a really good warm-up because I knew the pack would be moving fairly good after the start. We started right on time and it was chaos! Horses were kicking and squirreling all around; the expected product of close quarters and well-fed, well-rested fit endurance horses!
The first few miles down to HW 89 crossing were a blur. We went faster than I would have liked, but it was my attempt to keep her brain together. She was pretty wound up. I took a wrong turn at Squaw Valley and ended up going about a 1/2 mile out of my way; was not paying attention to the obvious trail marking! As we climbed up from Squaw Valley up to High Camp, the horses settled and I was able to appreciate the amazing views! We hit High Camp which is almost 8000 ft and she drank a lot of water. I electrolyted her and we climbed 2500 more ft up to Emigrant Pass which still had snow! I did what Becky Lange suggested and looked behind me out to Lake Tahoe and was not disappointed.
At this point, the trail descends down into the Granite Chief Wilderness. This was an incredibly scenic part of the trail looking out over the granite mountains that we would pass through. The grass was green and there were wildflowers all around! However, I could not believe how technical the trail was. There were huge boulders and chunks of granite for the horses to negotiate coupled with streams and bogs that made everything very slippery. Sky didn't have to slow down for the really really rocky sections so we were able to make up for some time that we had lost by walking up to Emigrant Pass. After Lyon Ridge, the trail become dusty and we were stuck behind long lines of riders. You couldn't see the trail below you and I saw at least two horses trip and go down.
We approached Cougar Rock and I decided that she was paying attention enough to try it! The rock is pretty intimidating as you ride up to it and once you decide to go, you are committed! The guy immediately in front of me almost fell off to the side when his horse refused and squirreled around mid-way up. He somehow managed to get turned around before they had a wreck and go down to the bypass. Sky and I were up! I pointed her up the rock and held on. Up and over we went, no problem! Good pony!!!
The trail had some hard climbs in the sun before hitting a dirt road which was a welcome relief. I rode with Jeff on a beautiful Appy down to Red Star Ridge; our first vet check at 28 miles. Sky came in with a pulse of 80 even though I had hand-walked her the last mile in. She never comes into vet checks this high, so I was worried. Thankfully, as I continued to scoop water on her and use my alcohol mixture on her neck her pulse steadily dropped. She used this time that I was cooling her to really tank up and eat well so it was a blessing in disguise. I vetted her in with Mike Witt and she was down to 56 and got good scores on hydration and gut sounds. We were good to go to Robinson! I was so relieved! One of my big worries was to get pulled before seeing my wonderful crew at Robinson Flat!
From Red Star to Robinson was a gravelly dirt road, but it was a welcome mental break after the technical trail through Granite Chief. I rode with Dean Moon and his Rocky mare Cassie for a bit, as well as a nice lady from British Columbia on her Connemara cross. We passed two people who had parted ways from their horses and ran into the horses about 2 miles down the trail.
About a mile from Robinson Flat, I got off Sky and walked in. My crew was waiting for me as we walked up and did a fantastic job of stripping her tack and getting her cooled off as we walked into the vet check. She pulsed down and vetted in fine. Davina and Lu had parked at Sailor Flat the night before and found the perfect spot in the shade. Dionne fed me and gave me a towel to get all the dirt and grime from my face and Sky did nothing but eat. Carol had brought some friends to help crew and it was such a welcome sight to have everything expertly taken care of by everybody!
I left Robinson about 5 minutes after Lora and Merlin and caught up on the downhill Forest Service road to Dusty Corners. Sky and Merlin rode great together and we had fun leapfrogging with Sharon Wimberg and her friend. The weather was still comfortable and the horses hit a good pace. The volunteers at Dusty Corners were awesome and both horses drank pretty well!
We started along the trail that leads to Pucker Point. It was fairly exhilarating along that narrow little trail; Pucker Point was downright scary to me! The trail kind of drops off into nothing down to the river far below. We held our breath and kept going.
At Last Chance at 50 miles, Sky ate and drank well again, pulsed down and vetted through with Dr. Balch. He gave her all A's and said she looked fantastic. I thought we are in as good of shape as we can be heading into the canyons. Lora had ridden off ahead so when we hit the first canyon, I got off to walk. It was fairly technical and slow going. Sky grabbed some wild oats growing along the side. The farther we descended, the hotter it got. I elected not to go down into the river at Swinging Bridge as there was a long line and a creek on the other side. Sky drank well in that little creek and I was able to cool her off.
We found Lora and Merlin a little ways up; they had both taken a nasty tumble in the creek. In retrospect, I should have tailed Sky up, because I didn't truly appreciate how steep and technical that canyon was! There were large boulders the horses had to step up on to and the climbing was relentless. Sky lost a boot at the bottom and did the entire climb barefoot on her right hind. Good thing she had not yet shed her sole in that foot!
Right at the top at Devil's Thumb, there were water troughs. Again, in retrospect, I should have kept her walking the mile into Deadwood so she could have walked out her fatigued muscles before immediately stopping. As it were, she gulped water and I was rummaging around in my pack looking for a spare boot. I started to cool her and noticed a muscle tremor right above her stifle. Not good. I immediately pulled her away from the trough and started walking slowly into Deadwood. I walked right up to Dr. Lydon and asked if he could take a look at her. I hadn't cooled her or anything. He thought I was asking to vet through and to my surprise she had already pulsed down. This reassured me a little bit. I told him about her muscle tremor and he told me to walk her around and then trot her out. He couldn't see anything and said her gut sounds and hydration parameters were good. He passed me on the vet check.
I knew we still had two canyons to Foresthill and it just wasn't worth it to risk having a problem in the next canyon. I told Dr. Lydon that I was going to pull her and unceremoniously ended our Tevis journey. I had to wait for transport and there was a horse colicking, so I elected to give her some fluids so she could be comfortable in the wait and long trailer ride out of Deadwood. It took about 4 hours total to get back to Auburn.
While I was disappointed, it was amazing to hear the next day that Lora had finished along with Abigail on her mule. I just about cried watching 75 year old Jesse Caswell trot into the finish on Apollo. I loved watching the Haggin Cup judging and the award ceremony the next day. It was an emotional year for a number of reasons; stories of loss and hope and triumph abounded. Just being a part of this event was really something I'll never forget.
The most important part was that my horse was happy, healthy and moving out great afterwards in Auburn. When I got her home, she bucked around the pasture and her legs feel cold and tight. I think that's pretty good for 55 miles of really tough trail. Not sure what our next step is; for now Sky gets a long deserved break!