The average trail horse and rider travels about three miles an hour, mostly at a walk. They meander over trails and ease up and down hills, wade across creeks and occasionally climb to the top of a mountain taking time to enjoy the sights of the back country. The trails are usually well defined; wide, and generally don’t follow the top of a cliff or cross the face of a cliff. For a couple of riders who have Bitterroot roots, this was a little too sedate. Instead, they opted to make a 100-mile ride over the Sierras in 24 hours, traveling at a rate of about 10 to 12 miles an hour at a brisk trot. About 50 miles of the course are on trails that are 16-24 inches wide with drop-offs of 1,000 to 2,000 feet.
The Tevis Cup has been billed one of the top 10 extreme endurance events in the world according to Time magazine. Following the historic Western States Trail, the event begins at Robie Park just outside of Truckee, California. It ends at the fairgrounds in Auburn, California. The trail follows trails that were first traversed by settlers and later gold miners during the California Gold Rush. It crosses rivers, mountain passes, goes up and down canyons, through a couple of mountain towns and even a ghost town.
There are vet check stops situated throughout the course to make sure the horse is not stressed. The horses are checked for heart rate, respiration rates, hydration, soundness and overall condition. In addition there are two mandatory hour-long rest stops where horses eat and rest.
Kathy Edman of Florence and Drin Harrington Becker, who grew up in Florence and now lives in Polaris, rode in the 57th Annual Tevis Cup the first weekend in August. Although they began the race together at 5:15 a.m. on Saturday, August 4th, and rode most of it with each other, Edman’s horse was pulled after 85 miles because his hindquarters tightened up. Becker went on to finish the race and earn the Tevis Cup buckle. (Only those who finish the race earn this coveted buckle.) She finished the race Sunday morning at 4:20 a.m.
“We had told each other going into the race that we would try to keep together,” said Becker. “But we also knew that this was a race and we had to do what was needed to get to the finish line.”
Becker’s trip to the Tevis Cup actually began about 17 years ago when she decided to make the Tevis her goal. Becker grew up riding. The Harrington family competed in gymkhanas around the state but as she grew older, Becker took an interest in endurance riding. She estimates she’s been doing the long distance riding for about 30 years. She had done some 100-mile rides but they were not over a mountain range. Once she set her goal, she knew she had to have a special horse. She leased an Arabian mare and then bred that mare to a stallion whose pedigree was strong in endurance. The result of that was a sorrel mare she called Ruffy.
From early on, Becker knew this mare was a special horse. The two had a connection of trust and as the mare aged, Becker set out to train her Tevis Cup horse. Because a horse really doesn’t reach maturity until nine or 10 years old, Becker didn’t think of competing in the Tevis Cup until about four years ago. And then she broke six vertebra in her back. After she recovered, she set her sights on the 2011 Cup and was set to enter the event when Ruffy was in an accident. The mare was in a scuffle with a couple of other horses and ended up falling over onto a jackleg fence and bruising her back. The race was done before it even started for Becker and Ruffy.
But Becker didn’t give up on her dream and after having her horse declared sound, they set upon getting back in shape. Becker estimates she rides from 10 to 20 miles every other day. Because Polaris, located over near Elkhorn Hot Springs at the southern end of the Big Hole Valley, is at 7,000 feet, training here for a race that reaches even higher altitudes is an advantage. In addition to the training rides, Becker adapted her saddle so the bars of the saddle were not on the spot where the horse was injured last year. By early summer, Becker knew Ruffy was ready to try the Tevis Cup again.
While Becker had spent years planning her Tevis ride, Edman came into the endurance riding challenge as a relative newcomer to the sport. Although she grew up riding and showed horses when she was young, Edman took several years off while she raised her three kids. Once they were older, she decided to get back into riding. Her husband, Scott, wanted a safe horse for her and did some research to find a ‘mellow’ horse. He came upon the Kentucky Mountain Saddle horse. This breed was reputed to be sound in the mountains, easy-going and willing to do everything. He found three-year-old broke gelding and purchased him.
Pierce the Veil, or Pierce, as Edman calls him, is not your typical endurance race horse. He’s tall and lanky where most are smaller and compact. But he loved the trail work and about three years ago she decided to give the Tevis Cup a try. She knew she faced some difficult tasks to overcome. Most endurance horses are Arabian or at least part Arabian because the Arabians have a lower heart rate and recover much faster than other horses. Heart rate recovery is always checked at the vet stations. Because Pierce needed more time to recover because of a naturally higher heart rate, Edman had to incorporate this into her training methods. She said she would slow down to a walk almost 30 minutes before entering a check station and her crew was ready to cool him down by pouring water over him and scraping it off.
Edman did her training up Bass Creek and then up around Pattee Canyon where she would ride to the top of Mount Sentinel to the towers. She also had to get into shape and ran miles up in the mountains.
The two riders became friends and rode together in training rides whenever they could. They made the trip to Auburn together about two weeks prior to the race. Although it’s been a hot summer here, the temperature for the race would range from the 50’s early in the morning to over 100 degrees and then back down as the race progressed. With the rocks radiating the heat back and with higher humidity, these horses had a lot to overcome.
“80 degrees is hot here in Polaris,” said Becker. “So I had Ruff in her winter blankets all summer, except when I was riding her.”
When the two began the race, they both thought if they could make it until nightfall, they would be finishing because they would have lower temperatures then and it would be easier on their horses. But the night ride had its own challenges. Riding over rocks and along narrow trails is difficult enough in the daylight but at night, with little or no light, it’s downright dangerous. The ride is scheduled close to the full moon but a cloud cover kept the light down. Riders wear headlamps on their helmets but don’t use them all the time. They also have glow sticks fastened to their breast collars but that only throws a small circle of light.
“The glow sticks give enough light to see where the next stride is going to be and that’s about it,” said Becker.
The riders rely on each other if they are in a group with the lead rider calling back obstacles in the trail such as ‘rock’, ‘tree’ and so forth. Edman said it was a little disconcerting to hear the word ‘bear’ at one point. But the bear just went on by and the horses kept their heads down, watching the trail and didn’t pay any attention to the animal.
The two rode through the night to the vet check at Francsico’s at the 85-mile marker. Edman said Pierce was recovering well from each check and she felt they were going to make it. However the horse tightened up in his hindquarters right after the checkpoint.
“I was in tears at that point but knew we couldn’t go on,” she said. “The trust you have with a horse like this, and the trust he has in you, it’s something special.”
Becker continued on and a couple of miles outside of the checkpoint nearly met her own end. As the were crossing the north fork of the American River, Ruffy spooked as the water came up her hind legs. The mare went to bucking and went down in the water. Becker is not a swimmer and in fact, really doesn’t even like getting wet.
“We fell on our left side and I went completely underwater in about four and a half feet of water,” she said. “I had half chaps on and a helmet with a headlamp. I went under three more times trying to get out of the river.”
The horse had gotten out and was with the group waiting for Becker to get out of the water. Becker was afraid the horse would run off. She grabbed the horse’s reins and climbed back on to continue. However Ruffy had other ideas and went to bucking again. Becker had to climb off and lead the mare about a mile before the horse had settled down. There were 12 miles to go. She picked up the pace and crossed the finish line at 4:20 a.m.
Now that she has her buckle, Becker said she wouldn’t do that particular race again. “That ride really kicked my butt. I’m happy I finished so I don’t have to do it again.”
Her next endeavor will be another 100-mile ride. She is looking at doing the Vermont Moonlight Ride. “It’s on roads though, so it will be fun.”
As for Edman, she’s planning on going back to the Tevis Cup next year. “I can’t leave it undone.”
Becker will be right there with her, as her number one crew person.