…And Why You Can Do It!
Stories have been told and written for decades about the tough challenges that need to be overcome to earn a Tevis Cup 100-Mile One-Day Western States Trail Ride buckle. As is often the case with human storytelling, many of these tales have taken on elaborate lives of their own, sometimes making it sound as if only those exceptional human beings and equines willing to tempt fate have a chance at success. The truth is that a fit horse and rider can have a safe and enjoyable ride by using common sense and determination. Some of what you have heard may have been exaggerated or embellished in the telling. The truth of the matter is described below.
The Tevis has terrifying trail sections. The Western States Trail is challenging, technical, and a true 100+ mile ride. An event doesn’t get named as a "Top Ten Toughest Endurance Event" in Time magazine for being a stroll in the park. The terrain continues to change as you travel from Truckee to Auburn, and it is relentlessly demanding. Be ready for a full day of staying focused and being a smart rider. However, don’t worry too much about the bogeyman, he's only there to help you. Sections of the trail are described in order as follows below:
I’ve seen those Cougar Rock photos. Is this a joke? No, it’s not a joke; it’s the iconic Tevis photograph that most riders want. Cougar Rock is a large volcanic outcropping that has been successfully traveled over by thousands of horses. At Cougar Rock the horse needs confident direction by the rider. Most problems occur when the rider allows the horse to stop and think about it. Stay forward and light in the saddle, but not restrictive, contact on his mouth and most importanly – keep your horse moving forward to the top! If the lines are too long at the base of Cougar Rock or you would simply rather not, there is a narrow bypass trail to the right.
Pucker Point? Don’t worry about it, just enjoy the view. You horse will have 47 miles under his girth by the time he gets there and should be controllable and relaxed. The stunning and panaramic views from Pucker Point overlook Screwauger Canyon. It's definitely worth a quick look. This area was impacted by the 2013 American Fire so many trees will be burned and will change the experience. The footing is safe, and you pass by it in just a few steps. No one has ever fallen into the abyss.
My horse doesn’t like bridges. What will happen to him (and me) on the Swinging Bridge? The Swinging Bridge was destroyed in the American Fire of 2013; however, it was reconstructed in the same fashion after the 2014 ride took place.
The Western States Trail travels across many bridges of different kinds, so in preparation, practice and master crossing bridges at home before you enter the Ride. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have swinging bridges nearby to introduce our horse to the swaying sensation, and the odds are that he won’t like it when he gets there. Try to have the Swinging Bridge to yourself; the more horses there are on the bridge, the more movement there will be. What is good is that the bridge is not long and doesn’t start to rock until you are about halfway across. Lead your horse, walking by his side and looking ahead to the other side of the bridge. When it does start to move, you will be more than halfway across. Stay calm and lead him purposefully. If he should bolt when you are by his side, he will not trample you in the process. Remount or start tailing on the other side, and continue up the canyon for about two miles to Devil’s Thumb. Most riders have no problem, whatsoever, crossing the Swinging Bridge. By all means, do not hold up other riders should your horse have trouble crossing a bridge.
Some riders prefer to avoid the Swinging Bridge entirely, and this can be done by crossing through the river below it. As the Western States Trail approaches the bridge, a narrow trail goes off to the left, down to the water. If you take your horse down for cooling, you have the choice of climbing back up to the trail and crossing the bridge or simply crossing directly through the water (the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River) and on up to the trail on the other side of the bridge. Areas of this can be deep and there are some larger boulders underneath the surface so take caution whichever way you choose to cross the river.
I’ve heard about horses going over the cliffs. The Western States Trail is narrow and precipitous in several sections. Tragically, horses have died falling off of the cliffs. Others have slipped, survived, and returned another year to complete. It’s rare and is a freak accident when it occurs. No rider has ever lost his life. The Western States Trail Foundation takes safety very seriously. In recent years, an ongoing, concerted effort to improve the trail has been made by the WSTF Trail Committee using machinery and both volunteer and professional manpower. Additionally, during the event, the Veterinary Emergency Response Team from UC Davis is on standby. A vast array of communication methods from ham radios to cell phones to computers and SPOT tracking keep the Ride’s Net Control informed of anything unusual. The well-trained Sweep Riders of the Sierra follow the horses down the trail and are prepared for emergency situations.
Do we have to swim the American River crossing? No, but you do have to cross it, without a bridge, at Poverty Bar. Nothing feels better on a hot summer night than to have your feet cooled by the moving river. The upstream Oxbow Dam controls the water flow by holding it back during the day of the Ride. This curtesy allows the horses to walk across safely. You will be guided by glow sticks in the shallow area but the water can still reach the belly of a horse in the deep sections. Volunteers are there to help, too. Savvy riders will remove their feet from the stirrups before entering the river just in case a quick separation from the horse is necessary.
I don’t know what the Black Hole of Calcutta is, but it sounds ominous. This is a small stream crossing about 2 ½ miles from the finish. The trail drops down and then climbs right back out from the stream. The crossing has almost complete tree cover, with no moonlight beaming through. It is black down there, but it provides a good chance for water for the horses and is safe. If you ride out from Auburn in the daylight on practice rides, you and your horse will be familiar with the Black Hole and will be ready to cross it in the dark on Ride night. Recently, the foliage that created the darkness has been trimmed back and is currently not as ominous as it once was.
In addition to demanding sections of trail, there are other tales of the Ride that give interested people pause before entering. You may have heard people say:
You need a very special horse to finish the Tevis Cup Ride. No, but you do need a well conditioned and healthy horse to finish the Tevis. If your horse is finishing 50-mile rides comfortably and has a good mind set to take care of himself along the way, he’s probably ready for the Tevis. Although many breeds of horses and mules have finished the ride, statistically Arabian horses seem to be most suited to cope successfully with the ardous challenge. Other breeds do well too, however. In some cases, such as a heavily muscled horse, the rider may need to take extra care to ensure his horse recovers well at the vet checks. Horses from age 6 into their 20’s, of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, have been successful. It has been said that more horses are overtrained than undertrained for Tevis. Bring a fit and well rested horse to the starting line, in good flesh, and you are increasing your chances to bring home the coveted buckle.
You need to be an extreme athlete to ride the Tevis Cup Ride. No! There are many ultra-runners and world class athletes who start the Ride each year. But there are more people who are fit, healthy, and optimistic who do fine without the rigors of cross training, personalized exercise routines, and fancy equipment. Buckle winners have ranged in age from the ages of 11 to 80 years- old. Many have finished, probably without a doctor’s consent, while battling chronic illnesses or nursing broken bones. While there is definitely a correlation between personal fitness and long term comfort on the trail, many people have finished the Ride dealing with less than favorable individual issues. This is where human mindset and desire can trump discomfort when the goal is deemed worthy. For most people, conditioning their own horses is the easiest way to condition themselves. And don’t forget the sunscreen.
Most years, only half of the starters finish successfully. This is true. However, most non-finishers come back and try it again successfully, even though it may take many years to succeed. One man tried for several years and was always pulled. The year he finally finished, he won the Haggin Cup. There is no shame in not finishing, it's the ability to toe the starting line and participate that is equally important. Almost all of the past winners of the Tevis and Haggin Cups, as well as those with decades of buckles, have been pulled from the Ride. Some say it is the times that you don't finish is when you learn the most.
The vets are too strict and there are a gazillion vet stops. The Tevis Cup Ride probably has more vet stops per mile than any other. While two of the stops have an hour hold, the others are gate-and-go. The veterinarians are among the very best in the sport of endurance riding, and they should be considered part of your team to get you through. Any concerns about your horse should be shared with them so they can advise you. Every vet and volunteer wants you to finish the ride, and they are there to do whatever they can to make that happen. Do not be afraid to ask for help! If your horse does develop problems and needs more than simple rest, treatment centers are set up at Foresthill and Auburn. Vets and vet students are there to run blood samples and treat your horse, as well as observe his recovery. You may also notice research studies being done at the Ride. If you have a chance to participate, please do. These studies result in information that will help endurance horses of the future.
The temperature can vary from freezing to extremely hot, all in one day. Yes, early mornings at the basecamp may be frosty. With the pen system for starting, however, all horses can have an adequate warm-up before going down the trail. For certain horses, a roll-up rump rug may be prudent. Riders should dress in layers. Remember, you won’t see your crew until Robinson Flat, which is 36 miles from the start, so dress in jackets that you can easily remove and store, or tie around your waist, as you trot along in the warming sun. Probably more challenging is dealing with the afternoon heat. Proper hydration of horse and rider is essential. Think about it in advance. You may want to clip your horse or learn what electrolyte protocol works best for him. At the very least, allow enough rest and rehydration after travel so he can replenish himself before the big day. Although the canyons often have triple digit temperatures, there is unlimited creek or river water at the bottom of each one. If your horse is overheating, take a few extra minutes standing in the cool water and applying it to his skin. The water heats up rapidly, so scrape it off and then apply more, repeatedly. Do the same for yourself; fill your helmet with water and let the refreshing coolness flow down your head. Know the signs of heat problems for both horses and people, and don’t climb up the canyons until both members of your team are revitalized. Make sure you as a rider are well fed and watered too.
It’s difficult to pass other riders on the Tevis. While there are plenty of roads and wide places to pass, much of the Western States Trail is just that, a single track trail. This means that the rider in front will have to pull off trail to let the overtaking rider pass. The rules of good sportsmanship require that passing should be allowed as soon as it is safe. Switchbacks tend to offer a little extra room and can be a good place for this. When fatigued or in discomfort, people can become impatient and irritable. Courtesy and good sportsmanship, with safety in mind, make passing and being passed very easy for everyone.
I’d like to try the Tevis, but I’m worried about riding in the dark. For many riders, the miles traveled after sundown are the highlight of the Ride. The temperatures have cooled and the horses seem to be reinvigorated as they move closer to the finish. People aren’t talking much, and the sounds of the river can be heard below. Some riders find it to be a very spiritual experience. The Ride is held annually as close to the Riding Full Moon of mid-summer as possible. When it is out, the moon can seem blindingly bright. Flashlights should be carried but are usually not needed. The trail is well marked with glow sticks. Horses purportedly see better in the dark than humans; now is the chance for your mount to be the team leader. You may find that trees and bushes take on a distorted appearance, and your own equilibrium will be affected. Trust your horse. Accidents have occurred when riders, unable to see clearly, have forced their horses into dangerous situations. It is recommended that you practice in the dark prior to Ride weekend. A number of people suffer motion sickness riding at night. If you learn this about yourself in advance, you can find ways to remedy it before Ride day; nausea and vertigo are not your friends when you have been up for 24 hours and have been exercising the entire time. Ginger, for example, is a good and easy remedy for nausea. Also, a word about flashlights is called for. Turning them on and off is annoying to man and beast. The eyes are required to repeatedly readjust to light and darkness, and it is confusing to the horses. You will be very unpopular if you turn on bright flashlights. Carry a red flashlight if you must, and put glow sticks on your horse’s breast collar if you like subtle illumination on the ground. You will be very popular, on the other hand, if you ride a grey or white horse and wear a white shirt. People behind you can easily see you to follow. If you are leading a group through the dark, your hand signals probably won’t be visible. It’s courteous to call out trotting or slowing or steep uphill, and so forth, to aid those behind you. Most of the sections of the trail ridden in the dark are very safe, and you may be surprised by how fast you can comfortably go and how much fun it is.
Finishing the Tevis Cup Western States Trail Ride is not a big deal. Many riders dismount at the finish and pronounce, “That was horrible. I’m never doing that again." Some of them actually mean it. More people, however, enjoy that wonderful sense of satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a worthy goal. They may not return the next year or even the next decade, but most come back sometime, either to ride, to crew or to volunteer. They join thousands of others who are unable to resist the call of an incredible event, held annually under the full moon, on a historic trail over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
"What they had done, what they had seen, heard, felt, feared – the places, the sounds, the colors, the cold, the darkness, the emptiness, the bleakness, the beauty. ‘Til they died, this stream of memory would set them apart, if imperceptibly to anyone but themselves, from everyone else. For they had crossed the mountains…" --Adapted from Bernard DeVoto, The Course of Empire (1952)