Barbara White, 64, rides her 11-year-old mare across No Hands Bridge east of Auburn, Calif. (pop. 13,330), trotting through early morning fog in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
White grins and waves to her mother, Julie Suhr, 88, who stands at the end of the bridge alongside other well-wishers cheering for competitors in the Tevis Cup, the nation’s most grueling equine endurance ride.
“I know the nervousness and excitement they’re all feeling,” says Suhr, a former competitor who 22 times completed the one-day, 100-mile ride on the Western States Trail.
Last October, 177 horsemen and women from around the world, ranging in age from 12 to 69, began the ride, and 123 finished within the required 24 hours to earn a coveted sterling silver belt buckle emblazoned with a Pony Express rider. White received her 31st buckle, more than any other entrant.
“For me the challenge has always been the trail, not the other riders,” says White, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Scotts Valley, Calif. (pop. 11,580). “We cheer for each other, and there’s no shame in not finishing. The slogan of endurance riding is ‘to finish is to win.’”
Tough and swift
The ride originated in 1955 when Auburn banker and lumberman Wendell Robie rode the Western States Trail in less than 24 hours to win a bet and prove that modern horses are as tough and swift as the Pony Express steeds that delivered mail in 1860 between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif.
As more people participated in the annual ride, veterinarians were invited and rules were implemented for the Tevis Cup, named in 1959 after California financier Lloyd Tevis, whose descendants donate a silver cup to the winner.
Typically, the Tevis Cup is a summertime ride from Truckee, Calif., to Auburn, but lingering snowdrifts last July and a snowstorm a few days before the rescheduled race in October forced organizers to reroute the course as an out-and-back from Auburn instead of traversing the high-elevation Sierra Nevada.
The mountainous terrain tests both horse and rider as they ascend and descend alpine peaks and canyons, navigate rocky slopes and cliff ledges, and cross bridges and rivers. Weather and visibility also can be a factor as all riders depart before sunrise and most finish after sunset.
“Triple-digit temperatures in the canyons, dust and rocks are some of the biggest obstacles with the traditional route,” White says. “Through it all, you have a tremendous bond with your horse and take care of each other.”
Teams on the trail
During the Tevis Cup, riders take two mandatory one-hour rests and encounter 10 checkpoints where veterinarians monitor the horses’ health. Horses deemed unfit to continue are disqualified.
“The horses are fine-tuned athletes and have been training for this event for months,” says head veterinarian Dr. Greg Fellers, 65, whose crews check each animal for heart, respiratory, digestive and gait problems.
Each riding team also has a crew of friends and family who feed and water the horse during required stops, so the rider can eat and rest. Some riders and horses have traveled the Western States Trail numerous times. Others are novices.
“It’s my first 100-mile ride,” says Barrak Blakeley, 12, of Terrebone, Ore., who last year earned his first Tevis Cup belt buckle. “It’s such a thrill. The trail is challenging and super beautiful.”
Another young competitor, Rachel Shackelford, 19, of Lincoln, Calif., finished second in last year’s race. “I’ve been riding Cody since I was 5,” she says of her 17-year-old Arabian horse. “He’s awesome and has so much heart for endurance rides.”
Shackelford rode most of the race alongside family friend Jeremy Reynolds, 32, a farrier from Los Gatos, Calif., who won the 2011 Tevis Cup, repeating his first-place performances in 2004 and 2007.
“Winning Tevis is huge and exhilarating,” says Reynolds, who finished the race in 10 hours, 31 minutes astride his 7-year-old Arabian Riverwatch. “For weeks afterward, you feel like you’re floating.”
Joy in the journey
While winning the Tevis Cup in record-setting time is the goal of competitive riders, most just want to finish and enjoy the forested scenery along the rugged mountain route.
“For most endurance riders, the trail and being with their horse is the real prize,” says Kathleen Henkel, executive director of the Auburn-based American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), which prohibits cash prizes for winners.
The 5,300-member AERC annually sanctions more than 700 rides—ranging from 25 to 150 miles—across the United States and Canada. Founded in 1972 by Suhr and other endurance-riding enthusiasts, the organization promotes the sport across the globe.
“The Tevis ride has taken me to the corners of the world,” says three-time winner Hal Hall, 57, an Auburn resident who has competed in endurance races in Australia, Europe, Japan and the Middle East.
Still, some of Hall’s favorite riding trails aren’t far from his California home. “I can’t get enough of the adventure and wild beauty of riding in the Sierra Nevada,” says Hall, a member of the Western States Trail Foundation, a group committed to preserving the route once traveled by gold miners and Pony Express riders.
“This trail will be here for future generations to enjoy,” says Kathie Perry, 68, foundation president, who has completed the Tevis Cup ride 21 times. “People have adopted one-mile trail sections to maintain every year.”
White, also a foundation member, plans to return to the storied trail again next month in pursuit of her 32nd Tevis Cup belt buckle. “The trail is wonderful, and like every year, the joy is in the journey,” she says.