In Massachusetts it’s been hot. Too hot for me to enjoy riding. Too hot for Zelda to be enthusiastic about being ridden. So when I watched some of the horse and rider combinations competing in the Tevis Cup two weeks ago, I was doubly impressed. Tevis is always a monster ride, with some of the most difficult terrain in the country. Riding the Tevis course with temperatures over 100 degrees is not for sissies. From the reports, the riders might have found it even harder for the horses!
Officially called the Western States Trail Ride, the Tevis course spans 100 miles and must be completed in 24 hours with a horse deemed fit to continue by a veterinarian. Many people in the 1950s doubted that any modern-day horse could cover the rugged trail from Lake Tahoe to Auburn in a single day. The inaugural ride took place in 1955, organized by Wendell Robie, an Auburn businessman and devoted rider of the Sierra high country. Wendell and four his friends — Bill Patrick, Nick Mansfield, Dick Highfill, Pat Sewell — proved them wrong in August of 1955. He continued to hold the ride annually thereafter and organized the Western States Trail Foundation to preserve the 100-mile trail and the Ride. The horse and rider that completes the ride in the fastest time wins the Tevis Cup Trophy, the horse that is the best conditioned wins the Haggin Cup, and every finisher earns a Tevis Buckle.
To compete in the Tevis Cup, the horse must be at least six years old at the time of the ride, and the rider must either have previously competed the Western States Trail ride or have completed a total of 300 miles of sanctioned rides. The minimum rider age is 12 and riders under 18 must be accompanied by an adult rider as a sponsor. Entries are capped at 210.
Interestingly, until 1961, the ride was not timed; the emphasis was on completion. For many years there was a minimum weight requirement. That no longer is the case. The most riders to start the race was 271, in 1987; in 1989, a limit of 250 was established.dash
The shortest time to win on the traditional course (the 2011 course was modified due to weather) was 10:46 – equal to 9.29 mph or 14.95 km/h – in 1981 by Boyd Zontelli on Rushcreek Hans. This year’s winner, Gabriela Blakeley on her horse, LLC Pyro’s Choice, finished with a time of 17 hours, 9 minutes. Since the course changes from year to year, it’s hard to make exact comparisons.
The most riders to start was 271 riders in 1987. A limit of 250 riders was established in 1989. This year, only 131 riders competed, a number attributed to several factors including the lack of prep rides because of Covid and the high price of gas. Only 59 riders completed this year. That makes the completion rate 45%, which is the sixth lowest completion rate since 1996. Keep in mind that there are 10 vet checks along the course which are extremely stringent and even the slightest indication of a horse being off would constitute a pull to avoid either further injury or further pain to the equine. Even if a horse gets through the vet checks and the rider knows something is not quite right they might go ahead and use the rider option pull.
- Of the 72 horses that withdrew, 22 were lame, 18 had metabolic issues (mostly not pulsing down fast enough), 14 were withdrawn by their riders, 9 went over time, 6 not reported, 1 surface factors, and 1 did not start.
- 18 of the horses retired at Robinson Flat (36 miles), 12 at Red Star Ridge (29 miles), and 2 were pulled at the Stadium after finishing with lameness.
- 33 of the 59 finishers completed after 4 a.m. (known as the “Buckle hour” which refers to the fact that it’s the last hour that rider’s can earn a buckle as the must finish within 24 hours)
- All horses eliminated for being over time were from Robinson Flat (4) 36 miles in, and Cal 2 (5) 78 miles in.
- 40 teams were pulled before they hit 50 miles (the halfway point)
1st place Tevis finisher, Gabriela Blakeley, has completed 6,865 endurance miles since 2005. This was her eighth Tevis race. She and Pyro won all five of their rides in 2022. Pyro is a 13 year old Arabian gelding. He’s completed 25 competitions, with 1590 miles since 2016, winning 11 and coming in second in 6 more. He competed at Tevis twice before, coming in 6th in 2017 and second in 2018, both times with Gabriela.
Perhaps the most unexpected fact about Pyro is that he is also a multiple regional champion country pleasure horse in his earlier life. The gelding won two regional championships as a four year old in country pleasure and began his endurance career in 2016 as a 7 year old. Hard to imagine a more drastic change in disciplines but it does emphasize the breed’s versatility
The not so good news
Sadly although there were many success stories (5 out of 7 junior riders completed the ride), there were three accidents that resulted in the deaths of two horses (riders were okay). Susie Kramer and A Ali Aseel (Steel) were one of the leaders in the race. The pair was navigating the trail of the first steep canyon which runs between Last Chance and the Swinging Bridge. Susie Kramer was leading Steel when the gelding fell from the trail and suffered catastrophic injuries. The pair were experienced competitors, finishing fourth in 2021. Steel – a 12-year-old grey Arabian gelding – had completed 2,360 miles of endurance competitions beginning in 2016. He was five for five in finishing 100-mile competitions coming into this year’s event.
The second fatality occurred at approximately 10 pm on Saturday, when Carrie Ellinwood and her horse Jamboree had completed about 72 miles of the ride. Near Cal 1 on the California Loop, Jamboree spooked and fell from the trail. Sweep Riders of the Sierra’s (SOS) came upon the pair and radioed in the emergency to Net Control. Rescuers were dispatched to the scene and Carrie was evacuated to an awaiting ambulance and taken to the hospital. She was examined and released.
Due to the difficulty of the terrain, a large animal rescue team was called to the site along with the VERT (Veterinary Emergency Rescue Team) from UC Davis to attempt to extract Jamboree. This endeavor had to wait until daylight on Sunday morning. Ultimately, the gelding was airlifted out of the canyon and was taken to UC Davis. Sadly, Jamboree succumbed to his injuries six days later.
In response to these incidents, the Western States Trail Foundation has announced a series of safety improvements for future races, focusing on the known dangerous areas along the trail. Their main area of focus will be the section of the riding trial between “Last Chance” and “Francisco’s” checkpoints, where there are plans in place to widen the trail, create a more stable base and remove any obstacles where possible.
The Foundation also intends to improve emergency response time and implement a more effective response strategy by stationing horse rescue teams along the course, with more located in areas identified as higher risk. They will help stage rescue equipment and provide veterinarian support to all rescue efforts.
Despite the challenging course, there have been very few fatalities over the years the race has been held. It’s tragic that so many horses experienced problems this year.