A Horse of a Different Color

As the final ‘official’ (=involving an entry fee and credit for the miles) piece of our Tevis conditioning work, Jenn and I did the Shine and Shine Only 75. ?We’d done the same ride a month earlier and, as the course is fairly repetitive in just one pass, ?we decided to mix it up by swapping ponies.

I hadn’t ridden Czoe in a very long time. ?And the last time had involved me landing in an ignominious heap at her feet. ?You see, Czoe doesn’t much care for leg. ?I made the mistake of giving her a bop to move her over and next thing I knew I was on the ground.

So I did ride her a couple of times the week prior to the race, and she was pretty tame. ?You’ll remember when I introduced her that I described her as a bit of a handful that Jenn rides skillfully with the benefit of a long set of legs. ?I’m fresh out of length in the leg area.

Jenn assured me that on race day Czoe would be all business, so we loaded up and headed to San Jose.

The start was at 6:00 AM, which was a bit of a gift from ride management. ?A 75 usually kicks off in the wee hours to ensure riders maximum daylight to finish in (you have 18 hours to complete the course). ?The previous month we’d had to set off at 5:30. ?But this time they decided that the weather (not too hot) and the field (small group of seasoned competitors) warranted letting everyone sleep in a bit. ?Trust me, a half hour more of sleep in these situations is as welcome as would be the installation of a Starbucks at base camp. ?Wait, that might just be me.

Anyway, we crossed the dawn-lit start line (chalk in the dirt across a fire road) and headed out in company with the entire field of about five other riders competing in the 75. ?The overall event had a larger total number of riders, but most of them were in the 50 mile race with a handful doing the limited distance 25 mile ride.

We let the other riders go out just in front of us. ?Czoe didn’t think that was cool. ?She let me know about her dissatisfaction by compacting herself into a tight little bundle of tension-infused muscle and doing what we call her ‘angry Roman horse prance’. ?This spectacle involves pinned ears, tightly-arched neck, and front feet thrown out in an exaggerated manner with each step. ?It’s actually really handsome, but it kind of cracks us up.

Pretty quickly we passed one pair of riders. ?Two guys (we know all of these people pretty well) introduced a fairly significant lead and another male rider bounced between them and us for the first 15 miles. ?At that point we arrived at the first vet check where the leaders had better than five minutes on us. ? The bouncing rider came in ahead of us but took longer than we did getting his horse to pulse down so we in effect passed him there.

Leaving that first vet check with another 17 miles to go until the hour-long vet hold back at camp, we started to strategize. ?The two horses in front of us were carrying substantially heavier loads than our mares, the guys were both ‘heavyweights’, weighing in at 250+ lbs. ?Jenn and I were both riding right at 165 (minimum requirement to compete at the international level). ?Due to that weight load, the leaders were consistently walking the uphill portions of the trail. ?We knew we could ask our mounts to jog the hills at minimum and still not run out of horse.

So we decided to make our move no later than mile 57 where the course would repeat on a significant portion of uphill trail.

As it worked out, we caught them shortly after heading out of the hour hold – closer to mile 40 – in a rolling section of trail. ?The mares were very jubilant in putting the horses they’d been ghosting all morning definitively behind them – horses are kind of poor sports – but we waved in a friendly manner to the riders as we swept by.

We came into the second-to-last hold (a vet check where it’s mandatory to spend time) a little better than 15 minutes ahead. ?And one of the two guys had dropped out – his horse hadn’t felt right to him so he pulled – leaving us with one serious threat.

At that point, though, the ride was going pretty good for us, the mares were settled into the groove (very little angry Roman prance) and vet checks were breeze. ?So we were able to open a 20-25 minute lead on the one remaining competitive horse. ?The other three horses in the field were much farther back. ?I think the last pair, that we passed early on, finished as much as three hours after us. ?Over a 75 mile course, a field of horses that starts together can get really strung out.

In the end, Czoe and I finished first with Jenn and Stella immediately behind. ?Pretty fun stuff.

One interesting note on this ride – gates. ?If I were to rewrite that “things a Tevis-bound horse should know” post as just a “things an endurance horse should know”, I’d add how to work gates. ?There aren’t any in Tevis, so it’s irrelevant there, but where we live and do quite a bit of conditioning and racing, cattle are being pastured. ?Hence the gates.

Bear has a pretty good handle on gates, and my horse Tosca is a pro. ?Czoe has really started to come into her own as a good gate pony, and during this ride she was a gem. ?The real trick is for the horse to ‘get’ what’s going on at least enough to stand quietly right next to what appears to be a piece of fence. ?And to allow the rider to lean and shift his/her weight in odd ways. ?Then – once the gate is unlatched – to proceed through, often with the rider still off-balance (holding onto the thing), quietly. ?The peak of gate performance is when you can get your horse to maneuver so that you work the gate completely from one side and he moves out of the way so you can hold it open for other riders to pass through.

That’s frequently where things fall apart for Bear. ?He gets the ‘open’ and ‘go through’ bits, but if I ask him to patiently wait while other horses go ahead of him, he starts to come apart at the seams.

Stella will someday be an amazing gate horse because she is so smart. ?But it will take some time because she had a bad gate experience (got whapped in the butt by one, I believe) so she’s right now working on just going through them quietly.

It’s all a journey.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!