Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Great American Horse Race: Wild Terror on Horseback - Part II

Wednesday February 16 2011

(Part I is here.)

Wild horses in Nevada. Severe hail storms. White Lightning (not the weather kind). Humidity. Chiggers. Music around the campfire. Heat rash. Beautiful country. Lady Godiva. Sickness. Sillyness. Adventure.

And through it all, she rode.

They started in Frankfurt, New York, 91 optimistic riders on the Great American Horse Race - they were dubbed 'the 76'ers after the pioneers that preceded them 200 years before - bound for Sacramento, California, 3200 miles and 99 days away. Fanfare and a parade sent riders on their way on Memorial Day, May 31, 1976.

17-year-old Valorie Briggs was on the starting line, donning a bonnet that her great grandmother had made for her, and wearing jeans and boots - endurance attire back in those days. Her half Arabian half mustang Tiki wore his attire - an old McClellan saddle and long-shanked snaffle bit; they were leading their anglo Arabian partner Chuluck. Valorie's mother, Mary Lou Briggs, was also on the starting line on her horse Daniel (the Arabian stallion, Kimfaris, that she had hauled across the country had died suddenly before the race started, from a previously undiagnosed disease), though Mary Lou ended up dropping out after about a week.

They all almost dropped out. At Watkins Glen, New York - not a week into the Great American Horse Race - the organization ran out of money and the ride stalled. According to a document on the ride, "Although race founder Randy Scheiding put the purse in Escrow in Sacramento, there was no guarantee that the race would ever get that far."

Valorie remembers her dad helping form a riders' committee that started collecting money from riders - which wasn't part of the original deal - and pooling it together to pay the vets and vet students, pay for the ride help and support crews, and keep the ride going. "They were very seriously considered shutting the ride down," Valorie says. "But everybody had worked for a long time to get their horses ready, to get back there [to New York]; this was their dream. And so we formed a committee. They all put their heads together to figure out how we could keep this thing going." This wasn't something for a teenager to worry about anyway. For Valorie, she was on an adventure, riding her horses across the United States.

One dramatic aspect of the race that left a big impression on Valorie was Mother Nature.

"Places like Kansas, Missouri... they have hailstorms and rainstorms that are so bad, you can see 'em coming from miles away, a wall of black coming, and you know you'll have just a couple of minutes before it hits you. You'd put your poncho on, and pull it down so you could barely see out of the eye hole, and it would still drench you. Drenched. It would hit so hard it would almost knock you and the horses over.

"I remember thinking after I got home, that I had always thought it rained a lot in Oregon... and I realized that the weather in the West is much nicer than anywhere else!"

Valorie also remembers being pelted lightning across the plains. "One rider got knocked off the horse by the lightning coming close by. I also remember crossing over this railroad track, and I heard the lightning strike the track somewhere down the way - you could hear it sizzle through the track, and I thought, what if you clipped a horseshoe on that railroad track when the lightning hit - you'd be fried!"

Then there was the White Lightning.

Valorie was too young to drink, and didn't like it anyway, but she recalled the moonshine's established place around the campfire. "A lot of times we were in a dry camp, no electricity, and invariably someone would set up a circle of chairs and a start a campfire. Someone would get out the whiskey, and they'd break one of those chemical lights (glowsticks), and drop it down in the whiskey, so you could find the whiskey jug."

"Not everybody drank," Mary Lou remembers, "but some drank quite a bit! Valorie is one that actually broke up a party one night. because she broke a light stick, and she drew a skeleton on her one horse's butt (Chuluck, the dark bay), and she ran him around the edge of the camp, so they only saw the skeleton, not the horse.

"It scared people - they'd all had enough to drink - they didn't know what that was! That ended the party right there! The White Lightin' - it was powerful stuff, I guess!"

Regularly at night - when the ride hadn't lasted till after dark and the riders and crews weren't so exhausted they went straight to bed and collapsed - people gathered around the campfire for entertainment. Valorie's sister Denise would get out her accordion, and she and Valorie would start singing (they later had a quite successful start to a singing career, as "Valli and Dee"). "Everybody would sing, and we'd play music, drink whiskey and talk."

Valorie recalls the time in camp when a 'follower-on' or groupie of the ride, pulled a stunt. "This girl borrowed a really nice buckskin horse from a cowboy. She peeled off her clothes, and rode as Lady Godiva through camp."

Mary Lou adds, "And she did it the day that the Mormon Bishops had come to the camp to see the horses. They made her leave. She was no longer allowed in camp."

There was the time a rainstorm left a camp chair soaked, and one by one, people sat down and accidentally got a wet butt. It became a game to see how many other people could be enticed to sitting down in the chair. "It was hilarious. I bet there were 30 people there with wet butts! It was silly, but you amused yourself with whatever was there," Valorie says.

There were Johannas the Count from Austria, and his friend Walter from Germany, riding Icelandic ponies, and the time they needed to clip their hairy Icelandics because they were getting too hot. They happened to clip the ponies in a bathroom in a state park, because that was the only place they could plug in the clippers.

Mary Lou laughs recalling the incident with the state park rangers. "They told the riders, 'You can't clip those horses in here! You gotta get them out!' Johannas and Walter spoke no English - the rangers were talking gibberish to these guys - and they were just clipping away, and by the time the rangers got it through to their heads what they were saying, all 4 of the horses were clipped. There was hair everywhere in the bathroom!"

There were rest days along the trail... sort of. In some towns, locals would be invited to come out and see the Great American Horse Race riders and horses. Sometimes the riders saddled up and put on a little show. Jumps were set up once, to show what the Connemara pony could do. "Verle Norton [another competitor] and I were sitting there on our mounts, and he was actually making fun of the Connemaras, and said he was going to go jump with his mule. So we just took off together and raced over the jumps. I thought Tiki had much better form than the mule!"

In some towns, Mary Lou remembers the schools would be let out and the kids would be lining the streets as the riders went by. "People were excited about the race. The riders had fans! They'd be yelling, 'Valorie! Tiki!'" They'd bring out drinks and apples for the riders and horses."

But the Great American Horse Race wasn't all fun and games.

There were times when Valorie remembers it was no fun at all. "It was gruelling. If you were sick you still had to ride... I was really susceptible to heat rash. I can remember finding a creek; I'd find a flat rock and lay under water with only my head out. I was miserable."

Then there was the time she fell asleep in the sun too long. "When we were in Colorado, we had a day off, and i laid by the lake soaking up sun. I was in my swimming suit and got sunburned really bad, my whole back and the backs of my legs. I remember trying to get on and ride the next day with a really bad sunburn, sitting in the saddle in my jeans... that was painful, and i was really sore for several days. Yea, that was a bad move!"

There were chiggers. There was humidity. "Back east, Pennsylvania somewhere, there were a few days of humidity. Both Tiki and I were sick. He had hives, I had hives... I don't do well with humidity. And that was the only thing that bothered Tiki the whole trip. His pulse would be down in the vet checks, but sometimes we couldn't get his respiration low."

Keeping the horses comfortable and healthy was the priority of everybody in the ride. All the worming and vaccinations had been taken care of at home in Oregon well before the race. During the race, the Briggs had (at the time) a rather innovative setup in camp for their horses - an electric fence that they ran off the generator of the truck. While many horses in the race spent their nights tied to their trailers or high lined every night, Valorie's horses were able to stretch out and lay down whenever they wanted.

Every night their legs were bandaged. When the ride passed through Kentucky, they met an old Standardbred groom who gave them a secret formula liniment to put on the legs. "Everything was in it - tuttles, witchhazel, alcohol..." It could be rubbed on the legs or put in a bucket for soaking. It felt good to sore human joints, also.

Shoeing was a hot topic. Valorie's shoer had worked for a year on her horse's shoes before figuring out what would be the best way to do a ride across the country. "I wound up with a leather pad, with silicone underneath to keep anything from getting under there, and then a 'half round shoe' with borium on it." The shoe was shaped and gotten ready, then borium was run all around the toe and on the heels and welded on. "It's harder than steel, so your shoes don't wear through the borium. Tiki never wore out his shoes. We probably shod him every 4 weeks."

A half Orlov stallion had been entered in the race, but the owner didn't know about borium. The horse constantly wore right through his shoes, and was being re-shod every 5 days, to where eventually he had no hoof to nail to. He didn't last long in the race.

Nothing about the trail was intimidating for Valorie. But then, with all the crazy things she did on horseback growing up, she didn't scare easily. "Every day was an adventure in that the trails were always different; there were some that were pretty, some that were easy and some that were a little rougher, but none of the trails were bad enough that you thought 'Wow, i wouldn't want to have to ride that trail again!' "

She got bucked off only once but she had a good excuse. She'd ridden Tiki the first half of the day, and switched to Chuluck the second half of the day. She usually kept both horses saddled, and led the extra one with a rope and halter. Instead of leading Tiki by hand on this day, she'd put a jerk knot in the lead rope, attached to the back of her McClellan, where she could just jerk it loose if she needed to untie him.

Riding into a town at the end of the day, she came to a stoplight where a man was directing the way to camp. "We were on a paved street at a 4-way intersection, and when we stopped, there were cars behind me, cars going different directions. Tiki walked up to Chuluck and put his head down to smell something on the pavement, Chuluck stepped sideways and got his hind leg over the rope, and soon as he did that, Tiki raised his head, and the rope ran right up the crack of his butt, and Chuluck started bucking in the middle of this intersection - with Tiki still attached to him. I was thinking, Number One, he's going to kick Tiki in the head and kill him, and I'm out of the race, and Number Two, he's going to throw me on this pavement and I'm going to die!

"We always rode with a 'Mountain Tie', where you can get down and jerk your cinch loose on your saddle. It's saved my life more than once. Somehow, from the saddle, while Chuluck was bucking, I reached down and yanked my jerk knot loose, and the entire saddle came off. And as soon as it came off, there was no reason for Chuluck to buck, and he stopped and stood there, and Tiki was standing tied to the saddle laying in the middle of the street."

Mary Lou said, "People said they'd never seen anybody unsaddle a horse while on top of it!" Of course it was just one of the things Valorie had learned when growing up.

One thousand miles down the trail, the Great American Horse Race arrived in Hannibal, Missouri to rest a few days and participate in Fourth of July celebrations. At the time, Valorie was in 5th place, and her photo was one of six that graced an article about the race in Sports Illustrated.

But just four hundred miles later, with over half the race completed, in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Valorie decided to scratch Chuluck. He was starting to consistently come up with a sore shoulder. That pretty much ended any chances of her winning the race, since trailering a horse doubled the riders' ride time for the day. While that was a disappointment, Valorie still had the goal of riding across the rest of the country with her little half mustang.

And they did it. Tiki carried Valorie the 1400 miles, across the flat plains, into Wyoming and Utah ("beautiful country!"), across Nevada and into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Their route took them over part of the Tevis trail, and ended on September 5, Labor Day, in Sacramento, California.

It was 59-year-old Virl 'the Mule Man' Norton from California who claimed first prize with his two mules, Lord Fauntleroy and Lady Eloise. Out of 54 finishers, Valorie Briggs finished 14th. Her horse Tiki looked like he'd just been out for a few days' ride: he'd gained weight over the summer and his coat was dappled out.

Though Valorie hadn't won, the enormity of her accomplishment struck her then, and still resonates strongly in her today. "We did something that nobody had ever done before - ride across the United States, something we'd have the rest of our lives. I can say, I rode my horse from New York to California! It really was an adventure."

With the inevitable question of, Would she do it again, Valorie gets a faraway look in her eyes. "I could still do it today. There's a lot of things i can't do at my age (52) that I could do as a teenager, and I might be a little more tired at the end of the day... but i could still do it.

"And actually, I'm a far better and more knowledgeable horseman now than I was when I was a farm kid in Oregon. I could ride then, but now I have years and years of knowing horses. If I knew then what I know about horses now, I would have won the ride."

Valorie breaks into a smile. "I'd go find me the right horse, and they'd have to beat me. It wouldn't be a Gimme!"

If she does ever try it again, don't bet against her.

*Photos from Valorie's scrapbooks*
Top: Valorie riding Chuluck and ponying Tiki
Bottom: Valorie riding Chuluck and ponying Tiki, riding alongside the eventual winner, Virl Norton and his 2 mules

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Merri - Thank you, I thoroughly enjoy reading the stories about the Great American Horse Race.