Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Best Horse Endurance Ride in Wyoming

August 26 2015

Time for another road trip!

Pickett Crick loaded up and headed to southwest Wyoming for the I Know You Rider endurance ride over the August 21-23 weekend.

"I Know You Rider" is not some random name for a friendly endurance ride, where people happen to recognize each other out on trail, even under helmets and sunglasses. You Deadheads already know that "I Know You Rider" is a Grateful Dead song. Ride manager Beth Buzis' husband John is a Deadhead. And you'd be excused if you mistook him for Jerry Garcia. I hear he also plays a mean guitar.

The Buzis family and friends put on this multi-day ride for the 5th (and last) time, near Evanston. A railroad town in the 1860's, Evanston is now a natural gas siphon (and a guns and shooting territory! Lots of "No Shooting!" signs, and empty cartridges everywhere), and a recreation area for hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, ATVing, snowmobiling. And shooting.

It's also right on the edge of Butch Cassidy territory. Riding in the West makes it easy for imaginations to run wild, and the hills and mountains and the Bear River and the Wyoming wind all make you feel like you could be out there trying to dodge the posse as your dust swirls skyward. I bet you a couple of Butch's horses once laid prints on a couple of the trails we travelled.

Ridecamp, at 6650', sat in a little valley through which the wind either tumbled, blasted, or roared, depending on its whim (there exists a Windy Wyoming Equestrian Association - wonder how they came up with that name!). Steph, and Carol, and honorary Pickett Crickers Helen and Ann circled their wagons (horse trailers) to shield us and our horses from some of the wind.

On Friday, Smokey and Steph, August and Carol, and Dudley and I headed out on the 50 mile trail. DWA Emigree and Helen, and DWA Nadra and Ann rode out ahead of us, and Saruq and Connie, and Dezzie and Sarah took to the trail behind us. There were only 14 starters on the 50.

I've always felt a little buck in Dudley, particularly at the start of rides. Sometimes he's good, sometimes he's not quite good, and this particular morning, I felt The Dude was going to be a bit amped up. But since the first 3/4 of a mile out of camp was uphill along a rocky trail, Dudley had to pay a lot more attention to where he was putting his feet than where all his hot competition was, so by the time we were at the top of that first little mountain juniper hill, happily, the buck potential was gone!

Deb and Paschal Karl were on top of that first little mountain, taking pictures from spots with great views - that is, if only the smoke from the fires burning up the West hadn't been so bad.

We can blame Deb and Paschal for distracting us from watching the trail, because shortly after we passed those two, we missed a turn and went a few extra hills before we realized we were just following Helen and Ann, but not any ribbons. They had also missed the turn. We missed it because many people tend to watch and follow riders ahead of them instead of watching the trail closely, including us! Once we figured out we had gone wrong, we turned around to find the correct turn and trail; and afterwards, we all turned into eagle-eyed ribbon followers and hoof print trackers. Even the person riding in the back (who usually never watches for ribbons) kept a sharp eye out. We didn't get lost again!

The trail followed mostly 2-track sagebrush- and blooming rabbit brush-lined dirt roads, up high on the mountain flats, and back down into broad valleys. We followed many "Warning - No Digging, Poison Gas" signs, marking the natural gas pipelines buried under our feet, and we carefully dodged the monster badger holes pocking the valley floors. The smart badgers must heed the signs when they dig their holes.

Our trail took us across the Bear River - which all of our horses were mighty suspicious of until they got out into the middle of it. Right about here the three of us were joined by Vicki from Montana, an endurance rider with a cute, energetic Arabian named Stahr Kon and a terrific laugh. "If I had the energy, I'd ride him in a 100!" she said at the end of the day, as her horse felt like he had a lot of gas left in his tank. Our horses paced well together, matching strides and switching off the lead, and waiting patiently for each other when a few boots flew off hooves up the "steep rocky hill" after we crossed the Bear River a second time. (Personally I'd have called this a "steep-a$$ rocky hill").

The Bear River was a lovely, quiet meandering flow lined with cottonwood trees, dotted with herons and ducks and coots of all flavors, who were startled by horses suddenly appearing in their tranquil universe.

We had a pulse-down and trot-by vet check at about 20 miles by the Woodruff Narrows Reservoir. There was no hold, but our horses took advantage of the hay and the yummy slop of bran and oats and carrots in a tub, while we ate yummy sandwiches and wraps provided by Ride Management. Smokey had food smeared all over her head and ears and neck, because she never lifted her head from the tub as the other horses lifted their heads and chewed and dribbled all over her.

Back on trail, we retraced some of our dusty footsteps on the 10 miles back to camp. The wind had kicked up by now, but we'd have been awful hot without it. Maybe it was the wind that goosed Dudley (or, possibly the thought of leaving all that good slop behind), because at 25 miles: Dudley bucked! I knew it was in him - but at 25 miles?? That was his only one though.

Through another valley, up another hill, we approached camp from the ridge to the west for the hour vet check.

The second loop of 20 miles headed south on a lollipop loop. We had a couple of miles of flat trotting before we came upon Beth's Hill Of Near Death. I didn't hear the story on that one, but the road was very short and steep and rocky, conjuring up all kinds of near-death scenarios. We took the marked zigzag trail down beside it!

It was pretty warm as we trotted along despite the wind, and we were all, horses and humans, looking forward to that farthest point on the 'pop loop where the horses could get a drink at water troughs and where we'd turn around to head back to camp. I'd joked and hinted the night before at the ride meeting about how delicious Otter Pops are out on trail.

And boy was I thrilled when the humans manning the water stop turned out to be Otter Pop Guys! Otter Pops are truly one of the best treats an endurance rider can get out on trail. Mine was big, red, icy, and stunningly refreshing. The horses had a good long drink. We were all energized after that nice treat as we turned back for home.

The miles flew by, back to Beth's Hill of Near Death that the horses dug in and climbed up (on the side trail!), and in just a few more miles we were descending the hill back to Ridecamp.

10 of 11 riders finished the 50, with Christoph Schork and GE Pistol Annie winning, and 3rd place Idahoan Tamara Baysinger and HHR Jammazon winning Best Condition.

We opted to ride only Day 1 so we packed up and left on Saturday, but it was a treat getting to ride for the first time in Wild Windy Wonderful Wyoming in the Best Horse Endurance Ride in Wyoming, as honorary Deadheads.

More photos can be seen at:

Thursday, August 6, 2015

2015 Tevis Cup Luck

August 6 2015

So much of the Tevis Cup is Luck. Each horse and rider starts with a dose of Tevis Cup Luck; but it begins to trickle away at the starting line at 5:15 AM, and by the end of the ride, if you haven't used it all up, you've got a Tevis buckle.

Start with a fit horse and healthy rider, and your chance of finishing is still barely 50%. It's a tough trail to ride, a tough ride to crew.

Most people you talk to who have both ridden the trail and crewed for riders will confirm (and often emphatically!) that they'd rather ride than crew. I rode and finished Tevis in 2009; I'd helped crew for Nance a year or two after that… but I wasn't really one of the persons responsible. I had to step up to the plate a little more this year, no fancy cameras, no running off to take photos or take notes. I had riders to crew for!

Steph and I crewed this year for our Idaho friend Nance, who was sponsoring two Junior Canadians, Anya and Katya Levermann. I'd helped crew before so I had an idea of what to expect, and I knew where to go, which was essential for first time crew-ers Steph and parents Katrin and Peter Levermann.

It was shaping up to be an extraordinary Tevis Cup, with 5 previous winning riders and 2 winning horses; and 7 Haggin Cup riders and 4 Haggin Cup horses contesting this year's 60th Anniversary on August 1. But, with our slower riders (Nance has, like many Tevis finishers, finished her three Tevis Cups within the last hour of the ride), we'd be busy crewing, and only following the race via the live webcast, when we could get cell reception.*

Arriving at Robie Park (the start) Wednesday night gave humans and horses an extra day on Thursday to relax and hydrate and visit, and get organized for Saturday. Robie is in the forest above Lake Tahoe, and when you have a little ridge from which to look to the west, you can see the crest of the mountains that the Tevis riders cross, headed to Auburn.

Friday got a little more hectic, plenty of time for fluttery nerves as the girls checked in, vetted in, and went to ride meetings. Katya and Anya shared the 2014 National Junior 100-Mile award (with Claire Taylor, also riding), and between the sisters, they'd completed 6 100-mile rides. They knew they were in for a hard ride with 200 starters, and they were understandably nervous. My saying, "It's just another ride!" didn't wash.

Because Tevis really is not just another ride, no matter how you slice it.

3 AM Saturday morning came early, after a short sleep beneath the silhouettes of towering Jeffrey pines in the full moon at Robie Park. Start time was 5:15 AM; all riders were to be at the starting area at 4:45 AM. Katrin was of course the worried mother, and she had about as many butterflies in her stomach as the girls did. After we legged the girls up, we watched them fade into the blackness of the forest to begin their journey. They'd be on their own for another 6 hours or so, through the Granite Chief Wilderness, a rugged piece of trail (although, all of Tevis is rugged!)

ROBINSON FLAT: Organized Chaos, or Chaotic Organization

Our crewing journey began at 5:30 AM, not a minute sooner, starting our engines and beginning the long slow dusty drive out of Robie Park, to Auburn to unhitch the trailer, then on to Robinson Flat, the first crewing area and hour vet check, 36 miles down the horse trail, but several hours by roads. We were pretty well organized with our gear for each of the two crewing stops and 1-hour holds: different bags for Robinson at 36 miles and Foresthill, at 68 miles.

Below Robinson Flat, vehicles were escorted 20 or so at a time up to the meadow to drop off crewing gear. That stopped at 9:30, at which time a shuttle hauled people and gear up the hill. We were in line at 9:29. But we didn't get to drive up, so had to jump on the shuttle.

I've figured out that those front runners have several sets of crews. Some leave out of Robie Park to drive all the way to Robinson, not stopping in Auburn to drop off a trailer; some camp near Robinson, or drive from Auburn early in the morning. Some send crews to Foresthill (the second vet check at 68 miles) right away to set up, with trailers so those lucky riders can get a shower if they so desire. Showers are awfully nice and refreshing at 68 miles on this rocky, dusty trail!

But with frontrunners coming into Robinson some 2 hours ahead of our girls, luckily we didn't have to hurry like that. We never saw the front runners come through; we just followed the Tevis webcast while we got set up with horse and people food for our riders, in a little spot on a hill near the pulse box.

Cutoff guideline for Robinson Flat was 11 AM. Cutoff time, when you're eliminated for Over Time, was 12:00. 11 AM came and went. 11:15 came and went. There were a lot of riders still out there. Finally around 11:20, we saw our girls down the road - our girls and many, many other girls and guys, coming in in a cluster.

Tevis Luck.

Sometimes you have a nice bubble amongst 200 riders; sometimes you're stuck in a crowd, which dictates your pace on long single-track trail, and which works against you at the vet checks. It worked against us here, at a vet check that always seems chaotic at the best of times. Nance's horse Quinn took several minutes to pulse down, and when we made it into the vet line at 11:33 AM, uh-oh. There were 20 or 30 horses ahead of us. (It's chaotic, crowded, somewhat tense, I wasn't counting, but there was a LOT. When I rode in 2009, same thing happened. We stood in that vet line some 20 minutes.)

There was an added element to this vet check which added to the chaos. There was a mandatory blood draw for every horse (unless you knew to ask for a waiver, which at least 2 riders did before the ride), which would test the horses' hydration and electrolyte levels. The results would take "15 to 20 minutes" after which a crew person would go pick up either a green or red card. Green cards would be allowed to go out as scheduled. Red cards required a mandatory recheck (hands on, no blood draw) with Dr Fellers before going back out on trail, if he passed the horse. Rechecks would not have to wait in lines. This was all great in theory, as it could contribute to an ongoing research project, and is a good indicator of horses with potential metabolic problems down the trail. It's not great when equipment breaks, and delays are caused in a one hour hold, when every minute on the trail counts.

waiting for those green or red cards!

The other BAD part of this vet check, in my horseman's opinion, is that no hay was allowed in the vet check line! The first thing I ran to do, once the girls got into the pulse box and the long vet line, was to run get hay for the starving horses. I ran up the hill to our gear, fetched a flake of hay, ran back, ducked under the tape, and handed it to the horses, whose mouths dove at the flake, when I heard a volunteer say, "You can't bring that in here."

Excuse me??

"You can't bring hay in here. We have to clean it up."

It's chaotic. The girls are thirsty and starving; they need to go sit down and eat; the horses are in a big cluster of horses waiting for a blood draw and vet check; the horses are STARVING; the first thing I do to take care of my horses on a hard ride at a vet check, is FEED THEM, and I can't give my horses hay, because you have to clean it up?

We'd been told at the ride meeting Friday night that there would be hay available at the vet checks. There was no mention of "No hay in the vet line." If there had been, certainly I'd have saved time and hassle for all of us, and starving horses, by directly bringing a bucket of mash to the vet area.

When I rode in 2009**, volunteers were handing my horse hay in the vet line, keeping all of the horses eating. Had I had time to think this year, I would have offered to rake the entire vet area when everybody was done, get down on my hands and knees to pick every piece up (there was other hay scattered on the ground.) I would have happily done that. As it was, I put the flake of hay outside the vet box, and ran back and forth with pitiful little handfuls, the three horses nearly savaging me for those precious bites of hay. Back and forth I ran, back and forth, hoping I was not risking getting my riders kicked out of the ride, till the flake ran out. I knew the volunteers are only doing what they were told, and I wasn't about to yell at them, though I was absolutely incredulous. Finally I thought to run for a bucket of grain. I did that, and hollered at Steph and Katrin to come help hold the horses in this LONG VET LINE, because the girls were still stuck there, with nothing to drink or eat yet.

So Steph and Katrin came and held the three horses while I moved between them, sharing a bucket of mash. We finally got past the blood draw - and still there was a LONG line to see the vets. At least the horses were eating, and the girls were off resting and sitting and eating for a bit. Katya and Anya's horses passed with all A's, but Quinn's CRI was inverted, so he was asked to come back for a recheck before he went back out on trail. The blood results would probably confirm a metabolic flag. All we had to do was get the results, as a red or green card.

Well, the blood machine broke. Or something.

Tevis Luck.

Meanwhile, as Steph and Katrin took the horses back to eat and rest for the remaining 25 minutes of their hold, I began a somewhat frantic search for possible sponsors for Katya and Anya, in case Nance and Quinn were pulled. I grabbed Roxanne Greene, wearing a yellow vest as a Cup Committee person, who was scribing for Dr Fellers, and who luckily just happens to have a passion for Juniors in the Tevis Cup, told her our dilemma, and while I ran back and forth between our girls and the blood results table, she ran around checking lists and looking for riders in front of or behind us who might take over sponsoring our juniors, if Quinn was pulled.

With our hold time ticking down, I continued running back and forth (gosh, I was doing a lot of running, and it was getting hard to breathe!), looking for Roxanne, and from our riders and horses to the results table. The crowd was growing around this table, with increasingly concerned, then worried, then near-frantic riders or crew (including me) wanting, needing our blood results. As near-frantic as we all were, we still took turns begging for results - "Who has the least minutes left? You? 7 minutes? You're next." "Then me next. I've got 5 minutes!" "My riders have 4 minutes!" "I'm already past my out time!"

With twelve minutes to out-time, the girls were saddled up and ready to go back out at 12:33, while Quinn headed back for his recheck. Which couldn't happen without his blood test results. One of the scribes came over and said she needed Quinn's results, just as I was up next, frantic with 3 minutes to our out time. Quinn got a red card (which interestingly confirmed the vet's request recheck because of metabolics), while our juniors got green cards. I hollered at Anya and Katya, waving their green cards, who were already mounted and headed to the out-timer.

Meanwhile, Roxanne found me and said she found two Canadian riders, who were a few minutes ahead of us, who had agreed to wait and take the girls on. And meanwhile, Quinn was cleared to continue, and we tried to rush Nance onward, as our out-time had come and gone by now.

Meanwhile, the helicopter happened.

Tevis Luck.

A rider had been seriously injured***, and the helicopter was arriving here, trying to land right by the out-trail. About a dozen riders, including our three, were delayed by the helicopter. Of course, nobody was begrudging anybody that, because everybody was thinking about the injured rider, and knowing it could have easily happened to them! They all waited, then as the helicopter couldn't land and lifted back up, they were told to hurry up and get out on trail. "No, wait!" they were told, "Go back! You can't go yet!" They had to wait another few minutes, then they were rushed out again by the out timers, before the helicopter could make another attempt.

dust from the helicopter trying to land

Someone at the out timers told this group (including our riders) they would get extra time, since they were delayed up to ten minutes leaving - and on the Tevis trail, every minute counts. Maybe that is a preposterous proposition, to give riders extra time for an unexpected, and helpless delay, but all we knew is that these riders were getting extra time.

And that was our Robinson Flat vet check: our riders were unrested, and 10 minutes late going out, due to the blood card fiasco (and at our point in the ride, it was a fiasco) and the helicopter.

But, they were out, and back on trail, for the second third of the trail, 32 miles to Foresthill, through the steepest and hottest canyons, over Pucker Point, over some more rugged, rocky, scenic and wonderful Sierra Nevada trails. And we crew had plenty of time to stop at In 'N Out Burger (which I say is the real reason I crew Tevis) and Starbucks, and plenty of time to regroup and set up at Foresthill for our riders.

Foresthill: Where's My Rider?

We stopped at my beloved In N Out Burger, rather collapsed for a while at the air-conditioned Starbucks and caught up on some web postings (I can't ever not write and photograph and report!), before heading to Foresthill. By the time we got there to set up, front runners were already out. By now we were glued to the webcast, watching the race unfold, while keeping an eye on the progress of our riders. We saw our friend Suzy Hayes and Atlas trotting out of Foresthill in 15th place, and we honked and hollered at her, cheering her onward.

But where were our riders? The updates on them had seemed stuck forever on Last Chance at 50 miles, where they were in at 2:54 PM, only 21 minutes ahead of cutoff time.

Finally we got an update: they were into Deadwood, at 55 miles, at 4:50, 10 minutes ahead of cutoff time, and out at 5:28. There wasn't a hold there; why did they take so long? Was there a problem? There was no way of knowing, and it seemed that maybe their Tevis Luck was starting to run out. We got no more updates, as we sat at the top of the trail at Foresthill, waiting for a glimpse of our riders, as the sun set, and as the arrival cutoff time of 8:30 crept closer and closer. Steph (and others) asked an official about the extra time allowed the riders because of the helicopter delay, and we were told there was no extra time allowed, after all.

Mom Katrin was a nervous wreck, because, how could you not be? 8:00. There were a lot of riders still out. 8:10. 8:15. If we saw them, they were going to have to book it up the hill, and through the in-gate. Peter walked far down the hill to tell them to hustle, if he saw them. There were still piles of crews waiting for their riders.

8:20. A few riders were straggling in. We all hollered at them to get moving, get up the hill, get to the in-timer! 8:25. No girls. 8:30. That was it. They were done. And right about then, we got a message from the announcer to come see him - our girls had been pulled for Over Time at Pieper Junction, 64 miles (4 miles from Foresthill), by 9 minutes.

The Card Fiasco, and the helicopter, and Tevis Luck, cost us 10 minutes. Would the girls have made it to Foresthill in time without those delays? Maybe not. But maybe they would have. Is it a big deal for Tevis tail-enders, with front runners 5 hours ahead of us?

6 riders were Over Time at Deadwood, at 55 miles. 5 riders were Over Time, including our 3, at Pieper Junction, 64 miles. 4 more Over Time at Foresthill.

We packed up our gear, and headed back to the Fairgrounds, disappointed. The girls were being hauled back to Auburn by the extensive network of rescue trailers. In fact, they arrived not long after we did. The girls were disappointed, but the horses looked fine after their arduous 64 miles.

It's just all part of the Tevis Luck. Sometimes it's good (your horse is fine, you get a buckle, you didn't get hurt), and sometimes it's not good (your horse isn't fine, you don't finish, you got hurt). But it's the hope of getting enough of the good luck, it's the beautiful trail, it's the ultimate challenge, that keeps people coming back to try again.

Of 200 starters, 90 completed (45% completion rate). Of the 110 pulls, 20 were Over Time (18%). (Isn't that rather high? It would be an interesting statistic to research.)

72-year-old Potato Richardson and SMR Filouette won the ride in a ride time of 14:50. It was Pototo's 22nd Tevis completion, and his third win; it was SMR Filouette's 5th Tevis completion (in 7 starts).

Potato had a 20 minute lead out of Foresthill, at 68 miles, over Gwen Hall and Sizedoesntmatter, and Dace Sainsbury aboard last year's Tevis winner, French Open. Surprisingly, double Tevis winner Heraldic pulled for metabolics at this check. Potato's lead shrunk to 8 minutes over Dace, and Heather Reynolds aboard JG Bold King, leaving Francisco's at 85 miles. But when both Dace and Heather pulled at the Lower Quarry, 94 miles, (both Rider Option - Lame), that left Potato with a 57 minute lead leaving the Lower Quarry. He cruised on to the win, 30 minutes ahead of Gwen Hall, who was 16 minutes ahead of Lisa Ford aboard Cyclone, and Junior Barrak Blakely and MCM Last Dance (last year's Haggin Cup winners). Lisa and Garret Ford had taken on Barrak at Deadwood at 55 miles, when Barrak's dad Wasch Blakely backed off with his daughter Sanoma.

Next morning, Jenni Smith, who rode Auli Farwa to a 5th place finish 54 minutes behind the winner, won the coveted Haggin Cup. The 15-year-old gelding, owned by Kevin Myers, (who didn't ride because he blew out his knees skiing over the winter) won his 6th Tevis finish (out of 6 attempts), and has an AERC ride record of 62 starts and 62 completions.

*Kudos to the Tevis Webcasters and Tweeters! It's hard to keep current the up-to-the-minute live-cast updates, and it was always the Tweeters, stationed all over the course, who were the first to report on rider positions. The Webcast gets better every year! And this is without radio tags on the horses, as happens in European/Middle Eastern rides.

**I am sure rules have changed when I rode in 2009. I can only compare my riding experience from 2009.

***The injured rider was Roger Downy; latest report 2 days after Tevis was that he had a head injury and broken ribs, but would be released from the hospital in the next few days.

More stories and photos and links from the ride here: