Photos by John O’Hara
Many endurance horse competitions, seizing inspiration from the Tevis Cup Ride, have sprung up like mushrooms after rain. Yet still, the original is reckoned the world’s supreme test of strength, stamina and will.
Which means it’s not run without risk. A 100-mile ride in rough mountains over 24 hours is not a gantlet to be entered lightly. Pony Express riders may have gone that distance in a day, but generally only after switching horses a half-dozen times. Tevis riders must partner themselves with a single mount, one that is carefully chosen and rigorously trained.
Organizers saw few horses die during the event. One died of an apparent aneurysm this year. One fell off a cliff in 2003, and two developed medical problems during the ride, were pulled and transported to horse hospitals where, despite extensive treatments, they expired. Prior to that, there’s a safety record that extends for more than 20 years.
Also, underscoring challenges of the terrain, this year in the Sierra, one horse training for the Tevis panicked, surged out of control and plunged off a cliff to its death (the rider bailed out); another horse, overreacting to stings from a swarm of yellow jackets, leapt to the same fate.
Despite the many natural hazards, such tragedies are anomalies. The Tevis has made steady gains in veterinary assessment and treatment. En route, it has broken ground in evaluating the intricate demands of endurance riding, then made recommendations for better conditioning and treatment.
These days, 17 equine veterinarians staff 10 checkpoints along the course – including two sites that put one-hour holds on all contestants – where mounts get checked for injury or stress.
“You have to balance any problems against the thousands of hours and hundreds of horses involved out there,” says Nancy Elliot of Pescadero, a veterinarian who’s served on the board of the Western States Trail Foundation for five years, finished the Tevis herself on five occasions, and “vetted” the event for five as well. “Any concerned animal protection groups are welcome to come and watch our vet staff work. Nothing is hidden.”
Organizers say the American Humane Society observed the ride in the 1970s, then lodged no objection to allowing it to continue.
Veterinarians examine the horses for structural soundness and metabolic problems, such as dehydration.
Horses with pulses above 60 beats per minute are not allowed to proceed past checkpoints. Vets use tricks such as pushing on gums to see how fast capillaries refill with blood, listening to the gurgle of intestines to estimate the risk of colic, pulling up a pinch of skin to observe how long it stays tented from dehydration. Riders themselves pack small medical kits that include elastic wraps, bandages, and plastic E-Z Boots that can temporarily replace a thrown shoe. Many also carry electrolytes to add to horse drinking water, as well as scoops and sponges to pour cooling water over a horse’s neck.