Like a yearly ritual, I have completed my Tevis Checklist:
- Horse is optimally conditioned and prepared for the most difficult 100 Miler in the world.
- Horse has completed other 100 milers, or back-to-back 50 milers, and is sound and fit.
- EasyCare Hoof Boots applied with diligence.
- Saddle fit and all tack adjusted and checked.
- All supplement and electrolyte containers filled.
- Assortment of different hay types and various different grain feeds prepared.
- Crews organized and briefed.
- Ride plan rehearsed.
Did I overlook anything? It all seems good. Will the Tevis gremlins stay put this year?
We arrived at Robie Equestrian Park in Truckee, California, the Wednesday before the 2019 Tevis Cup 100-Miles-One-Day Trail Ride. Global Endurance Training Center started three horses at this yearʼs Tevis. All of them passed their veterinary pre-check. They were all well hydrated, properly fed, and eager to start.
I had my best results at my first Tevis about 20 years ago: 3rd place. Followed by a
4th place, then 9th, 11th, 18th, in the 40ies, then 50ies, then pull, pull, pull, pull…. Seems like the better I know the course and the more often I start, the worse my results are getting. Whatʼs going on?
My 3rd and 4th place awards can be attributed to beginners’ luck. While my overall completion rate in all American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) rides is about 94%, my Tevis completion rate is barely 30%. The more I analyze, the more I prepare, the more I try to eliminate previous mistakes, the worse my results are getting.
True: Tevis is the hardest ride in the world.
True: Tevis has the most elevation gain to conquer (about 36,000 feet).
True: Tevis is the most unpredictable endurance event.
Some well-known riders have had seven pulls in a row at Tevis while achieving a higher than 90% completion rate at all other AERC rides, including other 100 milers. Although I have finished Tevis several times, and many other riders do consistently well at Tevis year after year, I’m clearly missing something. Or is it really just bad luck?
I do not subscribe to the bad luck theory in general. The term “bad luck” could be substituted for lack of preparation, gaps in preparation, loosing focus, being distracted, making bad choices, or lacking attention to detail.
When I analyzed the pulls, I found that several were due to metabolic issues. The horses were refusing to drink and eat. Even horses that are eating well during all other endurance events stop eating at Tevis. Why is that? Could it be that the amount of travel time required to get there is making them fall behind in hydration, and they do not have enough time to catch up? Even when they arrive a week prior to the race?
Another possible cause for refusing to drink and eat is the stress the horses experience at the start. Most rides in the USA do not see starting numbers of around 200. Unless the horse is used to large starting numbers, he will likely be unable to recover from the stress and excitement of moving in such a large group.
Two years ago, that is precisely what happened to me. My horse, Ozzy, just could not handle being passed by dozens of fast riders during the first six miles of the race. Ozzy is a strong horse with several 100-mile finishes under his belt, but that Tevis start did a number on his mind.
I selected a different horse this year, GE Danex. GE Danex is a superb eater and drinker, and he always takes good care of himself on the trail. He is also not as sensitive or as introverted as Ozzy. GE Danex lived up to my expectations. He ate and drank like a champ. Luck was on my side until it wasnʼt. It was all over for us at the Lower Quarry due to a hind end lameness.
Tevis has 6,000 feet more downhill terrain than uphill. Both the front end and hind end need to work much harder going downhill than level or uphill. There is more concussion, more stress, and more skill required to negotiate steep downhill terrain for seemingly endless miles. Even though I ran all the downhills and major uphills on foot, GE Danex could not deal with the strain. I had to ask myself, did I not do enough downhill training?
There is a saying that horses have unlimited miles of uphill in their tanks, but only limited miles of downhill. It seems like there is a fine line between not enough downhill training and too much.
Many of the top finishers at Tevis are top finishers year after year. The top twenty riders
often just rotate their positions, but they are reliably in the top twenty for many years in a row. They must be doing something consistently right that I am not able to duplicate. It’s time to do some soul searching.
How do I handle, or how does one handle repeated failures mentally and emotionally? I can throw in the towel, give up, get upset, or feel sorry for myself. Or I can step back and rationally analyze what happened.
Life is a journey, and every endurance event is a journey. Tevis is certainly a journey. The experience I have while working with my horse in partnership, synthesis, and harmony is the most important element in life. So, in a way, it should not matter if I finish or not, as long as the journey was satisfying.
Nevertheless, I do not believe anybody really “enjoys” a pull. For me, it leaves that nagging feeling that something was amiss or my preparation was faulty. After all, we all invest a huge amount of energy, time, and resources into Tevis.
We all learn more from failures than successes. Successes lull us into thinking that all is good, and nothing needs to be adjusted or learned. Success is the pinnacle, and the only way off the pinnacle is a downward trail.
Failures, on the other hand, make you think, reevaluate, and adjust your approach. Failure is a teacher. Repeated failures have taught me to consider my horse’s skill level. When I ask myself if this horse is honestly suitable for the Tevis trail, I’m looking at the following factors:
Horses need to have the mental maturity to handle the stress of entering a field of 200+ riders and being passed multiple times. Horses that do not care much about what is happening around them and can focus on the job at hand are mentally tough, and they have a much better chance of finishing. A “nose up” attitude means money in the bank.
Body Condition & Conformation
Horses with a body condition score of 6, 7, or even 8, have double the chances of finishing Tevis compared to horses with a body condition score lower than 4. Successful horses are solid metabolically and take good care of themselves. They have good training and frame to travel downhill for many miles. Short-backed horses and horses straighter in the hind legs seem to have an advantage going downhill.
Horses that are still afraid, be it of other horses, difficult trails, or other challenges such as bridge crossings, have a disadvantage because they are wasting precious energy. Finicky eaters and drinkers or horses with ulcers would do better to stay home and get healthy. Long-backed horses also have a disadvantage at Tevis.
Most lameness pulls at Tevis are because of right front or right hind lamenesses. Most of the trails at Tevis are situated in such a way that the right leg is on the uphill side and the left is on the downhill side, so the load factor is totally different. Training on trails with these characteristics at home can better prepare the horse for Tevis.
Genetics are a powerful factor that should not be disregarded. Horses that have successfully completed Tevis for years display genetics that are the foundation of their success. Genetics are not a guarantee, but they a good starting point. No amount of training and specialty supplements can overcome unfavorable genes. On the other hand, great genes can save the day in spite of faulty preparation.
Where do I go slow, and where do I speed up? How much time should I spend at the vet check? Tevis puts time pressure on the riders, and many are denied completion because of being over time. Knowing your horse’s strengths and weaknesses will help you plan the pace. Having to speed up during the last third of the race because of time pressure not only puts a lot more stress on the rider, but also significantly increases the risk of injury to the horse.
As I evaluate my horse based on these factors, I need to remind myself of my favorite saying, “Ride the horse you have, not the horse you wish to have!”
I’m already planning for next year’s Tevis. I wonder if I’ll be better prepared, or if I’ll just have better luck.
By Christoph Schork
Global Endurance Training Center