Ideally, this story should be written by a horse. Heck, it's only fair: The horses are in a lot better shape than the humans after one of these races. Besides, they get a bit more emotional about it, and the excitement is wildly contagious. There are moments in this race when everybody is snorting and puffing and pawing at the ground, no matter what his species. Another possible approach might be to pretend that a horse is narrating the story. But the problem with both of these devices is that no sensible horse could logically explain why people get so goofy over this event, and we would end up with awkward pauses and contemplative whinnies while the animal stared off into the distance.
So it's probably best just to say that all of this starts on a luminous morning in June of this year with 456 runners jostling to form a starting line stretching across a high mountain meadow near the Nevada-California border. Making up the line are 304 humans and 152 horses, which is a record turnout. The humans wear jogging gear and numbered racing bibs; the horses wear light saddles and have racing numbers painted large on their flanks. Ahead lie roughly 41 miles of trail—rocky, dusty, steep, twisting—and in a moment, all of them are going to race along it, combining riding, running and a lot of thrashing around.
There are gravel fire roads and narrow game trails and occasional slashes of gully where the snowmelt is sending down cool ribbons of water. There are scrub oak and Jeffrey pine at the lower elevations, the latter smelling sweet and faintly of vanilla as they heat up in the bright sunlight. Higher in the mountains, up at around 7,400 feet, where one can look down on Reno lying in the next valley, are thick groves of cedar and aspen. The course snakes in and out of two national forests, Tahoe and Toiyabe, and a section of it follows the original Donner Trail.
"This is the last of the beautiful sporting events," says Dr. Pam Wagner, a veterinarian from Pullman, Wash. She's teamed with her husband, Bill, a regional planner, and they are teamed with Snicker, their sleek 8-year-old Arabian, a show horse with large, limpid eyes. "It's a fierce challenge in a fantastic setting," she says. "I suspect the event is a little too...too cowboy for most Easterners, though; I think they regard it as just so much ya-hoo and barbecue."
It is pretty ya-hoo and barbecue, at that.
Slowly, now, the line starts to take on more order—perhaps like the one that launched the great Oklahoma land rush—and most of the horses are skittering and nervously tossing their heads. The race starter reminds the contestants of the five veterinary checkpoints along the route and cautions that 41-and-something miles is a long way through the mountains for horses and humans alike. And then, with a wave of his hand, he sends them off.
The sound of the charge creates a muffled thunder across the valley floor, with everybody war-whooping, and an advancing wall of dust rises and rolls along behind the horses and runners. Heads swing to follow them into the tree line, and in a matter of moments they've gone and a strange quiet settles back on the meadow. One can hear occasional shouts from deep in the trees as the race proceeds up the mountainside. It is 9:46 a.m. They'll all be off in the hills for the next four hours or so.
Riding and tying has been around for a long, long time, dating back to England at least in the 1700s, a sort of quaint, half-remembered activity that nobody in modern times much thought about until Bud Johns came along. Johns is a big, bearlike man, white-bearded and bespectacled, pleasantly ruminative, in appearance perfect for his job as a vice-president of Levi Strauss, the jeans manufacturer. Back in the '60s, Johns was a newspaperman in San Diego, and it was while he was researching a cowboy story that he happened to turn up the saga of Southern California rancher William Emery and his son, Charles.
"A true story," Johns says. "It was back in the 1870s: A gang of horse thieves struck on a stormy night and made off with 14 of Emery's horses. Heck, he only had 15, but the blackguards somehow overlooked that one horse, and next morning father and son took off after them.
"Here's how they did it. Dad saddled up and followed the trail of the rustlers. Son Charles took off on foot behind him. After a few miles, the old man stopped and tied the horse to a tree, and then he took off running. Now, think about it for a minute. By the time the boy gets to where the horse is tied, the boy is tired. But the horse is now rested. The lad jumps on and takes off. Now he is resting, more or less, while he's riding. Along the way he passes his dad and yells that he'll ride on for another mile or so and tie the horse."
Johns smiles at the wonderful simplicity of it all. "The son does exactly that. Then, refreshed, he jumps off and starts to run again while the horse rests, waiting for Dad to come along the trail. Now, it has been proven that incredible amounts of distance can be covered very quickly in this manner. One horse and one rider could not do it; the horse would collapse and die."
The story lurked in Johns's memory until 11 years later, when he created the first Ride & Tie race as a promotion for Levi's. Now there are some 200 ride-and-tie events in the U.S. every year, and even some in England and Germany. The Levi's race is considered the world championship.
"And then, doing more research," Johns says, "I discovered...."
Wait a minute, Bud.
He blinks reflectively. "Ahh," he says. "Well, actually, father and son only rode and tied for one day—about 40 miles. Then they took a stagecoach, and finally got their 14 horses back in Mexico."
"The rustlers were all shot to death on the spot."
Vet checkpoint No. 2 is swirling under steady explosions of dust; it's up there at 6,600 feet, at an intersection of trails high in the forest. It's a million miles, easy, from civilization, lost among stands of white fir and cedar. Spotted here and there among the wildflowers are giant tree stumps, shattered and blackened by lightning.
The race is getting serious. The riders and runners have all changed color, no matter what color they may have been when they started. They come slogging up the trail with faces and bodies coated with dust. It has painted them all uniformly a gritty tan, and the sweat isn't beading up as it does on ordinary runners. It forms little trails down their bodies, miniature rivers.
And in the 10 or so miles from the start, the horses also have come to look alike. Sleek browns and polished blacks are now all dusty tan; there are no pintos or roans in these mountains. And that explains the odd decorative touches seen back at the starting line. Some of the horses had pranced into the race with bits of brightly colored yarn woven into their tails. One horse wore two shiny silver-foil stars tied high on its tail, as if dressed for a disco.
"The reason for putting such stuff on them is that once you're into the race, all the horses get to looking alike," says Joe Cannon, a veterinarian from Sierra Madre, Calif. Cannon is a defending champion of this race, with partner Barrie Grant, also a veterinarian from Pullman, Wash, and their horse, Boomer, a half-Arabian. "The last thing you need is to stagger up, untie some dusty horse, ride off, and then discover, just about the time he throws you into the sagebrush, that he isn't yours."
Cannon and Grant haven't decorated Boomer. They figure they know his every stance. Tie him to a manzanita bush and Boomer goes around and around it like a carousel horse, impatiently waiting for whichever of his riders is next. There are six mandatory ties in each race, "and you've got to pick just the right bush," Grant says. "Last year, one horse pulled a bush right out of the ground and ran away with it."
"Won his division, though," says Cannon. "Runaway horse pulling scenery."
Off they go, Cannon looking fresh and powerful, the network of veins standing out just as prominently on his legs as on Boomer's. The defending champs are in second place at this juncture, somewhere behind Californians Dave Poston, a carpenter supervisor in Sacramento, and Jim Howard, a phys ed instructor, and their Arabian, Novaloj, all three of whom are flickering through the trees somewhere up ahead. The lead is pretty tenuous, though: Poston has a touch of stomach flu and is carrying a container of aspirin tied to his waist with a thong; he claims that he's popping them like candy. Howard is O.K., however, and Howard has run a 2:18:06 marathon; slow for him is fast for anybody else in this race. As far as they both know, Novaloj is feeling swell.
Well, the horses obviously feel something—their sense of excitement is clear—and they come pounding up to the checkpoint all hot-eyed. They look at the veterinarians with nervous distrust. They're a bit goosey. "Oops," they seem to say, "never touch a horse there." Some of the animals lope into sight with their runners tagging close behind, wearily hanging onto the tails to be tugged along. This is perfectly legal; it would also be legal the other way around, if the people had tails.
"This is really three races in one," sighs Bev Gray, 29, a travel agent from Park City, Utah. "It's a horse race; it's a people race, and it's a horses-versus-people race. Terrific. And, golly, it only costs $50 to enter. Well, that plus 10 years off your life."
But cost be durned, it's obvious that the competitors are having the time of their lives. An air of companionship runs deep among contestants in this race, more so than in other sports. All through the week, on starlit evenings, they've been socializing, campfire-hopping, and now they're racing through a sparkling day. The spectators are friends and family; there's no drop-in crowd this high in the mountains. And if the explosions of dust aren't enough to show the way, the trail also is marked with bits of bright ribbon tied to bushes and trees, and poker chips and playing cards a racer has scattered here and there.
Someone who takes it dreadfully seriously points out that this is really an intellectual sport, not at all like, say, marathoning, in which the mind can be allowed to wander while one runs. No sirree, the rides and ties must be meticulously planned, this competitor says loftily, "because, after all, you're thinking for the horse as well. This is a serious business." And then, just about that time, a youth rides through, all brown and sweaty and bare, wearing what appears to be only a pair of Adidas running shoes and a feather in his hair and slathered with Indian war paint. Nearby, a horse stands quietly with a wet bath towel draped across his eyes, as if suffering from a monumental hangover. Rasping, dry-throated yells from somewhere: "Stop! Stop! Will someone for God's sake stop this damned horse?" Serious business, indeed.
On both sides of the trail, horses are tied to bushes and trees; they're sweating heavily in the bedlam and most keep swinging their heads to look around anxiously. All those tales told around the fires back at the base camp are obviously true—unlikely, but true. Because they race as closely knit teams, the riders and the tiers have an understandable tendency to assume anthropomorphic attitudes toward their animals.
"At the start of every race I have to turn Snicker backward, facing in the opposite direction," says Pam Wagner. "Otherwise, he'd jump the gun and go racing. He's really convinced all the other horses are wrong. Then, after everybody else starts, I wheel him around and we take off."
Snicker is wearing his running shoes, special neoprene pads installed between hoof and shoe, and Bill Wagner says of his horsey teammate, "Pam will tie him up and take off running, and Snicker will stand and watch her go. Then he'll swing around and look back down the trail for me. When he spots me laboring along there, puffing up dust, he'll actually scowl and start to whinny at me, as if to say, 'C'mon! Let's go, dummy! This is a race!' And he'll step around into position so that I can get into the saddle."
According to Bev Gray and her partner, Debra Pack, a ski wholesaler from Park City, Utah, their half-Arabian mare Uinta is as human as any of them. First night at the camp Uinta shook off her tie and sneaked off on a toot. The girls had tracked her like Indians for about six miles before losing her trail. "She came back two days later," says Bev, "maybe a little sadder but wiser, as they used to say about wayward girls. Otherwise, fine." In ride-and-tie races, says Debra, "Uinta loses her sense of horse-ness. She becomes a fellow athlete for a couple of hours."
Mo Sproul, a special projects consultant for American Express, from Weimar, Calif., has designed a special lead so that Raz, her 9-year-old Arabian gelding, can go jogging with her. "We develop a special relationship that way," she says. Last year, one entrant professed to hate Arabians, explaining that his horse was Jewish. "Her name," he told everybody, "is Golda, My Mare."
Texans Ron Norman and Skipper Duncan have done some rodeo riding and calf roping, so they know a human horse when they see one. They're teamed with Lovelock, one of only three quarter horses in this Ride & Tie. Norman suggests that Lovelock is really a nom de horse. "Actually," says Norman, "his really honest name is Roany Good Pony, and he's still about half wild." Roany Good Pony nods as if to confirm this fact. He paws a couple of times.
"Wild? Listen," says Duncan, "this here horse was caught on the open range in Nevada, running with the wild mustangs. He was so wild he was five years old before anybody could get close enough to rope him. Then it was another three years before anybody could slap a bridle on him. I mean, wild."
Roany Good Pony blinks languidly.
How old is he?
"Oh, he's maybe eight," says Duncan. He and the horse exchange glances. "Put down nine," Duncan says.
"Ah, ah, ah, don't stand too close to him," Norman warns. "He's still full of hate."
"Want to know how he trained for this here race?" asks Duncan. "He roped 40 calves last Wednesday and drug 'em to branding, that's how."
Well, then. What is it that Roany Good Pony hates most of all?
"Oh, my God." Duncan looks around warily. Then he half turns away from the horse and leans over and whispers it. "Helicopters."
Roany looks up, quickly scanning the sky and the nearby tree line.
It's all true, what they say.
It seems ironic at first that there are five medical checkpoints for the animals and none for the humans, but it begins to make more sense as the race goes on. The runners are fiercely protective of their animals, and all are aware that this type of competition is considerably harder on horses than it is on people. Indeed, several of the riders and tiers are veterinarians. Over the years it seems to have become their sport; they're like the people doctors who are all out playing golf on Wednesday afternoons.
"Charging down steep, jagged slopes full of loose rock is particularly hard on horses," says Cannon. "That's because about 60 to 65% of a horse's weight is in the front; a horse's center of gravity is just behind the elbow."
Chief vet Dr. Linda Blythe sees the horses as 1,000-pound athletes subject to all sorts of racing perils. "Heat exhaustion is perhaps the biggest danger," she says. "A horse will lose about 10 or 15 pounds in this race. They come in all steamed up, of course; their recovery rate is the big factor at the vet check. Temperature and respiration have to quickly return to normal; if they don't, we order a 10-minute break. That's tough on a competitor, but it's necessary. If the horse isn't ready to run after three such breaks, he's out of the race." There's also the matter of lameness. "Myositis is an inflammation of the muscles due to fatigue or improper circulation," Dr. Blythe says. "It's much like...I guess I might as well say it: Myositis is just like a charley horse."
Brightly colored banners have been strung across a portion of the meadow for the return of the runners and horses. It is getting on toward 1:40 p.m., and the walkie-talkie radios begin to crackle with the news that the leading team is near. Sure enough, three heads become visible, bobbing along through the tall grass that sweeps and bends like a green ocean in front of them.
It turns out that the leaders have led all the way. At 1:48.50 p.m., Poston and Howard and Novaloj come surging across the line, the horse tossing his head and the runners raising clenched fists in triumph. They have covered the 41-plus miles in 4:02.26 hours, which converts to a rough but stunning 5.9-minute-mile pace up, over and down the mountains. Poston, who is 38, doesn't so much dismount as slide off Novaloj like melting butter. He hands the horse over to some friends. "Keep him walking," he says. "He's still full of energy." And then he sweeps up his partner in a mighty hug. Howard, 27, is absolutely and totally flogged; he sinks to the grass, where he is going to remain for about the next half hour.
"We had the race planned almost down to the exact trees for tying," says Poston. "We were paced so that we ran the horse flat out over the last three miles."
A blood test is mandatory for the winner, and now a veterinarian asks the question formally, as is required: "Has this horse had any drugs in the past 24 hours?"
Poston sighs and smiles wanly. "No," he says. "The horse is just fine. But Jim and I are borderline."
While the blood is being drawn, Novaloj is hand-fed fresh, chilled peaches. He munches them delicately, nibbling with care around the stone in each peach, while other eager helpers pour buckets of cold water over his neck and shoulders. He doesn't even flinch at the veterinarian's needle.
In the next 10 minutes ex-champions Grant and Cannon and Boomer come in; they had been closing fast, passing four teams in the five miles between the last checkpoint and the finish line. All three teammates are still full of fight.
More competitors come flowing in, and in the welcoming tumult, one plaintive common cry carries through the crowd: "Beer? Anybody got a cold beer? I'd kill for a beer. I won't trade my horse, but I'll trade my partner for a beer."
"Nice thing about this sport is that it doesn't take itself seriously," says Johns. "For one thing, it's the mix of competitors. We've got some terribly wealthy veterinarians and ranchers, and some poor folks, and some people who, as they say, play piano in a whorehouse. It's not highly publicized, like the Masters or the Derby. But, in a strange way, maybe that's what's so nice about it: The people who know, know."
And somewhere back there in the cloud of mountain dust—in 94th place to be exact—Roany Good Pony is still working out his hatreds. It's awfully hard to gallop and watch for helicopters at the same time.
Everybody swears that this has been the best race ever, a vintage year for Ride & Tie. And Johns allows that his growing sport may have reached a peak—from now on, 152 teams will probably be the limit. The winners this year will make off with cash prizes in various categories, from $5,800 down to $50, and there are certificates awarded for Levi's shirts and jeans and stuff. Some will get cowboy hats, and the winning team, boots. And every finisher gets a classy Levi's Ride & Tie belt buckle.
Well, everybody but the horses.
The winning horse and the best-conditioned horse will each win a Levi's denim horse blanket.
So maybe it really is best that a horse didn't narrate this story after all. He'd surely have had something pithy to say about that.