The Tevis Challenge

By Mary Fields

When Mary Fields turned 50, her husband Jerry gave her Christiansen, a 5-year-old Arabian gelding with Endurance breeding. Here is Mary’s story of her 5-year training to ride and complete the Tevis Cup, a 1-day, 100-mile endurance ride.

Susan Mayo of Susar Farm suggested that I work with 5-year-old Christiansen, AKA “Pippy” while waiting for my filly to mature. After 3 weeks with the mischievous gelding, who bucked, reared, and bit, a love affair began. Recognizing this, my husband, Jerry, gave me Pippy as a surprise birthday present in 1992. Susan commented, “Oh, by the way, he’s bred for endurance.”

“What’s that?” I asked. The rest is history. Endurance is a blast! Beginning training in 1993 with Tevis as my goal, I aimed everything at that. I built Pippy up slowly, overcame fear of hills, learned to ride in the dark, and jogged. We finished Tevis in ‘98, went to PAC in Canada in ’99, and the National Championship in 2000. Pippy is an amazing horse, and I have loved being on board. He has survived sesamoiditis and EPM, thanks to the Lord’s answers to prayer and a great vet. We hope to trot on for several more thousand miles!

Training consisted of attending a clinic with Boyd Zonelli, holder of the Tevis record, and learned to trot down hills – one of my fears. I worked on hills around Mineral Wells and in Oklahoma and also learned to ride in the dark. I went to Timberon in 1997 for the mountain training. I also practiced walking or jogging up and down steep hills with the horse in hand.

Training Pippy we took long, slow trots, worked steep hills and competed for a year of 25-mile rides. We then moved up to 50-mile rides and several 100-mile endurance rides.

I decided after my first competition to beat the time at each successive ride. I completed my first 25-mile ride in 5 hours, 58 minutes. I thought that when I could do a 25-mile ride in less than 3 hours, I would move on to a 50-mile ride. My first 50-mile ride took 9 hours, 30 minutes to complete. When I could do a 50-mile in less than 5 hours, I would do a 100-mile race.

In 1997 Pippy won Reserve Champion Arab at the Region 9 Endurance Championship 50-mile ride in 4 hours, 23 minutes…we went on to Tevis from there.

Our Tevis experience:

August 16, 1998

We arrived at Robie Park, near Truckee, in beautiful northern California, on Friday, August 7. We had spent two nights at Auburn resting from our 3-day drive. Pippy and I had explored the end of the trail from the finish line to No Hands Bridge and back. Robie Park was beautiful, set among tall pines and boulders, complimented by a flowering meadow. We camped next to other riders from our region. Vendors of all sorts were there. We bought Tevis shirts. I bought shirts for Jerry and Kelly, my other crewmember, that said, “CREW- The Victims of Endurance”.

I got checked in and got Pippy through the vet check. 20 of the 250 entrants got pulled here. I was thankful to go, because the vet noted the scar from Pippy’s sesamoid injury and made us trot out twice, once after flexing his ankle. They were thorough!

Dinner was served by the Lion’s Club. Chicken and pasta with sauce, bread and brownies. Everything was good. They had beer and wine for sale and a band playing while we ate. We got to bed by 9:30 and got up at 3:00 to feed Pippy and get ready to go.

We started out from Robie Park at 5:00 a.m. Saturday after a 4:45 roll call. Holding the horse back when there are 230 of them around is hard. It worked for me to get off the trail a bit, as did a lot of others, to avoid getting kicked or having my horse kick. (No one can see the red ribbon on his tail in the dark.)

The first part was slow, as we had to go single file for a while. Trails were steep and narrow, winding through ponderosa pine, sugar pine, California bay, and many other beautiful trees. I was so excited just to be riding on that famous trail! I thought about the Pony Express riders who carried the mail through the same places years ago, miners looking for gold, and Indians who must have watched them.

When we got to Squaw Valley, we spread out and had our first vet check, a trot-by. Then we began the climb out of Squaw Valley, which was lovely. I felt as if I were walking through someone’s rock garden. There were boulders, hills, plants, small trees, bushes, flowers, and patches of snow, all arranged like an oriental garden. (I found out later that Lucy Turnbull saw us there and mentioned us in her website commentary. Pippy was the horse with the purple rump rug she described.)

As we reached the top, some of the California riders told me to turn around and look. Back to the east I saw Lake Tahoe, huge and blue, stretching for miles between the mountains in the distance, sparkling in the sunrise. Someone took our picture at Watkins Monument at the top.

Going down the other side was difficult. We went through a section called the Granite Chief Wilderness, an intricate trail winding through boulders, over slippery rocks, loose rocks, through small streams, and through several bogs. I watched other horses bogging down to their hocks in mud and prayed that the Lord would set our feet on solid ground. We went through just fine. Pippy stopped at every stream to drink, which was great. I knew he would need to tank up for the rest of the day.

When we got to Cougar Rock, the famous landmark seen in so many pictures of Tevis, I decided to go over it after watching two others. One had to go halfway up to the left, then make a turn slightly to the right, and lunge a few times up, all over solid rock. As I started up, I yelled, “This is for the great state of Texas!”

Pippy went up to the turn and wanted to continue left, which was a drop-off. Then he wanted to go right and back down. I pointed his head up to the top. He looked at me. “You’ve got to be kidding,” the look said.

“You can do this, Pippy!” I said. He lunged right up. I whooped my excitement. The photographer and his assistants whooped with me. We had conquered Cougar Rock and would have a photo to cherish the memory.

On we trotted until we came to Elephant’s Trunk, another rocky section that wound down steeply. We walked down it with no problem.

We were glad to see our crew at Robinson Flat. Jerry and Kelly had food and drink for Pippy and me. We passed our first complete vet check there and spent an hour resting, eating and drinking. We were interviewed by Donna O’Gara, who published the interview and our picture on the Tevis website under commentary. This thrilled my family back in Georgia, who were all following our progress on the web page. They had sent checks to help sponsor my trip out, bless them! Many of the riders I had talked to on the trail had said that the worst was over. They were WRONG!

Between Robinson Flat and Foresthill, where I would see my crew again, there were huge canyons to negotiate. In some places the trail was about a foot wide, with drop-offs over a thousand feet to the bottom. The horses had no problem with this at all, but I could not look down. I just concentrated on the trail ahead, trotting on the straight places and walking around the switchbacks. The toughest part was going back up the other side. Pippy slowed to a walk. Sometimes he needed to stop to catch his breath. I got off and walked for a while. The climb was very steep. It took 45 minutes to climb out of the first canyon.

At the bottom of one of the canyons was a suspension bridge. We went down into the cool, clear water for a drink before crossing it. A photographer was standing in the water photographing people as they crossed the bridge. It was a lovely place.

The second canyon was equally challenging. When we got up to Michigan Bluff, there were volunteers who took our horses while we went to the porta-potties and to the food table set up for us. When I came back, I found Pippy with his head in a bucket held by a sweet lady. She said, “He put his head in this bucket and hasn’t even come up for air!” Pippy sucked up the entire bucket of mash and then ate alfalfa. After we passed our vet check, pulse, respiration, and trot-out, we left. As we left, Pippy reached over and snatched a bite of alfalfa out of another horse’s mouth!

The food helped. He TROTTED up the third canyon! We reached Foresthill just before dark. My crew had everything set up perfectly. A sandwich and some aspirin got me ready to take on the last 30 or so miles in the dark. Muscles were sore by now.

The California Loop, another infamous part of the trail, had been described as 17 miles of switchbacks with thousand-foot drop-offs. I found it no more difficult than what I had done all afternoon in the other canyons. Maybe that was because it was too dark to see the bottom. The only problem I had was when an impatient woman wanted to pass. She didn’t want to wait for a switchback. She wanted to go above me. (That meant if she fell, she would knock us down, too!) I told her to wait for a safe place. She muttered something about a roadblock and started around me on the outside. As her horse slipped and nearly fell down the canyon, I yelled at her that that was stupid and she could wait. Thankfully, we came to a wide place at the next switchback and she went on. Fortunately, most people were very considerate. There is always an exception.

Along the trail all day I had ridden with people from many states, from Brazil and Japan. People were considerate, asking politely to pass, waiting for my horse to drink, offering help to those in need. Endurance riders are such great people! I love this sport!

The last 25 miles were torture. My knees were cramping from 75 miles of posting and negotiating hills. My left knee had also been smashed by a horse’s bit as we passed and it turned its head. My crotch was too sore to sit. So I let the reins out, held on to the pommel and pushed myself up and down with my arms, trying to save my knees and crotch.

At the next to last vet check, I had someone wrap my left knee with vet wrap. It helped. I was limping, but determined to finish even if I had to tie myself to that horse. They offered to help me remount, but I had to do it alone, knowing that out on the trail I would have to do it alone, too.

One of the prettiest things was crossing the American River in the dark. The place was marked with glow sticks, attached to weights in the water. The water was belly deep on the horses, so it was good to hold the feet up for awhile. We trotted through the woods and through the last vet check. I knew it wasn’t far!

When we climbed out of that canyon and crossed Highway 49, helped by volunteers, we went up a steep hill on the other side and wound through woods for a while, following glow sticks and climbing up and down with switchbacks. We came down to No Hands Bridge. It was only 4 miles to the finish! Pippy knew it, because we had done this section before the race. We trotted as much as we could. I had to slow him to rest my knees. The elation of knowing the end was in sight overcame the pain. I knew I would make it to the finish before the cutoff time of 5:00.

At 4:38 Sunday morning we crossed the finish line with our crew cheering and waiting in the cold wind with Pippy’s blanket. We had done the Tevis Cup Ride!

Volunteers at the stadium gave me a cup of hot soup and a piece of bread. Pippy passed his last vet check there and was given a completion. We took our victory lap around the stadium.

The ride management and volunteers on this ride were terrific. There was always somebody to help. People handed me watermelon, glasses of Gatorade, chips, cookies, whatever I wanted, at every vet check. Someone offered to hold my horse, to trot him out for me so I could rest, to feed him mash or hay while I ate. They even had water trucks spraying the roads in Robie Park to keep the dust down. This was the ultimate endurance ride. The most fun I have ever had on a ride. The country was just breathtakingly beautiful.

We slept from 6:10 until 11:10 and got up to feed Pippy and get ready for the banquet and the awards ceremony. The food was great—smoked brisket, corn on the cob, salad, and bread. I got to walk across the stage and get that buckle I had set as my goal five years ago. We left at 5:30 for a long drive home, but we had many memories to talk about on the way.

I am already thinking about the next time. Is this insanity? It truly was the experience of a lifetime.

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