Tevis on a Paso Fino

Tevis on a Paso Fino


Melissa Margetts 

In order to even begin to understand the true accomplishment of a Paso Fino completing Tevis, one has to know more about the ride itself. The Tevis Cup 100 mile endurance ride is considered the most difficult, dangerous and technically challenging endurance ride in the world. In it’s 54 year history, less than 50% of the riders willing to take up the challenge are ever able to complete the race and most are eliminated due to lameness, dehydration, metabolic imbalances caused by the altitude of the Sierra Nevada Mountains or the stifeling 100+ degree heat in the canyons.

You have 24 hours in which to complete the ride on a trail that is treacherous, narrow, dusty, rocky with slippery granite and sheer drop offs into the abyss, through dust and mud sucking bogs and leads into and out of 3,000 ft deep canyons that are swealtering hot like Hades. Oh, and did I mention the blinding, choking dust?

Hardship not withstanding, riders from all over the world train and condition their horses for years in order to be prepared and put in their entry months in advance in the hopes that they will be lucky enough to have a spot among the maximum 210 riders that take up the challenge every year. International riders who are not able to passport their OWN horses over for the ride, may lease a Tevis worthy and conditioned horse for upwards of $6,500 for the 24 hours of the ride from some of the reputable breeders and trainers. All horses and riders are required to have completed hundreds of competitive miles at races of 50 miles or more that have been documented with AERC (American Endurance Ride Council) or FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale)

98% of the horses used in the sport of endurance are Arabians. The breed has thin skin which helps to dissipate the heat built up from exersion, larger nostrils and a large lung capacity. Most importantly though, they have a natural long extended stride that makes for efficiency of movement at speed. Arabians only come in grey, white, black, bay and chestnut. I ride a buckskin Paso Fino.

He is considered the “wrong breed” for this sport especially with his short four beat lateral gait. His gait is unbelievably comfortable but truly inefficient. It you were to count the foot falls, he would have gone AT LEAST 200 miles to the 100 miles that every Arab does.

“To finish is to win” is the motto in the endurance world and to that end,the Tevis Cup offeres no monetary prizes. It’s only prize is a much coveted silver belt buckle emblazoned with a pony express rider at a full gallop and the words: “100 miles…one day”. The buckle is given only to the riders that cross the finish line of this gruelling race and have proven their horse is “fit to continue”.

That criteria is focused on the HORSE. This ride is All about taking care of your horse and there are 18 veterinarians, and 30 veterinary assistants to assure that happens. They don’t care if the rider is dead in the saddle and held in place with duct tape and bungee cords as long as that HORSE is “fit to continue”.

That assurance starts off the day before the ride at the initial “Vet in” exam of the horse. This thorough exam is repeated at several vet checks along the ride course as well as at the finish line, where blood can randomly be drawn from any horse to assure no sport enhancing drugs have been given or masking agents that might hide soreness. This is like the World Cup or the Olympics and these horses ARE elite athletes.

How thorough ARE the veterinary exams? Well I have NEVER had such a “going over” as my horse has in a 24 hour period of time. They check his heart rate to make sure it is no higher than 60 bpm, they check his gums for capillary refill, they check his resperation, they look his whole body over to make sure there are no rubs or sores developing from his tack, they have me trot him out to check for lamenes and then they RE-check his heart rate, they will even check “where the sun don’t shine” to asseses his anal tone if he’s just a little off. Only AFTER he passes ALL of the criterea is he deemed “fit to conitnue” and can ride on for the next leg of the ride. All that information is recorded on a vet card and handed back to the rider who will carry it with them to the next vet check.

I ride with a heart rate monitor attached to my horse’s girth which transmits his heart rate to my watch every three second so I can ensure I am riding him at an aerobic pace.You are trotting (or in my case “gaiting”) for the entire 100 miles and there is VERY little walking anywhere. Another way to give both you and your horse enough energy to get through the whole ride and a better chance of finishing, is to get off of the horse whenever you can cover ground on foot just as fast as he can with you on his back. To that end, I ran on foot down all of the steep canyons, leading him over the rocks, down down down.

Going back UP the 33, steep, narrow switch-backs leading up out of the first canyon where the temperature reaches 100+ degrees, I “tail-up”. This means I hold onto his tail and one rein (the honor system) and let him pull me up on foot instead of making him carry me.

Once out of the canyons you are dripping with sweat, stink like a goat and covered with dust. There, at the top,are some of the more than 750 volunteers who help at this ride and they are offering hay and carrots to your horse and precious, sweet, wet, cold, watermellon chunks to you. They help sponge water over your horse to cool him while he ravenously munches on hay and guzzles water.

More vet checks. Along the entire Tevis trail and at every vet check and stop, there is always water and food for your horse. None of the stops are longer than a few minutes though. But there are TWO vet checks where you are REQUIRED to stay and rest for one hour before you continue on. It is at these vet checks where your “crew” can get to you and help cool down your horse and supply you with anything you might posibly need.

Your “crew” is like a “pit crew” at Nascar. When you arrive at the vet check at dusk, they untack your horse, rinse his legs, throw on a fresh dry saddle pad, re-tack him, offer him buckets of grain, hay, carrots, apples and electrolytes. They supply YOU with a chair to sit in, food for yourself and a change of clothes and socks after your long sweaty climb out of the canyons. And if you’re REAL lucky like I was this year, my crew even provided me with two solar bags of hot water for an impromptu 2 minute shower! HEAVEN!

They make sure you have a warm fleece to wear as they attach glowbars to the breastcollar of your horse for the next stage of the ride which will be ridden, AT SPEED, on very narrow trails with sheer drop-offs, in TOTAL DARKNESS. Headlamps and flashlights are too disorienting to the horse so it is in this phase of the ride that you experience the true trust and bond that is required by horse and rider. If you had never really trusted your horse completely before, it is NOW that many riders get that lump in their throat and tears in their eyes as they LEARN to trust their horse and when you fully DO,… you can’t help but cry with the emotion of that barrier crossed.You have really taken a leap of faith.

One misstep and horse and rider can plummet, cartwheeling over a cliff. It DOES happen and it DID happened in front of us in 2007 when one horse/rider team fell off the cliff. It was an accident that had a relative happy ending as the horse had minor cuts, though the rider was perched precariously on a cliff for hours with a punctured lung, broken ribs and a bruised liver while awaiting rescue and a helicopter ride out.

This year there was an accident without the happy ending. A horse fell off of the switchbacks coming out of the canyons. While carwheeling down, the mare broke a leg and hit her head on a rock and died. The rider was uninjured.A tragedy that left all of us in tears.

There is no doubt that as you are flying down the trail in the darkness, your heart is in your throat as the miles tick by. The trail seems endless as hour after hour you keep riding, Then suddenly, as you come out of the tree canopy, there is a full moon to greet you and down below you, there is the American River with a mysterious eery green runway through it!

Only one day a year, just for the Tevis Cup, the dam closes and the river is lowered to make it safer for the riders to swim their horses across the river without getting swept downstream in the swift current. The volunteers have taken green glowbars and tied them to ropes and sunk them in the water creating a glowing green “runway” where it is safest to swim your horse across.

Then it’s another climb up the very last canyon, across “No Hands Bridge”, through the pitch blackness of what’s called the “Black Hole of Calcutta”. Ahead, at last, are the tell-tale lights of Auburn that say your journey is almost over. Up ahead is the finish line and a well deserved trough of water for your horse.

You are greeted by your crew and friends,and well wishers determined to be there for the first rider to cross the finish line as well as the last…especially the last. After a FINAL vet check and a victory lap around the stadium of the fairgrounds, you know you will be receiving that coveted belt buckle. But now is the time for the most special prize of being able to throw your arms around your horses neck, bury your face in his mane and crying, knowing that the two of you have accomplished something very special and that you both took care of each other. All that time, all that conditioning, all that preparing, worrying, anticipation.

EVERYONE has their own story that brought them to the Tevis starting line. Everyone has their favorite parts of the trail, their scariest, their moments of epiphany and bonding.

Soooo, How did I get to the Tevis starting line with a Paso Fino and how were we able to cross that finish line that no one thought we would see?

For thirty years, I was the Founder and Director of the Rocky Mountain Ark Wildlife Center in Telluride, CO. We had 183 permanent resident non releasable animals of 73 different Colorado native species and would receive hundreds of animals in a season for rehabilitation and release back into the wild. We took care of everything from cougars and bears to hummingbirds and porcupines. We had environmental education programs several days a week and offered 4th year veterinary students summer externships for credit. I had been going mach five with my hair on fire for three decades. Yes, I also had horses but they were just lawn ornaments that I rarely had time to ride.

Tevis was on my “bucket List” long before the movie by that name. I am currently in my second remission from Non Hodgkins Lymphoma. I was first diagnosed in 1992. NON Hodgkins Lymphoma is a far more difficult type of cancer than Hodgkins to overcome. Upon diagnosis, I created my “list of things I wanted to do and places I wanted to see.”

Riding Tevis was on that list. I had several rounds of chemo and went into remission. But Damn,I was

re- diagnosed in 1997 at my 5 year check and “It was baaack.” In the meantime my “list” had just sat in the drawer. More rounds of chemo and radiation. I got down to 94 pounds.

Thankfully I went back into remission again. I have been cancer free since, but have not gone unchallenged by medical and personal issues.

I retired from a career I loved, turned 50 and got a divorce all in one year and it was very traumatic. I took out my long dormant “bucket list” and decided that instead of it being the toughest year of my life, it would be my very BEST year ever! And on the top of that list was still to ride the Tevis.

So I started doing my first endurance rides and getting my required mileage under my belt in order to get my entry in. Alas, I only had a Paso Fino, not an Arab, and everyone was saying he was the “wrong breed” to be really SERIOUS about the sport. SO WHAT! It was just another challenge to deal with.

Cabo (Tomarias Juan Luis) was a “give away” horse. He had been an arena horse and was very high strung and competitive. If you squeezed him even slightly, you were suddenly riding a rocket and he could leave you on the ground in his dust. If you sat back slightly, he’d stop on a dime sending you flying over his neck. He was a walking bag of brio.

The owner had wanted him as a trail horse that could be ridden by any of his guests regardless of their riding ability. He wanted a bullet proof horse. Cabo, instead, was a huge liability and possible lawsuit waiting to happen.

He was “gifted” to me. The minute I rode him for the first time, I realized he just wanted to go & go & go & go and he needed a JOB. At first, riding him was like riding a raw exposed nerve. He quivered and was nervous and flighty. It took two years and hundreds of hours and a couple thousand miles for us to bond and trust each other.

He is no longer the fearful nervous horse that he once was. Along the way we became a TEAM. Doing the Tevis solidified that trust and bond even more. He is my friend and my partner.

I am a rider who doesn’t like to mosey and neither does he. Soon there were no friends who would ride with us because of the distance and speed we were going. Cabo doesn’t seem to warm up till he’s about 30 miles into a ride!

After I retired and placed almost all of the Ark animals with other education programs and looked at Cabo out there in the field. I was looking at my Tevis horse. We trained and conditioned hard but we had some inherent advantages to counter and offset those not so desireable traights, like his inefficient gait.

First of all, we live at 9,600 ft. and ride at 10-12 & 13,000 ft in elevation so we already have a larger lung capacity. Our trails here in Telluride are rocky, steep and narrow. So we are already comfortable with the climbs and going at speed on narrow trails with drop offs don’t bother us.

Because Cabo lived in a pasture adjoining the mountain lion, bear, coyote and lynx pens, he has very few spooky “horse eater” fears on the trail. Tevis is considered a “downhill ride” with approximately, 18,000 ft of ascent and 23,000 ft of descent. And Cabo is a “downhill” horse!

It IS Cabo’s very short Paso Fino gait that makes him so sure footed and able to kick butt when going downhill. He DOESN’T have the hard foot impact while going down hills that an Arab has with their extended stride, so they need to slow down right where we can crank it up. We did have to add another “gait” to Corto and Largo, though.

It is a kind of fast “broken trot”. We use it on the flats as it is more efficient than the Largo and he was able to develop this by riding along so many Arabs.

Cabo has the typical small feet of a Paso Fino. On a practice ride on the Tevis trail above Squaw Valley months before the ride, Cabo was wearing the steel shoes that I had always put on him. It was our first time riding on flat granite and I was surprised how he slipped around on that slick surface. Slipping is something you DON’T want to do on the Tevis trail.

I discussed this with my farrier and we started using Equiflex shoes. These are a plastic shoe that is really light weight, has a pad and borium cleats; ridges that can fill with dirt as “dirt on dirt” is the best traction. They are nailed on but also a special adhesive is squeezed into the frog and over the nails on the outside. I only use them on the tough, rocky or slippery 100 mile rides as they are very expensive to put on (roughly 3 hours and $300) but they are bomb proof.

I have never lost a single one and can get 350 competitive miles out of one set. We are about to do Nationals on the same set that we used for Tevis. If you are curious about them, you can find out more by going to www.*globalendurance.com*

We completed the Tevis on our first attempt in 2007, 12 years after it went on my “to-do” list. Less than 20% of the riders have been able to complete on their first attempt. Some people try year after year to no avail and the buckle remains elusive.

Ignorance IS sometimes bliss, and thankfully I didn’t care to hear any of the reasons why we COULDN’T do endurance rides on a Paso Fino. So we didn’t start with 25 milers but just went straight to 50’s and 100’s and in 2006 we had accumulated enough mileage to put in our entry to Tevis for the next year.

Against the odds and those betting against us, we crossed the finish line in 80th place with only 15 minutes left on the time clock and with all A’s & B’s on Cabos vet card. He was the very first Paso Fino in 54 years, and in the history of the ride, to have ever been able to do so. He did AT LEAST 200 miles for the 100 miles that everyone else did with his short four beat lateral gait. But I didn’t have to post for 100 miles and didn’t need a mounting block at mile post 80!

There were hundreds of dollars bet AGAINST us in 2007.   People thought we wouldn’t make it into the very first vet check at Tevis. The pot got bigger and bigger as they were tracking us through each vet check we passed. I was told that the fellow betting FOR us won over $6,000 when we crossed the finish line.

Last year our entry went in again but the ride was cancelled due to the fires in California. THIS year, we had another opportunity to prove that our completion was NOT a fluke or a stroke of luck.

We completed the ride again and this time in 38th place, shaving more than two hours off our last time and with all A’s on Cabos vet card. He seemed stronger than our first time Tevis, even though I am slightly heavier.

There was no doubt that he remembered the trail and I now, had the confidence and trust to let him fly where he wanted to and never held him back.

There are no longer the skeptical looks when people see this Paso Fino at endurance rides. Instead there is an interest and curiosity about the breed and a tinge of respect and envy from even the most hard nosed Arabian lovers as we glide smoothly along the trails while they are posting through leg burning, jaring and back pounding mile after mile.

That wonderful buckskin Paso Fino has developed a loyal fan club in the endurance world as he has been proving that there are other places besides the arena where this breed can shine. We are scheduled to ride in the National Championship 100 miler at Greenville, CA. in September. If he completes there, he will be the first Paso Fino to have done so. He was also the first to have completed the Big Horn 100 and the Main Divide 100. BUT….The Grand Daddy of them all is the Tevis. Damn, I love that horse!