Confessions of a Tevis Volunteer (Or: Why I Keep Coming Back)

By Elizabeth Speth

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Volunteers meet a weary rider at the gate into Francisco’s.

The annual Western States Trail Ride, popularly called the Tevis Cup, is a grueling 24-hour horseback ride over 100 miles of exceptionally beautiful and punishing terrain.  Sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference, it is a horse-centric event, designed around the safety and well-being of the animal.

It’s an amateur race against the clock, no cash prizes, only a coveted buckle.  Started in 1955, it is considered the  founding event in endurance racing, and is still known as the most difficult.  Over the years, it has evolved into something that requires nearly a thousand people to make sure up to 200 riders and their horses make the journey safely.

The psychology of the riders — why would they do such a thing? — is the subject of another blog.  They are a breed apart.  The training of their magnificent steeds for such a trial is also another discussion entirely.

All I’m qualified to address is the volunteerism aspect of this.  For a large handful of years — I’m fuzzy on the exact number out of sheer fatigue — my husband and I have braved miles of rocky, narrow roads to report for duty in the early afternoon at the rugged Francisco’s outpost, at Mile 86.  We remain there until the pre-dawn hours of the morning, sometimes pulling out as the sky begins to lighten.  This is where we put the exhausted horses and riders back together, hydrate, refresh and encourage them, and send them on to the last part of their journey.  This is where we marvel at the freshness of the front-runners, who breeze in and out and look as though they are in the middle of a leisurely ten-mile trail ride. All of them have come from the high peaks near Lake Tahoe, and will end their journey in Auburn, CA, if they make it that far.

A lot has happened in the years I’ve volunteered, and I’ve loved every minute of it.  The following is a list of things I’ve been privileged to do, and so I feel qualified to say I will happily do them again — and again — year after year, until fate and a good horse and the aligned stars finally put me at the starting line.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of proven qualifications and skills:

I will be happy to see you at one a.m. in a remote place, with the moon rising over a tree-fringed canyon, as the air is turning cold.  You have been riding nearly twenty hours, give or take.  In temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees.  You’ve had a long day.  We’ve left the light on for you, because you still have a ways to go.

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I will sponge your horse with cool water as his heart rate slows.  I’ll stake out a little spot for him to eat a nourishing bran mash and clean hay, as peacefully as possible.

I’ll pay attention when you explain her little quirks and preferences, how to best get her to eat and drink and relax.

I will check your gelding’s pulse with my stethoscope, count his respirations, tell you when you are clear to see the vet and get on down the road.

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I will fill your water bottles with cold water, gatorade, lemonade — whichever you like — and I’ll make sure they are safely tucked into your saddlebags.

I will make you sandwiches.

I’ll go find carrots for your horse, a rump rug so he doesn’t cramp, and watermelon because I remember you from last year, and I know your mare loves it.

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I will stay with you while you throw up, wretchedly, exhaustedly, on the ground in front of your chair under the gas lamp.  Riding in the dark for hours gave you motion sickness, and your dehydration didn’t help.  You are too tired to be embarrassed, and I’m glad, because you shouldn’t have to worry about that.

I will hold your horse and look discreetly the other way while you pee on a bush not a foot away from me.

I will share my antacids with you, my Tylenol and my sunscreen.  I’ll rub your bad knee, if you ask me to, or your shoulders or your horse’s muscled rump.

I will run five miles down a trail in my boots, in deep darkness, because your horse stumbled and you both went over a cliff.  My fellow volunteers and I will be overjoyed to find you alive, clinging to a steep hillside, seriously injured but with humor and graciousness intact.  Your horse will have made his way back to camp by then, in better shape than you.  I will sit with you for a few hours while the moon pries the black sky open, and we wait for rescue folks to arrive.

I will follow the rescue crews out as they carry you back over those five miles in a stokes basket, and I will resist the urge to kiss you on the forehead because, for all you have been through, you are still in for the ambulance ride from hell over miles of rough road to get out of this canyon and to help.

I will call your wife as the sun rises, and your helicopter lifts off for the nearest trauma center.  I  will assure her that I’ve seen you with my own eyes, that you were awake and alive.  I will listen to her stoicism and bravery on your behalf, but I will hear her finally break down when I mention that your horse took the best care of you that he could in the accident.  She will say that she loves that darn horse.  What is understood but not said is how much she loves you — enough to let you do this crazy thing.

I will make you brownies.

I will give your horse electrolytes, and trot him/her out for the vet for you because you are tired/throwing up/too lame to do it.  Your horse will, miraculously, be sound at 86 miles because you have spent the day attending to him, monitoring him, reaping the benefits of months or years of careful preparation.

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Both riding and crewing Tevis can be a family affair. My daughter helping out a junior rider.

I will check on you several times while you wait three hours to get your horse trailered out after you are pulled for a lameness because some damn rock in the road had your name on it.  I will marvel that you are sleeping on the ground almost between your horses’ feet, and I will admire both you and the horse for that relationship, and your journey together.

I will envy you as you pile your tired body in the saddle for the last fourteen miles, so delirious you have to ask me which way the trail lies.  I will watch you until darkness swallows you up.  I will think you are very brave.  I will think your horse is a miraculous thing of beauty.

My thoughts will follow you to the finish line.  You started out with a 50-50 chance of making it, and you’ve come so far.  I am willing you to get there.

this year

My husband Neil and me. Tevis 2014.

Me, I will  be thinking longingly of bed, and also about clearing my schedule for next year.

And likely you are thinking the same thing.

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25 thoughts on “Confessions of a Tevis Volunteer (Or: Why I Keep Coming Back)

  1. What a great write up. My horse and I made it through our 3rd Tevis last Saturday, and I am so appreciative of all you volunteers and what you do to support us Tevis riders and make it such a special experience, whether we make it to the end or not. I am especially thankful for the volunteers and vets at Francisco’s and Last Chance, who are up all night long for us. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  2. I absolutely love this! My husband was asking about the volunteers when I ran across this. He really enjoyed it too and is wanting to volunteer with me. When we finally get to make it happen, I hope to have a volunteer mentor just like you! This just made me so happy! 🙂

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  3. Thanks for putting the Tevis Volunteer experience into words. Dale told me how grateful he was when you trotted Ninja for him. Dale was one of the many who were too lame to trot their own mounts.

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    • Judith, thanks for reading this, and thank you for leaving a comment. Dale is such a trooper, and a wonderful person. I enjoyed volunteering with him at Francisco’s, before he became an accomplished Tevis rider. His 2014 ride started out a little rough — I ran into him at Robinson, and his horse was having trouble. By the time he got to Francisco’s, the vets were saying he just got better and better all day. A real testament to Dale’s crew, and to the horseman himself.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this. I so want to come up someday and volunteer as I am in the midst of trying to write a novel where one of the characters is an endurance rider. Funny thing is that I show my Arabian in trail but don’t do endurance riding because I have no time to train for it and after several times volunteering for NATRAC rides in Southern California I saw the depth of commitment it took. These horses and their riders are phenomenal and I would love to read the other blogs mentioned this is wonderfully written piece.

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  5. I stumbled on to your blog after reading the Facebook post of your Tevis piece. I think it had been posted a few months back, as well, and that inspired me to volunteer for the race this year! I think I’ll be working at one of the veterinary treatment centers. I’ve so enjoyed reading your other posts. Your “Ghost in the Gate” story is one heckuva piece of fine writing.

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    • I am so pleased to hear from you, and I appreciate your kind thoughts. I’m also delighted you will be volunteering for Tevis. I hope it will be great fun for you, and I very much hope our paths cross. My very, very best to you, and my thanks.

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