Ariat's Jenni Smith goes to the Tevis Cup

August 6, 2014

We've successfully stepped up onto the first rung of our ladder to Tevis 2014. We completed the American River 50 on Saturday, 26 April.

Because the trail is not conducive to passing in the early going - it's mostly single-track - we made a point of starting out farther towards the front than we typically do. We were caught up in the middle of a fast-moving group of about eight horses - taking it in turns to lead - into the first vet check at about 17 miles. Only one of those horses left the vet check in front of us and we caught him up fairly quickly.

He was riding a mustang, a really tough little sorrel gelding that Stella took an instant, violent dislike to. No beating around the bush with that mare, if she doesn't like a horse (okay, let's just say it, “gelding”) everyone knows it. When he was riding behind me she tried to slow down so she could kick him better. When we stopped at a drinking trough, she'd spin and fire at him if I didn't keep a sharp eye on her. It was kind of funny but keeping horses from injuring each other is serious business in endurance racing.

Riding alongside the lake, we had beautiful views as the sun came up and slowly mounted into the sky. There was a substantial amount of dew on the trees and bushes, and whoever rode in front took the brunt of it and ended up soaked. And this time of year in Northern California is a poison oak party, which is no fun if it gets into contact with your skin. I had on a long-sleeve shirt, designed to protect from the sun, under a vest. The upper portion of my left arm (the lake was on our right, so foliage was lower on that side) looked as if it was burned. It basically came into direct contact with the oil of the plant by having so many branches whip me on the shoulder as I rode by.
It's an Ariat shirt, so of course I complained to the people who designed it. They said, "Well Jenni, it's not a poison oak protection shirt." Whatever.

The three of us came into lunch together and Stella and Zoe pulsed in two minutes ahead of the mustang. The mares were spot on, moving great, eating, drinking, pooing, weeing. Everything you want to see your horse doing. After a short hour passed, we saddled up and headed back out for the afternoon loop to Cool. The first portion of the loop was Tevis trail (the last four miles from No Hands Bridge to the Auburn Overlook) and then it took off into beautiful grassy meadows studded with huge valley oaks. Seriously stunning.

The mustang caught and passed us early into the loop and we let him go. Jenn's objective is to maintain as constant of a pace as we can throughout a race and the mustang was moving too quickly for our taste. The mares just floated along, no worries. Every so often we”d swap and the leader would fall back to make way for another horse. Stella is great in the lead these days, although she starts “conserving energy” when we hit the hills, so typically we put Czoe up front for that kind of terrain.
We had a lovely ride on the Olmstead Loop and finished in under five hours” riding time (that's a pretty good clip for a ride like AR). The mustang won, Czoe/Jenn were second, Stella/me were third. It was a good fifteen minutes or better before any more horses showed up.

A special nod here to our excellent crew - primarily Bob Sydnor. Bob followed us through the ride, bringing us much-needed Starbucks at crucial junctures and setting us up efficiently with everything we needed to take care of the horses. He moved our rig from the starting point to the finish and made the entire ride a seamless, worry-free experience. There is nothing better than good crew.

When you complete a 50-mile endurance race, typically you have half an hour to get your horse to meet criteria (in this case, a heart rate of 60 bpm). Most riders will go ahead and vet through at the same time. If you wait too long to complete the final vet check, your horse could start to stiffen up in cooler weather.

So we vetted through and got our completions fairly quickly after finishing. Then we went back to our crew spot (we'd returned to the Overlook) and started cleaning up the mares for best condition judging. We tried not to bug them too much as they hoovered up whatever we put in front of them.

Best condition judging was our last task. The top ten finishers are invited to show their horses for best condition. The award is arguably more prestigious than winning because it says that your horse looked the best - taking into consideration the weight it carried and the time it finished in - than any of the other horses in the top ten.

To judge a horse “best conditioned”, the vet will check all vitals, do a CRI (cardiac recovery index - a test where the horse's pulse is taken, then the horse is trotted a specified distance, a minute is allowed to pass and the pulse is taken once again), watch the horse trotted on a straight line and on a circle in both directions. Then the vet score is factored together with the rider's total weight (with tack, advantage to heavier riders) and finish time (minutes behind the winner). The resulting scores deliver the Best Condition award.

At an hour after our finish - the dictated time to show for best condition - we headed back over to the vet. Melissa Ribley - a well-respected and equally well-liked veterinarian in the endurance space - was doing the judging. Now, Stella isn't the showiest of horses. She doesn't do any of that fancy floating, tail-in-the-air business other Arabian horses (who shall remain unnamed) are wont to do. She just trots up and down or around in a circle as asked, head level, ears at half mast. Kind of a buzzkill when you're trying to get her to look amazing. But she has kind of figured this drill out and she was a very good girl, even if she presented a less-than-stunning spectacle.

Melissa is a good vet, she could see past the lack of showmanship. She complimented me on how Stella looked and her vitals, told me that she wasn't sure what advantage the first place rider”s weight and finishing time gave him, but that Stella looked great. I was very happy with that and patted my horse as we led them back to the trailer.
For various reasons, both Jenn and I needed to get home that evening so we left as soon as we felt the horses were rested and ready to do the drive. So unfortunately we were not there to hear Melissa tell the crowd of riders what an amazing specimen Stella is and award her the Best Condition award. Yeah!

This is the first time I, personally, have ridden a horse to a Best Condition finish. Even though it's largely to do with the horse - her natural athletic ability compounded with Jenn's excellent care and conditioning plan - I still felt very proud. Stella is such a great partner - she's definitely the most reliable and consistent horse I've ridden and I can always count on her to take care of herself. Which is huge in the heat of the moment of an endurance race. An excellent horse. See more at: