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Tevis, From the Back of My Horse

Tevis, From the Back of My Horse

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Tevis, From the Back of My Horse

229 pages
3 hours
Oct 5, 2015


This is an action-packed true story about riding the most difficult 100-mile endurance ride in the world. It is a story about triumph over adversity, about courage, teamwork and knowledge. Join Sharma and her horse Tahoe on their journey through the rugged and scenic Sierra Nevada Mountains of California during their 24 hours of the 55th running of the “Tevis Cup 100-Mile-One-Day Trail Ride”. You will read about the “spills, thrills and bumps along the way” in this compelling, entertaining and instructive chronicle. Mount up and enjoy the ride!
Oct 5, 2015

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Tevis, From the Back of My Horse - Sharma Lynn Gaponoff

I remember waking up feeling odd, almost floating. With blurry vision, I saw the fuzzy shapes of people standing next to my bed. A bed…somewhere. Where was I, who were those people, and what was I doing here? My vision began to clear, and I could make out Dori from the ranch where I boarded my horses, my mother, and Andrea, one of my Poodle People Pals. I struggled to understand Dori’s words, finally realizing she was calling my name: Sharma, are you awake? You’re OK, you’re safe. Do you know where you are? What was she doing here—what were they all doing here—what was happening?

I was coming out of a coma.

Gradually I realized I was in a hospital bed, hooked up to monitors and IVs, my head wrapped like a mummy. Then slowly, a few images of a horrific accident scene started to creep into my memory. It was me at the ranch; I’d been trampled by a horse, and sustained life-threatening head injuries. I had one flashback of Dianna, the ranch manager, looking down at me as I lay on the ground in the arena, bleeding from my head, while Tahoe, my three-year old Arabian gelding, stood trembling and panicked a few feet away. Then paramedics arrived, and memories faded into a haze until my awakening.

For many months it was not clear if I would ever regain my cognitive abilities, let alone ride again. My sight and hearing were impaired, my speech was compromised. I could not think clearly enough to put two sentences together. Through months of physical, cognitive and speech therapy, I struggled to heal and get back to some semblance of my former self. As an expert in stratigraphic palynology (detecting microscopic fossils that indicate a possible presence of oil and gas deposits in an area), I worked in oil exploration for Chevron Corporation, traveling internationally. In my spare time, I loved riding my horses during peaceful evenings or long weekend trail rides, as well as playing music with a band, and training and showing my two Standard Poodles in Dog Obedience competition. I had a lot of skills to relearn, and my horses, dogs, and music figured prominently in my recovery.

The poodles, Lyla and Inca, flanked me in my bed once I was home from the hospital. My doctors instructed that while sleeping, my head must be elevated above my heart. The poodles kept watch over me as I slept, one on each side of me, living body pillows preventing me from rolling over or out of bed.

I had two horses. Reno, an Arabian gelding, was my once-in-a-lifetime companion. In 2002, he was 20 years old, and I decided it was time for some succession planning; so that summer I purchased Tahoe, a two year old gelding, also an Arabian. And a year later, Tahoe was the horse that accidentally trampled me.

While it was months before I could walk and talk normally, it was another year before I had the strength and coordination to get back on a horse. I put my trust in Reno, my old friend, trusting his gentleness as he took the utmost care of me on our first steps out on a trail. Getting back on Tahoe would be another long journey. While the accident leading to my injury definitely was not his fault, I was afraid of him, vulnerable to his strength and youthful unpredictability. I did not know if I would ever feel comfortable around him or be able to ride him again.

Fast forward seven years….

I finished the Tevis Cup Ride in July 2010, one of my oldest and fondest dreams, and I did it with Tahoe, the horse that nearly cost me my life, whom I had come to fear, but had grown to love again. On his back, for 100 miles, I experienced the most wildly exhilarating, exhausting, frustrating, fulfilling, and momentous journey of my life, all within 24 hours.

This is our story.

In the Beginning

Flaming enthusiasm, backed by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success.

Dale Carnegie

The Start and What It Took To Get There

It is five o’clock in the morning on July 24th and it is dark—so dark you can barely recognize who is out here, even those standing right next to you. I am astride Tahoe, milling around inside Pen 2 with 112 other excited horses and riders. Pen 1 is 100 yards up the road and contains the other 70 horses and their riders. Penny and Treasure, who are Tahoe’s and my endurance-riding partners, are beside us as we all wait for our release to start the 2010 Tevis Cup Ride.

There isn’t much conversation among the riders, just the comforting squeak of leather as we all get adjusted in our saddles, the clink of curb chains when a horse tosses his head, bits being mouthed and chomped by horses who are using them like pacifiers. Occasionally someone will call out a name, trying to locate a riding partner or friend.

Although we are all feeling frisky in the cool, brisk air, most people sit quietly on their mounts or turn in circles for something to do as we wait for direction from the Ride officials. We try and emulate a sense of calm to our very fit, athletic mounts. They sense that something extraordinary is about to begin. Horses’ hooves stomp the ground. There is a lot of snorting and head tossing by horses reflecting their riders’ nervous energy. At precisely 5:15 a.m. Pen 1 opens and the 70 horses and riders in front of us head out onto the Trail. All of us in Pen 2 anxiously wait a few minutes more for the opening of our pen so we can head out also. You cannot help but feel the energy in the air sparking like lightning in the darkness. It is the start of the 55th running of the Tevis Cup Ride!

• • •

My journey to the 2010 Tevis Cup Ride began nearly 25 years ago. Reno¹ and I had embarked on a successful endurance career spanning three years, from 1985 through 1988. But then my job responsibilities changed, requiring extensive travel and work on international projects, consuming nearly all of my time. As a sad result, endurance riding competition on Reno came to a halt. For the next 25 years Reno and I rode occasional trail rides and a bit of dressage. Obviously my Tevis dream required a change in life-style, so as I worked, I planned my financial future carefully, and held on to the dream as the years passed.

In 2002, I purchased Tahoe², a two-year old Arabian gelding foaled on the ranch where I boarded Reno. Tahoe had been bred for endurance riding and I harbored the hope that he would be the one to help me meet the Tevis challenge.

With Tahoe in the wings, I continued to enjoy riding Reno—and bringing Tahoe along in his training. After my recovery from my accident with Tahoe, I resumed riding Reno, and worked Tahoe under the guidance of Bo, an extremely skilled professional trainer. Tahoe went to school for months during my recovery. After several months in Bo’s hands, my own confidence returned, with a deep respect for Tahoe’s power and his equine awareness and perception of the world, but also with renewed determination to build a strong partnership.

I was still traveling extensively for my job, which limited my time in the saddle. My accident, which was a near-death experience, had changed my outlook on life. I had learned the hard way that good health can disappear in an instant. I began daydreaming about retirement so decided it was time for me to move on to the next phase of my life. In 2008, the stars aligned and I was able to pull the plug from my working life and take early retirement from my travel- and stress-intensive career. I sold my house in the San Francisco Bay Area, took a gamble and moved to the Gold Country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, not far from the Tevis Trail. This gave me access to hundreds of miles of trails and conditions similar to what I would encounter on the Tevis Ride. Now I had the time to ride and condition for this great test, and to discover if I did indeed have the right horse.

• • •

Five years after our accident, Tahoe had matured into a magnificent animal. Long months of patient sessions with a skilled trainer, plus my own investment of time, courage, determination, and loving care had produced an athlete that had all the components of an endurance horse. Did he have the heart? That remained to be seen…

For the next two years leading up to the 2010 Tevis Cup Ride, Tahoe and I trained diligently in endurance riding. We logged roughly 1,000 miles of conditioning including competitive endurance rides to prepare for the big day. We’d had thrills, spills and bumps along the way but it all seemed worth it now, as Tahoe and I, surrounded by other hardy (maybe crazy?) souls, were anxiously waiting to be released from Pen 2 to begin the Tevis. We were about to start one of the most difficult endurance rides in the world.

And you definitely ride the Tevis Cup, really ride as Wendell Robie, the Tevis Ride founder is quoted, because this Ride cannot be completed in the required time at the walk. As much as trail conditions allow, you need to travel at a race pace trot, moving as fast as is safely possible. However, during these 100 miles, you often must slow your pace to climb up steep mountains, step cautiously down ravines, twist and turn through switchbacks, or walk patiently if you get stuck single-file behind a string of other horses and riders who may or may not be keeping the same pace. At the back of a string, dust fills the air cloaking all of us in a red, iron-rich patina. For the majority of the Tevis riders, ten hours or more are done in complete darkness. With no sunlight to steer by, each footfall must carefully be made by your equine partner in order to keep you both from a disastrous misstep. Every stop you make during the competition—some mandated by the event managers for the safety of horse and rider, others chosen by you, to rest your horse or yourself when needed—means that you must make up the time in order to stay on track. Miles will be spent crawling up jagged peaks at a snail’s pace, and other times trotting down narrow trails, trying to keep momentum from carrying you over an edge.

To train for the Tevis, I had a three-pronged strategy that would take two years to complete:

Take advantage of the many 50-mile AERC-sanctioned endurance rides that are offered seasonally in various California and Nevada venues within easy trailering distance from my ranch.

In between endurance rides, improve fitness by doing intensive self-directed trail conditioning rides.

Practice on the Tevis Trail itself as much as possible.

I entered at least one AERC-sanctioned ride a month during the ride season. These spectacular rides took us from the deserts of Western Nevada to the alpine forests on both the Eastern and Western Sierra Nevada Mountains, to the Coast Ranges of Northern California, to ancient volcanic mountains and valleys of Northeastern California, and everything in between.

In addition to endurance rides, Tahoe and I rode trail-conditioning rides as often as possible with my endurance-riding partner Penny and her horse Treasure. Penny is an expert rider with over 2500 competitive endurance miles under her belt. She also knew the trails in the Gold Country better than anyone I had met thus far. Since I was new to the area, it was great to have such a knowledgeable and willing partner and guide as a new friend. In addition to trail conditioning, we would do as many competitive endurance rides together as possible. More importantly, Penny and I had the same Tevis goal: successful completion within the time allotted and ending up with fit, willing equine partners who would be happy to carry on. It felt natural to form a partnership, so Penny and Treasure became Tevis partners to Tahoe and me—and thus an integral part of my story.

Tahoe and I practiced on the Tevis Trail as much as possible. We did the California Loop trail, from Foresthill to the finish line six times, including once in the dark prior to the Tevis. The California Loop trail covers the last 36 miles of the Tevis Cup Ride and is generally accessible to anyone year round.

My training went well. In Tahoe’s first endurance season (2008–2009) we completed all six AERC-sanctioned 50-mile endurance rides we had entered and ended the season with a Top 10 finish. (To have a Top 10 finish, a horse must complete the Ride and be judged fit to continue and be among the first ten horse/rider teams to cross the finish line.) In his second season, Tahoe had three Top 10 finishes, completing six out of seven 50-mile rides. We were on track for both of us to be at peak condition for the start of the Tevis.

• • •

With two years of horse-and-rider conditioning under my belt, it was time to work on the logistics of the Tevis Ride. On July 1st of 2010, three weeks before the Ride, I began the meticulous process of packing—getting the horse trailer and campervan ready, plus organizing all of the tack and gear needed for Tahoe and me. I wrote and rewrote list after list—they could be found all over the house and barn. Every time I thought of something I needed, I wrote it down.

The deep canyons on the Tevis Trail can potentially heat up to 100°–110°F during the day, so I needed appropriate gear to help Tahoe and me stay comfortable in the face of such oppressive heat. Tahoe and I struggled with heat during a two-day 100-mile ride in June of our Tevis year. On the second day of the ride, Tahoe apparently overheated and began panting, which horses generally do not do. I was afraid he was going to invert. Inverting is a condition that occurs when a horse’s respiration rate is more rapid than his heart rate. I had learned 25+ years ago when doing endurance rides on Reno, that inverting was considered extremely dangerous.

More recent research shows that inversion alone is not necessarily indicative of a serious problem, especially if the horse cools down quickly and his respiration returns to normal. However, if a horse’s rapid respiration rate does not return to normal in a reasonable amount of time with cooling methods such as removing the saddle, applying water and moving the animal into the shade, it could mean big trouble. If the horse’s temperature is above 103°F, the horse should definitely not continue to do any exercise and needs to be cooled aggressively to arrest developing hyperthermia (heat exhaustion or heat stroke). The signs of hyperthermia in an endurance horse are related to the exhausted horse syndrome—poor heart rate recovery and fatigue. In severe hyperthermia, the most serious signs are neurologic: the horse will be confused and/or go into seizures because overheating adversely affects the brain. Bottom line—do not let your horse overheat!

When I recognized Tahoe’s state, my first objective was to cool him down as much as possible. Penny and Treasure were with us, and she kept me from panicking. We immediately stopped and let Tahoe have his fill of water from a nearby creek. Penny and I both dismounted and together proceeded to dump water on his neck and between his front and back legs using our water bottles and collapsible bucket. Penny encouraged me to let him eat as much meadow grass as he wanted.

Although he panted for what seemed to be a long time, Tahoe never behaved as though he was in distress and ate the meadow grass and drank water with much gusto. Thankfully he did not invert. His breathing finally became normal and stayed

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