Surviving My First Tevis Cup

Not only did Parry Macdonald Kietzman survive this legendarily grueling 100-mile endurance ride, she finished with flying colors! Parry shares her story.

Top photo: Diana Hiiesalu, Gore/Baylor Photography

On August 9th I had the opportunity to participate in the legendary Tevis Cup, a 100-mile endurance ride that is considered to be the most difficult in the world. True confessions: Although I’ve been riding horses for most of my life my background is in jumping and I’m still relatively new to endurance. That said, since last fall I’ve been fortunate enough to have an incredible mentor, Peter, a veteran endurance rider who has been letting me ride one of his horses, Jaazi. Over the past year he’s taught me a ton about how to be successful in endurance, so when he asked me if I’d be interested in riding Jaazi in the Tevis Cup the answer was an enthusiastic “yes!”

I’ve gotten to know Jaazi very well over the past year, which is important for a ride like the Tevis Cup. Everything about it is just relentless, so going into it you want to know that you trust your horse and his athleticism and that you know how to take care of him while he’s performing at a high level for a very long time. At the other endurance rides I’ve been to (all 50 miles in length) there are usually opportunities to kind of take a break and zone out a bit, but the terrain at Tevis is so rugged (coupled with narrow trails, thousand foot drop-offs, and tons of elevation gain and loss throughout the day) that you never get much of a chance to relax. This was Jaazi’s (and my) first 100 -mile ride so my main goals were to deliver a healthy horse back to Peter at the end of it and to give Jaazi a positive experience.

Peter, Jaazi, his other horse Remy, and I left on the Tuesday before the ride and drove up to Auburn Fairgrounds, the finish line. We set up camp and went on a pre-ride of the finish the following morning. We rode down as far as the Lower Quarry vet check, which is six miles from the finish. I’m really glad that we did this because the end of the ride is rather confusing and on the day of the actual ride I’d be covering it in the dark. Of course, looking at it in daylight I saw how sketchy and narrow the trail was in sections, with tight turns, steep dropoffs, rocks, low hanging branches, etc. Fortunately Jaazi is very sure-footed so I wasn’t very worried about us falling off the edge. On the way back from Lower Quarry we also made Jaazi practice walking around in the river since there would be a couple spots on trail where river crossings would be necessary. Peter and Remy have completed the Tevis Cup three times before but wouldn’t be competing this time around.

Originally we were going to leave for Robie Park (the starting line) on Wednesday afternoon, but we heard that it was raining buckets up there and decided to stay in Auburn for another night. We left very early Thursday morning instead, and managed to get the best campsite ever when we arrived at Robie! It was right next to where the horses leave camp for the start, which meant I wouldn’t have to traverse everyone else’s campsite on my way to the starting line on Saturday morning (in the total darkness since the ride starts before dawn). We didn’t have a lot to do after setting up our camp, but Peter and I did go on a ride down a bit of the beginning of the trail to see how it was. My husband, Ben, also arrived to help with the crewing.

On Friday I checked in with ride management and discovered that Jaazi and I had qualified to start in Pen 1. The top 60 horse/rider teams (based on their performance during the season before) get released onto the trail first since it’s assumed that they’ll be going the fastest and this helps avoid traffic jams. I wasn’t planning on racing since this was Jaazi’s (and my) first 100-mile ride, but he is a naturally fast horse so it was nice to be placed in this group. We also had the pre-ride vet check, which Jaazi easily passed (and was so excited he tried to canter and veered into me during our trot-out! I think the ride photographer got an interesting sequence of photos of us). After that there wasn’t much to do as I already had all my tack and gear ready for the next day and we needed to give Jaazi a rest, but there were a few events like the pre-ride meeting and a buffet for all the riders and crews. Peter also had a set of topographical maps of the trail that we went over in detail.

On Saturday morning I got up at about 3:15 to start eating breakfast and tacking up Jaazi. Peter had already been up much earlier to feed and electrolyte him (being crew at Tevis is hard work!), so Jaazi was pretty much ready to go and just needed his saddle thrown on him. I was mounted and walking down to Pen 1 by 4:30. I expected things to be a little scarier in the darkness with all the fresh 100-mile horses around, but Jaazi was very focused and clearly intent on hitting the trail. Pen 1 is an actual corral that all 60 horses have to mill around in before they’re allowed to start the ride. We were supposed to just walk around in circles to get our horses warmed up, and there was a lot of traffic. Jaazi is known for trying to kick other horses at the start of rides, but fortunately I was able to keep him under control and he walked around very calmly the whole time. Somebody else got kicked (not that I could see because it was so dark!) and started shouting and cursing, which got a lot of other horses all riled up and nervous, so Jaazi and I retreated to the outermost edge of the pen until things calmed down.

When they opened the pen we had to walk a mile down the road to the actual starting line as a group. We got there about 10 minutes early and had to just stand there until they opened the trail, which was interesting (try telling all these racehorses they have to just stand on a road for 10 minutes!). Again, Jaazi had his game face on and managed to stand mostly quietly for most of the time (started getting pretty antsy by the end of it). I passed the time chatting to the rider next to me, who was also making her first Tevis attempt. I thought our horses were friends after that but as soon as they opened the trail and we started moving forward her horse abruptly kicked out viciously at us! Nimble Jaazi canter pirouetted out of the way (has he missed his calling as a dressage horse?) and as far as I could tell the hoof only grazed the side of the water scoop I had attached to his breast collar. It was a pretty tense moment for us, though, as a good kick can lame your horse and end your ride.

We got going again at a rapid trot and didn’t have any more issues after that. The beginning of the ride is pretty stressful as there is a lot of traffic (no pulls yet and the herd hasn’t spread out) on single-track trail that isn’t good for passing people on. Everyone has different ideas about what the pace ought to be, the horses are all keyed up, and it’s still pretty dark so you can’t quite tell what you’re doing. But we survived! After the attempted kicking things were about as uneventful as they could be, we kept to a pace that I was satisfied with, and as dawn broke I could start appreciating how beautiful all the scenery was. They definitely chose a spectacular area for this ride!


The trail map via

There is quite a large mountain you have to get up pretty close to the beginning of the ride, and many people get pulled at the top of it, which is the very first vet check, because they ran their horses too hard in the high altitude and got their heartrates up too high, so I decided to play it safe and do walk/trot intervals up it rather than trotting the whole way up. We easily passed the first vet check and started our descent into the Granite Chief Wilderness. This is quite a sketchy section of trail with huge, sharp rocks and a bog. People who have done this ride before said the footing here was the worst they’ve ever seen it! A friend of mine who is an excellent rider had her horse actually fall down more than once in this section. I was lucky in that Jaazi had some ungraceful moments where he lost his footing and had to scramble to regain it but we never hit the ground.

The most interesting landmark on the way to the first hour-long hold of the day is the infamous Cougar Rock. This is a giant, steep chunk of granite that you must scramble up as fast as you can before toppling off backwards or to the side. There is a bypass if you think your horse isn’t going to be able to manage it, but I was really hoping to go up it. The decision to do it or not is pretty much made at the base of it where you assess how forward and game your horse is in that moment. As we left Granite Chief I was starting to think that since Jaazi had been kind of clumsy in those rocks maybe we didn’t need to go up the GIANT rock, but I wasn’t going to decide until we laid eyes on it. When we arrived there was one horse going up and two horses taking the bypass at the same time. I must be certifiably insane because as soon as I saw the rock the first thought that popped into my head was “oh, we’ve definitely got this.” Jaazi was clearly having the same thought because he never even glanced at the bypass and immediately started motoring up the rock. Halfway up you have to change direction 90 degrees to the right. Jaazi was briefly puzzled by this, paused, and started losing his balance! I shouted at him to “get up” and told him that he was a good boy, and he pulled himself together and bounded up the rest of the way. Unfortunately my equitation in my official Cougar Rock photo is not the greatest because I lost my seat a bit when he did that! Oh well, we survived and it was a ton of fun. Jaazi obviously thought so too and pranced down the trail afterwards with much head-tossing. Best horse ever.

Most of the vet checks at Tevis are what we call “gate and gos,” which is when there is no mandatory holding time and you can leave as soon as your horse reaches the official resting heartrate and passes the veterinary inspection (although you would be stupid not to stay at least a few minutes to allow your horse to eat and drink and possibly administer electrolytes). There are two major holds, though, at mile 36 (Robinson Flat) and 68 (Foresthill), where you have to stay for an hour. The hour starts after your horse reaches the resting heartrate, so it’s not strategic to come galloping into these checks because then you’d have to stand around for a long time waiting for your horse to pulse down. When I was on the road leading into Robinson Flat I hopped off of Jaazi and started leading him in to get his heartrate down more quickly, and was met there by Ben and my other crewmember, Lynette. They had buckets of water to pour on his neck to cool him and stripped his tack as we walked so that he’d start to cool down right away. He quickly reached the correct pulse and we went to vet in. This was uneventful, as was the rest of the hold, where Jaazi ate and drank very well. Soon enough it was time to leave, which Jaazi was very impatient to do and leapt down the trail as soon as we were released from the hold.

The middle third of the ride (Robinson Flat to Foresthill) features three very steep, hot canyons. At each one you have to go all the way down to the bottom and then climb all the way back to the top. I got off and jogged on the downhill portions to rest Jaazi’s back and legs. Downhill trotting is hard on horses so any time you can give them a bit of a break is a good idea. At the bottom of the first canyon was a river crossing where the water was almost deep enough to reach his belly! I took some extra time to scoop water all over Jaazi to cool him and allow him to drink before crossing. The way up on this canyon is the hardest of the three, and is the only point during this time that Jaazi hit a wall and didn’t want to continue. We were already past the 50-mile point, which is the farthest he’s ever gone, so he was sure I was crazy for still having him out there and couldn’t figure out why I wanted him to keep going. We got about halfway up the canyon when he just stopped and wouldn’t go forward at all, even when horses passed him, which he usually hates. I got off and fed him some handfuls of grain from my saddlebag and then had to lead him up the rest of the way to the top. At the top there was a water/hay station where he ate and drank very well, and after that he was like a completely fresh horse! The second canyon was no problem for him, and on the way up he actually got very frustrated that we were stuck behind some slow people since he wanted to trot. As soon as we got to the top and could pass them we galloped off and made great time to Chicken Hawk, the last gate and go check before Foresthill.

Peter and Lynette were there to crew me since Chicken Hawk is known to be a particularly difficult vet check to pass and I could use the extra help. We passed and just had one more canyon, the smallest of the three, before Foresthill. Getting to Foresthill was no problem for Jaazi and he easily passed the vet check/pulse down when we arrived. It’s kind of fun being at this hold and also leaving it because it’s in the middle of a town that gets very excited about the Tevis Cup. All kinds of people were sitting on camp chairs on the side of the road just to watch the horses go by like it was a 4th of July parade, and I passed a lot of people having BBQs at their houses and cheering as the riders went by. When we left it was getting pretty dark, and by the time we got through town and back onto the actual trail it was completely dark! I lost some time at this point because I haven’t done any riding in the dark (and you don’t get to use a headlamp or anything because it would mess up your horse’s night vision) and felt pretty disoriented. I had also picked up a friend who was starting to feel nauseous (a common problem for people riding in the dark. I was fine, thank goodness. My grandfather always used to say that a true Macdonald never gets seasick, so maybe a true Macdonald also doesn’t get motion sick on horseback in the dark. I wonder how many Macdonalds have tried that to date). After a bit I got used to being in the dark and felt confident enough to return to our usual pace of trotting. Jaazi was very sure-footed during this time, was very focused and forward, and kept us on trail like a professional (except for one spot where we went off trail at a switchback and got very confused! Fortunately my friend had her brain turned on and helped us find our way back onto the real trail). At Francisco’s (mile 85 gate and go) we picked up a third friend who was riding at our pace. She’s done Tevis before so she went in front, which was a nice break for Jaazi who had mostly been leading before then.

A very cool part of the trail was the river crossing. It was completely dark and the water went up past Jaazi’s belly, but there were glowsticks in the water to show the riders exactly where to go. A lot of the ride volunteers hang out at the river to supervise the crossing and were having a huge party! They offered us some food but we wanted to keep going and make time. I was worried that Jaazi wouldn’t want to go in the river since he had been very reluctant to cross some small creeks in the dark, but he motored right through it like it was no big deal! After the river one of my friends started to feel like her horse was having an issue in his back end and joined a group that was going more slowly than the rest of us. Unfortunately she made it all the way to the finish line but was disqualified at the end for lameness. So disappointing! My other friend and I made it to Lower Quarry in good time (the check Peter and I had ridden to on Wednesday). This was a gate and go vet check that Jaazi passed, but sadly my friend’s horse had developed a lameness and she was pulled there.

I did the last six miles of the ride by myself, which turned out to be a lot of fun. Jaazi, amazingly, still felt very fresh and forward and we did a lot of it at a flying extended trot. He definitely knew exactly where we were and was dead set on making it to the finish. We passed a lot of riders on spent horses, which Jaazi got a huge charge out of, and got to the finish line at 3:32 AM. Peter and the rest of my crew were there (just to watch, they weren’t allowed to crew me until I completed my victory lap in the stadium), and as we trotted up the last hill to the finish line I overheard him saying, “look at him, he’s as fresh as a daisy!” Jaazi powerwalked all the way to the stadium, and when we got there I only had to think about cantering when he took off at a gallop for his victory lap. Good show! He quickly pulsed down afterwards and had a beautiful final trot-out for his last vet check. He got an A as his final vet score and was very perky, calling for Remy as soon as we left the stadium.

In all, we had a fantastic ride and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to go. I achieved my goals of bringing back a healthy horse and giving Jaazi a positive first Tevis, and also mostly managed to stick to the schedule I had made for myself in advance. We finished in 52nd place out of 188 starters and 107 finishers—I’ll take it!

Go Parry and Jaazi, and Go Riding!

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