The Thinking Athlete’s Sport
From Running Times, April 2004
Think of it as a two-person relay with a horse as the baton. Think of it as what would happen if you married the Boston Marathon to the Kentucky Derby and brought them to Outward Bound for the honeymoon. Think of it as the most energetically efficient way to cover 30 to 40 miles of rough terrain. If you think about it long enough, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll decide it’s absolute lunacy, or you’ll ask where you can sign up.
More than 30 years ago, San Francisco–based Levi’s Jeans was looking for a sporting event to sponsor. Bud Johns, Levi’s public relations guy, came up with the idea for a ride and tie race. Ride and tie was a mode of transportation used in the Old West, but has roots that can be traced back to England, when two people needed to cover ground but had only one horse between them. Henry Fielding, in his 18th-century novel, Joseph Andrews, mentions it as a mode of travel in much use by our “prudent ancestors.”
Johns found that the combination of the Western heritage of the company, the desire to do something new and different, and an unusual way to advertise the rough-hewn durability of their jeans made it an attractive option. For the first few years of the sport, prize money at the World Championship was doubled if the winning team was wearing Levi’s jeans.
The start of a ride and tie race is barely controlled chaos. You have three-member teams: two people and a horse. Often the team members are dressed in matching running clothes; the horse sports a big, colorful number on his rump and sometimes ribbons or other decorative elements to help his riders distinguish him from all the other mounts. In the mid-80s there would be 200 teams—600 critters, two- and four-legged—waiting in a meadow for the start of the race.
Although the number of participants in the championship race has dwindled in recent years—this year’s World Championship has just over 30 teams, an all-time low—it doesn’t feel small. Added to the event are 13 teams doing a short course—just a 12-mile loop—and another couple of dozen endurance (horse only) riders, also doing a short—25-mile—course. Out on the trail are 30 riders who’ve been out for a while already in their 50-mile endurance race.
Everyone is excited at the start. Runners are high-tailing it to the porta-potties, and horses lift their tails to take care of business. Some horses are rearing up, raring to get started.
The black hat goes down (shooting off a gun would wreak havoc among the already hyped-up Arabian steeds), and they’re off. One person starts out running, the other riding. Typically, the partner on the galloping horse goes farther faster. After a mile or so, the rider gets off, ties the horse to a tree, and continues down the trail on foot. The runner catches up to the tied horse, climbs on, and they set off to find the third member of the team. Once reunited, the humans can either switch, or have the riding member continue a ways before tying. If they switch, they’re likely to do a “flying exchange,” where the rider bails off on the right (wrong) side of the horse just as the runner is mounting from the left (the correct) side. It’s a sight to behold.
This year’s 32-mile World Championship is taking place high above Lake Tahoe, near Truckee, CA. The course is on fire trails, dirt roads, and single track; the elevation ranges from 6,500 to 8,400 feet. It promises to be a tough race. There are, as usual, a number of tough teams entered.
Mary Tiscornia, the only person to compete in all 33 World Championships, has partnered with Tom Johnson, who, in younger, faster days, had the course record at the Western States 100M. They are a favorite not only to take the Man/Woman category, but look good to win overall. In the Man/Man division, Skip Lightfoot, an excellent rider with a stable of strong horses, has teamed with speedy Mark Richtman who, until this year’s race, had won more championships than anyone.
In the Woman/Woman category the favorites are two Southern Californians, Rufus Schneider and Anne Langstaff. Langstaff is well-known in the ultra community for her big win at the Badwater 135M, her strong showing in numerous other races, and her job as an exotic dancer. Schneider called Langstaff and told her about the sport a year ago. Since then, the ultrarunner put her trail racing on hold, bought a horse, and has been training for this race.
And then there’s the veteran team that has never won, but has often come close (they finished second by 17 seconds the previous year). In 1981, within the space of two weeks, Jim Howard won the San Francisco Marathon, the Western States 100M, and the World Championship Levi’s Ride and Tie. In the same year, his friend and former Sacramento State teammate Dennis Rinde finished seventh at the Boston Marathon, clocking in at 2:13. That time was not a fluke: Rinde has run two 2:12s, four 2:13s, and two 2:14s. Back in the day, these guys had some serious running chops. Older now, but still strong, smart runners and athletic riders, they are serious contenders.
The course is three separate, sometimes overlapping, loops, each marked with a different color ribbon, each coming back to the start, where a team of veterinarians will check the horses before they are allowed to continue on the course. Teams must exchange a minimum of six times. When and where they do—most teams exchange more like 20 to 30 times over the course of the race—is what makes this, in the words of long-time competitor and Duke emeritus professor of biology Peter Klopfer, the “thinking athlete’s sport.” Strategy is key—reckoning the relative speed and strength of each human partner and the horse, and figuring out how to garner the advantage, is what this is all about.
Observers often wonder if the sport is hard on the horses. Head vet, Jim Steere, is quick to point out that this kind of sprinting and stopping closely mimics a horse’s experience as a prey animal in the wild. Indeed, anyone who has competed in a ride and tie has no doubt that the horses think this is darned fun.
When the riding partner ties the horse to a tree, the horse watches as he runs off. Then he turns his head to look for you, the runner coming to claim him. You see your horse waiting for you and call to him. He nickers in response. As you are untying him, he’s ready to go, wanting to gallop off to look for your other partner.
In order to do well, you need a little help from your friends. One of the hardest parts of ride and tie strategy is getting the timing of the vet checks right. One person rides in and runs out while the other person comes in on foot. You need to be able to hand the horse off to your crew. They cool him, calm him, feed and water him. They make sure that he is ready—pulse and respiration rates down to the mandated maximum—for the second partner to show him to the vets before the team is deemed eligible to continue. A good horse is a sine qua non; a good crew makes for an easier race.
People here refer to themselves as the “ride and tie family.” That’s because it’s a close-knit, though ever-evolving, group. There are also a number of actual families who come and take part. The Ruprecht clan boasts three generations of ride and tiers. Eleven-year-old Sarah Howard is crewing for a number of family teams: her mom, Elaine Ruprecht, and her uncle, Tom Gey, multi-time winners of the Man/Woman division; her aunt, Carol Ruprecht, and grandfather, Ted; and of course, her dad, Jim Howard, and his partner Dennis Rinde. Sarah has been riding since before she could walk. Freckled, with long red hair, Sarah has already run a six-minute mile. I’ve called dibs on her as a partner in a couple of years.
For now, I’m lucky to have Running Times’ editorial director, Candace Karu, as my crew. Candace is my friend. I know that even if I scream at her during the race, she will still love me tomorrow. However, it wasn’t until two days before the event that I met my human and equine partners. My running partner, Michael Whelan, is exactly my height, which makes it easy to share a saddle (teams with big height disparities are either uncomfortable or use double stirrups). He’s run 44 marathons and was, for six years, a jockey in his native Ireland. Irish Mike heard about ride and tie six months ago and knew he’d found his sport.
We found each other through the organization’s website (www.rideandtie.org). We have leased our horse from Cliff, a long-time ride and tier who often brings rent-a-horses to races. Our boy is named Slick. He isn’t. He is dull, dirty, and seems, when we take him out for a test ride, a little dopey. He has an inefficient, not to mention uncomfortable, trot. He competed in a 50-mile endurance ride the week before and has a 100 miler coming up the following week. Slick works hard for his living.
Mike and I don’t have any plans to race hard, we just want to have fun. After the black hat goes down, fun is scarce. Our horse is no longer dopey. Hyped up, revved up, Slick is a jerk. For the first trade-off of the race, teams are allowed a “hand tie.” Because the horses are so excited at the start, and because, let’s face it, when you’re a herd animal it’s hard to stand still as your friends go charging by, crew members are allowed to hold the animals while they wait for the trailing runner. Slick manages to throw stoic Candace to the ground (knocking a chip off her shoulder bone) and gets his reins tangled up over his head. For the first few exchanges it’s almost impossible to mount the whirling dervish. When he’s tied to a tree, he pulls back so hard that getting the quick-release knot untied takes what seems like hours.
During the course of the race, however, as we get to know each other, our boy settles down. By the last loop, I simply toss the tie rope over a branch, not even bothering to tie it. Slick stands quietly, waiting for Irish Mike. From behind me as I run, I hear hoofbeats and a brogue; Mike is telling Slick to “go get Rachel,” and he does.
We surprise ourselves by finishing in fifth place overall, winning the Man/Woman division. It didn’t hurt us that during the race Tiscornia missed a turn and ended up on the 50-mile endurance course loop. Her partner, Tom Johnson, ran the last part of the course solo. Not known for graciousness either on the trail or in victory, Johnson claimed that it was hard to see the markings when you were going fast. The team of Schneider and Langstaff also went off course. Even if they hadn’t, it’s likely that the old pros, Howard and Rinde, would have won anyway. They covered the 32-mile course in 3:37:01, beating the second place team, Lightfoot and Richtman, by 40 minutes.
After the race, the team of veterinarians cull out the top-10 horses and go over their levels of hydration, metabolism, and muscle tone to see which got through the race in the best shape. That’s where the real glory is. It means that you have trained your horse well and have raced him smart and safe. It’s the equine partner who has to run every step; in this reaction, the horse is the limiting reagent. The award for “Best Conditioned” doesn’t always go to the horse who finishes first, but this year, it does. Howard and Rinde’s partner, Magic Sirocco, proved not only the fastest, but also the fittest.
At the end of the race, you’re tired, sore, and dirty. You may be delighted or disappointed with your performance. You feel gratitude to your partner, your horse, and your crew. And then you start talking about next year’s World Championship.
For more information on the sport of Ride & Tie, visit their website at www.rideandtie.org.