Home Current News News Archive Shop/Advertise Ridecamp Classified Events Learn/AERC
Endurance.Net Home

John Henry Chapter 1 - Susan Garlinghouse DVM

Bruce Weary has posted his story about how, after numerous attempts, he eventually earned his Tevis buckle with the help of a stubborn, heavily muscled Tennessee Walker named John Henry, a horse who typifies the concept of Atypical Endurance Horse.

In the interest of posting something positive, and perhaps inspiring others to give grabbing for the brass ring a try, I thought some might be interested in my continuing the story of how John Henry helped me also earn my first Tevis buckle. John Henry has been my partner in earning a total of three buckles in a row, plus one for another rider in 2016, and a close swing-and-a-miss in 2019. Five Tevis completions ties John for the record of Tevis buckles by a gaited horse, a record that has stood for over forty years. I think we just might need to go bag that record before we are done, but here’s the story of our first Tevis journey together.

I have always ridden breeds that trot, but began having trouble with my knees some years ago. In 2010, Bruce invited me to come to Arizona to ride his horse John Henry in the Las Cienegas 50 to see what a gaited horse feels like. I did, had a great time and we proved that even riders with many years of collective experience between us could get so caught up in swapping stories that we completely missed a turn that was all but marked with cheerleaders and a fire bell. We went an extra seven miles, finished mid pack anyway, and I was in love with this smart, tough, endlessly kind horse John Henry. I said thank you, goodbye and flew back home.

A year or so later, Bruce called me up and asked if I would be interested in owning John Henry. I joke about having compromising video of Bruce playing golf with Satan, thus blackmailing him into selling John to me, but the reality was that Bruce had accomplished his goal by finally earning that elusive Tevis buckle after many tries. He was kind enough to think perhaps John and I were a better fit long term, and I brought him home to my barn very soon thereafter.

During our first 2011 season together, John and I did 660 miles together, including several multidays of up to 250 miles in five consecutive days. Tevis was definitely in our sights, but I wanted to bring John into tiptop condition and establish our partnership before we sent in our entry. I had only attempted Tevis once before in 1993, pulled at Robinson Flat and had not tried since—-too busy finishing my vet degree and more than a little intimidated by the mountains and canyons I’d seen firsthand but had yet to conquer.

2011 was the year that snowfall forced Tevis to be rescheduled to October instead of its usual summer start, and then caused the ride to be run backwards from Auburn from its traditional start in Robie Park. We planned to be there. Our last tune-up was to hopefully do all five days at the XP Paunsagaunt multiday, riding through the tough trails and hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, Utah. I had been working to really dial in both John’s and my nutrition, fitness and electrolyting regimen, using a portable blood analyzer to verify I had everything just right before and after our rides. I thought we were getting pretty close to optimum fitness for a horse that didn’t have the metabolic advantage of Arabian blood, and was built more like a truck than a race car..

John was more than willing to go at Bryce and he eagerly roared through Bryce like a freight train. He scored his first Fastest Overall Time for horses finishing all five days with fuel still left in the tank, ate and drank all day like it was his last meal, and was going faster on Day Five than he did on the days leading up to it.

I had learned not to try dictating what gait he chose—-our deal is that I attempt to suggest (sometimes to no avail) the approximate speed and he chooses the gear, most of which I can’t even name. I tell people that all four of his legs go back and forth, but in no particular order. I’ve sometimes been offered well-meaning advice of how to train John Henry to hold a gait more consistently, but my conclusion had been If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It. As long as it was efficient, comfortable and got us down the road at a good clip, that was fine by me. This wasn’t a show ring we were aiming for, it was one of the meanest courses on the planet, and style doesn’t count.

At this point, John could cruise all day at 10 mph with a heart rate of 130 bpm and jog into the vet checks already at pulse criteria without having actually stopped yet. His strange gaits allow him to fly down hills without concussion on the forehand, which would help us at Tevis. I planned to tail him up the canyons and was working out five days a week to get myself fit enough to do so.

However, one of John’s few weak links is that his odd way of going means he is difficult to fit a saddle to over 250 miles. A week after our return from the Utah ride, I found a dry, scabby patch of skin that was hiding a significant friction rub underneath. He’d never shown a sign of a problem during the ride (I always check every night and morning), but here it was a week later, and just a month before Tevis’ October 8th start.

Although the lesion healed well, I didn’t trust that his current saddle wouldn’t cause more problems over a 100-mile course. I wasn’t going to try a new saddle out at Tevis, and I decided it would be safer to wait until 2012 rather than risk hurting this good horse. About this same time, a friend and fellow endurance rider Gesa Brinks was diagnosed with terminal, stage 4 breast cancer. She also had yet to earn a Tevis buckle, and although she was sick and weak, she attempted a last try that year. She only managed about ten miles before turning back, and passed away four months later.

Gesa and I talked about our Tevis dreams and the the regrets we’d had about opportunities we let go by. The great Julie Suhr had sent one of her own 22 buckles to her during the last stages of her illness, something to hold onto and inspire her to keep fighting. Knowing the end was not far off, I asked Gesa if she would want her ashes spread along the Tevis trail when I attempted it with John Henry. She said yes please, and our mutual friend, ride photographer Lynne Glazer, was put in charge of keeping her remains safe until ride day.

A month after Gesa’s death, I was packing to attend the Cuyama Oaks three-day ride, where we hoped to do well and continue prepping for Tevis. I received a call from my doctor—-I too had been diagnosed with an invasive form of breast cancer and the oncologist was recommending a bilateral radical mastectomy as quickly as possible. Surgery was scheduled for a week later, but I decided to go to Cuyama and attempt all three days, anyway. I didn’t know what the next few months would bring and I didn’t want to let this opportunity pass me by.

John Henry loves the Cuyama course and he was on fire all weekend. After Top Tenning the first two days and winning Best Condition the second day, I wondered if perhaps we should call it good and head for home. I had a lot to do to prepare for my upcoming surgery and it had rained all night, meaning the trails would be muddy and slick. John had worked hard for me but was eating and drinking well, his legs were tight and cool, and he had dragged me all over camp that evening during his after-dinner walk. I decided to trust him to call the shot the morning of the third day and tell me if we started again or not.

As I stepped from the RV in the early morning, John turned to look at me and nickered, as he always does—-the boy knows and likes his job and he’s a talker. I saddled him and then held out his headstall to him, waiting to see if he would turn away. Instead, he immediately stepped away from his breakfast and pushed his nose into the bridle, grabbing for the bit. I took that as, “Let’s go, Mom” and we went.

We won the ride that day (no, my competition didn’t know about my diagnosis, we had to work for it), won our second BC of the weekend, as well as Fastest Overall Time and Overall Best Condition. Two days later, I delivered John Henry to his Assistant Mom and very good friend, Julie Herrera, who would keep him ridden for me while I recovered. Three days later, I checked into the hospital.

More soon.