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

John Henry Chapter 3 - Susan Garlinghouse DVM

Chapter 3 of our Tevis story, in the hopes of stirring some excitement and interest in our riders to dig a little deeper and go for it. For those not interested, scroll on by.

It was August of 2013 and finally we were encamped at Robie Park, ready to take our best shot at Tevis. Three days prior, we had hauled 600 miles, stopping often along the way for water and leg stretchers. John Henry travels with a big bucket of sloppy mash in front of him, and it’s always gone by the time we arrive—-another two gallons of water inside to the good.

Our stall at the fairgrounds finish line was set up with fingers crossed, and I had ridden John down the last few miles of trail. His entire demeanor changed from his at-home affable Mr. Rogers to a game face Rocky Balboa would be proud of. He’d been here before, and he knew exactly where he was and why.

I had piles of crew bags, lists and ice chests ready for my SuperCrew. As John’s second mom, Julie Herrera was crew leader, but I’m pretty sure she was mostly there to smite me dead on the spot if I did anything to put John at risk. We vetted in uneventfully, with just one casual comment from the Tevis vets, “We’ve never seen a horse jog with three different gaits, a buck and a fart, all in a 100-foot trot-out lane.” Yeah. Welcome to my world.

At the ride meeting, Dr. Jeff Herten MD, a long-time member of the WSTF Board of Governors, stood up to tell us that a hoped-for cool weather forecast had failed to materialize. Instead, we were in for record hot weather all weekend, with temps probably well over 110 degrees in the depths of the airless and baking canyons. He advised us, “If you’re not drinking the bare minimum of a liter of fluid or more every single hour out, you won’t be able to keep up with your fluid losses, and the odds are against you finishing.”

He was right—-a number of riders didn’t drink enough and pulled with a Rider Option later in the ride even when their horse was cleared to go. It turned out to be one of the lowest completion rates in Tevis history at just 46.88%. I had four big bottles on my saddle, two for me and two for squirt water, as well as snacks and human electrolytes that worked well for me. John’s electrolytes, long since dialed in to a tee, were mixed up and in the saddlebags and crew bags. John was getting a plain salt slurry syringed in the day, the night before, and before the start to trigger a good thirst response early on. We knew from research that surprisingly few horses start the ride fully hydrated due to fluid loss during travel and we needed to start with our tanks full. John was given approximately 16 ounces of electrolytes during the ride, well buffered with kaolin-pectin. He was syringed every hour during the ride and at every vet check. Research teams analyzing blood at the 36 mile point demonstrated our electrolyting regimen had really helped. His blood results were perfect, he never stopped drinking like a fish, eating voraciously, or pulling like a train.

Ride photographer Lynne Glazer had also arrived at Robie Park, bringing our friend Gesa Brink’s ashes, divided into five baggies. After the ride meeting, Lynne and I took one portion out into the meadow and carefully buried it in the shade beneath an enormous Ponderosa pine, near the natural spring and Tevis hopefuls grazing nearby. We knew the roots would take up those minerals as nutrients, making Gesa a permanent and living part of that beautiful tree. We thought she would have liked that. I know I would.

Another portion would go with Lynne as she hiked down to the creek crossing beneath the Swinging Bridge, a highly anticipated cooling and photo op spot at mile 52 in the depths of the first monster canyon. The other three portions would travel with me during each of the major legs of the ride. I’d installed a small grommet at the bottom of my pommel bag (visible on our Cougar Rock photo) and each baggie slowly trickled out with an occasional tap as we rode.

John Henry was cool as a cucumber during the pre-dawn start. We slipped right into a bubble well behind the hot shoes up front, but a bit ahead of the main pack. We stayed in that bubble for most of the ride, and moved up through attrition. Much of the first few miles of the trail leading to Highway 89 is downhill with good footing, and I knew no one can travel downhill as well as John does with his strange gaits. I wanted plenty of space on the downhills to move out when we could before we started the 2550’ climb to Emigrant Gap at 8750’ elevation.

A steady march up through the Squaw Valley ski resort, picking our way through muddy bogs hiding submerged boulders and scrambling slippery scree rocks through the spectacular Granite Chief Wilderness. I remembered the advice of Julie Suhr not to forget to turn and tip the brim of my helmet towards the rising sun, not just for the beautiful view, but perhaps a bit just for the mojo of it. And onwards towards Cougar Rock at 23 miles.

I had not made firm plans about whether we would go up and over Cougar Rock, getting that iconic photo but risking more slippery footing, or take the bypass around. Robert Ribley, now going for his twentieth Tevis buckle this year in 2024, had once cautioned me that “lots of riders have the photo, but not the buckle”. Good advice.

When we saw the Rock, there was just one rider ahead of us and no line of horses waiting. Without pausing for discussion, John Henry plowed straight towards the trail going over the top. Arrows painted on the slippery trail point out the turns, but John already knew. I got myself forward, off his mouth and stayed out of his way as he climbed up and over. We will never have a spectacular Cougar Rock photo leaping like a deer up the steep climb, but we made it without a slip and that was all I wanted (okay, and the photo was a perk, too). Off we went at a steady clip towards our first gate-and-go at Red Star at 28 miles, and then our first one-hour hold at Robinson Flat.

We cruised into Robinson Flat at 10:56 a.m., in 72nd place—about mid-pack—amongst all starters, but in 48th place amongst those who would eventually finish the ride. It was a good place for us to be, and we were feeling great. I had previously calculated when I wanted to be at each checkpoint and we came into RF exactly on schedule—well ahead of cutoff but within the pace I knew John could keep up all day. We knew that we needed to average 5 mph, but that nine vet checks would eat into our time available. So would technical, steep trail that slowed us down to a walk. When the going was good, I asked John for a faster pace at 10-11 mph to eat up the trail and he was always ready to go.

Coming into Robinson’s, crowds of crew and onlookers lined the trail, clapping and cheering for every horse and rider as they jogged in, an amazingly inspiring boost. As I ran in, John jogging at my side, I heard comments of, “What breed is THAT?” and, “Is that a gaited horse?!” My intrepid crew was waiting for me and stripped off tack to wash John down and offer a slightly salty bucket of water before taking him to pulse in and vet. We cruised straight through and after a break to eat and refuel, we were back on the trail headed towards the canyons. The temps were already in the mid-nineties, so this time I carried frozen bottles of water to squirt on John’s neck to help keep him as cool.

Down a steep, rocky trail to the bottom of Deadwood Canyon and across the Swinging Bridge. We skipped going down to the river itself in the interest of time management. There is a small natural spring just before the trail starts to climb that, although not as photogenic as the river itself, provided plenty of water even in the middle of a five-year drought. John drank deeply and got more electrolytes, I wetted him down, soaked my shirt, filled my squirt bottles and we started tailing up the notorious 73 switchbacks, climbing 1700’ in 3/4 of a mile to Devil’s Thumb.

It was just as well I didn’t know just how hot it was as we climbed. Later I was told it was 112 degrees in the depths of the canyon, without a hint of breeze. John kept up a steady march and I tailed behind, praying for the top to arrive. Several lifetimes later, it finally did. I was ready to faint, but when I checked, John’s heart rate as we crested the last switchback was just 76 bpm. By the time we reached the vet check, he pulsed through in less than four minutes with a heart rate of 50. A few bites to eat for both of us, more water and we swung into a ground-eating stepping pace towards the next two canyons. The distance between the start of the first canyon and the end of the third Volcano Canyon is only eighteen miles, but it took us over five hours to get it done. We had climbed 3,790’ and descended 5,091’—-a lot of it on narrow, rocky trails but with heartbreaking scenery, traveling past historic mining towns and the rusty bones of abandoned gold mining equipment, keeping their own stories and secrets to themselves.

As we made our last climb coming into the second one-hour hold at Foresthill, I felt John’s gait change just a bit. Looking down, I saw a bare foot—-his odd gaits make him notorious at overreaching and he had pulled off a shoe. I hand-walked him into the check, where he quickly pulsed through and over to the vets.

Head veterinarian Greg Fellers, DVM watched him jog out and back and told me, “Susan, it’s only 7:30 and you have just 32 miles to go. Even if you just put a boot on and walked him the rest of the way, you have time to make it in. You have a lot of horse left. Go take care of your horse and go get it done.”

My crew shooed me away to go eat, clean up and change clothes (oh, the joy of clean clothes and a washcloth) while they scrambled to fit boots. Julie made the call to pull the other front shoe to keep him as even as possible, but our previously prepared boots weren’t fitting quite right. She and husband Ken ransacked the camp hustling up a pair of boots in the right size. At my out time, I came back to boots I’d never seen before, and that John had never worn in practice rides. Nevertheless, we mounted up and headed for the out gate, hoping the angels were on our side.

Did I mention John had never worn boots like this before? As we left, he was moving like he was wearing swim fins, figuring out this new feeling. Trying out something new at a ride is a cardinal sin in endurance, and an even worse idea at Tevis—-let alone 68 miles into the ride and about to head down the steep switchbacks and drop-offs of the notorious California Loop in the dark. As we walked down the main street of Foresthill, I thumped myself for not checking the fit of his tried-and-true boots just before the ride. How could I have been so dumb? I toyed with the idea of turning back to pull ourselves before I made things worse. Later, my crew said that as I left the out-gate, with John walking like a duck, they all agreed, “She won’t make it. They’ll have to turn back and pull.” Gesa’s spirit would have to be satisfied with being spread over just 68% of the Tevis trail.

Just as I was picking up the reins to turn around and head back to quit, John’s walk suddenly smoothed out. He’d gotten the hang of these things now, and voluntarily picked up his pace to a big, swinging walk. He stretched his neck, put his ears forward, asking for the bit and looking down the road, knowing where he was headed.

God hates a coward, and my horse was telling me he was good to go. So we went.