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John Henry Chapter 4 - Susan Garlinghouse DVM

Next chapter of our Tevis story as we get closer to John Henry’s last trip to Robie Park, and I sincerely thank every one for their kind interest. The point of this Nordic saga isn’t about me, or even about John Henry, though he is truly a great horse (I might be slightly biased). It’s about all of us who meet our challenges with less than perfect bodies, a less than perfect life, and riding not necessarily the perfect endurance horse. We all have other distractions in life. We all have a story. We just need to tell them to teach and inspire others, learn from them and never, ever, ever give up.

As we headed down into the California Loop, it was turning from dusk to twilight to full dark. The moon would not rise for hours, and when it did, much of its light would be hidden beneath heavy tree cover. I had put several glow bars on John Henry’s breast collar, but not for his benefit. His night vision is far superior to mine and he could see just fine. If I could barely see the outline of his head in front of me, I wouldn’t get vertigo and could balance better on the ten miles down through narrow switchbacks and alongside steep drop-offs to the American River. I had a red light on the brim of my helmet, and was carrying a flashlight, but left them both off. Nothing is more disruptive to the horse’s night vision, or to other riders around you, than flashing white lights.

I was hoping that John would just maintain a good walk after learning how to move in unfamiliar boots put on as a spare tire in Foresthill. Walking steadily would get us in on time, barring anything else going wrong. However, as we traveled, his movement became more confident and without being asked, he voluntarily picked up an easy stepping pace when the footing was good. We moved along steadily, and I concentrated on staying well centered in my saddle in the increasing dark. I couldn’t see the turns of the switchbacks, and John knows he’s the pilot after dark. As he swung around sharp rollback turns, it was my job to just move with him.

Seventeen miles and three hours after leaving Foresthill, we came into the Francisco’s checkpoint at 85 miles. It was now 11:30 at night, still in the high eighties without a breeze, but we were feeling strong. John was eating voraciously, his hydration and metabolics were good and he sailed through the check with a pulse of 56 four minutes after coming in. I grabbed a flake of wet hay as we left on foot and handed him snatches of it for him to munch as we made our way towards the river crossing at 90 miles.

I had never crossed the river, certainly not at night, and wasn’t sure of what to expect. With his swimming background, I knew John would plunge right into the water like a stampeding hippo, and he did. He stopped chest deep to take a long drink while I scooped water onto his neck and shoulders, and then marched across. Glow sticks in floating gallon jugs marked our exact path and volunteers were standing by to help if needed.

Some riders advise pulling your feet up out of the water to avoid cold water cramps. Julie Suhr, undisputed queen of the Tevis trail, had advised me differently, saying that after 90 long, hot miles, nothing will feel better than that cool water on your feet. She was right, it felt fabulous. I knew I would mostly be staying in the saddle from here on in, except at our last remaining check point and the finish line, and I wasn’t worried about blisters from running in wet shoes.

On the far side of the river, the trail narrows for a mile or so and we came up behind a string of riders walking slowly with flashlights in all directions and glow sticks dangling everywhere, including off the tail of the last horse right in front of us (a rule has since been added not to do this). There was no way to pass, the swinging lights were making me nauseous, and I could tell John was impatient, repeatedly pulling at the bit and pinning his ears in annoyance. I politely called ahead that we would like to pass when the trail allowed, and heard a reply that they would pull over when they could.

A mile down the trail, now thoroughly tired of seeing the light show ahead (I was actually riding with my eyes shut by now to keep down the increasing nausea), I heard the call, “It’s wider here, would you like to pass?” YES, WE WOULD. With a thank you for their trail etiquette as we jogged past, we were in the clear and alone again. I have no aversion to riding with friends at times, but tonight, I only wanted to be with my horse, my ride and this amazing trail in the moonlight, listening to the river whispering its secrets. It’s part of the magic of Tevis, and not to be missed by indulging in idle chatter that can wait until the next day.

Once past the crowd, I dropped my hands onto John’s neck. From long experience, he knows that this is my signal to him that our speed is his choice. He could walk if that’s what he preferred, or anything else. I expected him to drop into his usual favorite working gait, an efficient stepping pace of around 7 mph, but he had other ideas. As soon as he felt the invitation, he stopped briefly to shake, stretched his neck forward and gleefully broke into a 12 mph hand gallop. Surprised, I bumped him back just a bit, thinking he had misunderstood my question, but he’d understood me perfectly well. He said it was time to go and knew we were headed for home.

I knew this was completely crazy, riding a horse at a gallop in the dark, on trail unfamiliar to me, after already having done 90 miles of the meanest trail on the planet in record heat. The moon was up but the trees overhead prevented me from seeing anything other than patches of light reflecting off the river to our right.

Then I thought, “Either you trust this good horse that has always taken care of you, or you don’t.”

I bumped John gently in the mouth once more, asking, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” He cheerfully but firmly tugged again, relaxed and moving easily, not putting a foot wrong. As clear as day, he was telling me, “Mom. I got this. Just ride.”

So I did.