Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse News
2012 Stallion Issue

The Little Horse that Could

by Marsha Hayes

The Story of how a little orphan colt from the cold mountains of Montana became a 100 mile Tevis Rock Star.

To completely understand the magnificence of Mocha Jack, 10 year old, 750 pound gray Kentucky Mountain Horse, one must first understand the magnitude of the Tevis Cup. This 100 mile horse ride, or race, depending on the focus of the rider, began in 1955 when Auburn, CA businessman Wendell Robie issued a challenge in Western Horseman. The bet? Whose horse was faster on a historic 100 mile trail from near Lake Tahoe to Auburn, CA. The bet fizzled out, but Robie decided to ride the trail anyway to answer a personal question. He wanted to know if modern horses, like their pioneer ancestors, could traverse 100 miles of High Sierra terrain in 24 hours or less.

A World Class Event
Robie did prove the endurance of modern horses, winning the first two events on his Arabian stallion, and the next two on his Arabian mare. The event, now sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference is known throughout the world as the gold standard to prove a horseís soundness, heart, speed, and general superiority. Riders come from around the world to test horses and themselves against the trail and the clock to win a Tevis belt buckle with its simple statement etched for all to see: "100 MilesÖOne Day." Traditionally, only around 50% of those starting will cross the finish line in Auburn within the allotted time. Nine veterinarian checks along the way critically evaluate each horse for soundness, hydration, heart rate and metabolic stability and if the horse is found compromised in any way, they are "pulled" and trailered or led out of the high mountain country.

Arabian Horse World
Honoring the spirit of the American West, the event is open to any horse or mule, but traditionally Arabians have dominated the event. Since its inception, an Arabian, or part Arabian has won 54 of the 56 rides and the vast majority of entrants are Arabians. But this year, on October 8, the event saw Becky Lange, Santa Maria, CA, and her trail eating gelding Mocha Jack (M) finishing their third consecutive Tevis, gaiting across the finish line in 11th place. M covered 100 miles in 12:52 hours of actual ride time ( the event has two mandatory one-hour rest periods) which makes his traveling average speed over 7.77 miles per hour. To fully appreciate his accomplishment, factor in the ruggedness of the trail, the mountain climbs, the time lost to vet checks and the portion ridden in the darkness.

Looking for Something to Do
After 27 years as a District Attorney, Lange retired. "I was looking for something to do," she recalled. Having spent most of her adult life involved with her two children and their activities, she counted motorcycles as a main hobby, not horses. Ainslee Lara, Langeís daughter had been involved with horses and Lange tried some general trail rides and some Competitive Trail events and then she happened to read Julie Suhrís book, Ten Feet Tall, Still. Inspired, Lange announced, "I want to ride Tevis."

Of her partner on these three 100 mile adventures, Lange said, "The first time I rode him, I fell in love." M had proved too forward for the taste of his previous owner, but the fit with Lange was perfect. Lange did not realize she had a 100 mile horse until she attended the 2009 Tevis educational ride held only weeks before the actual Tevis. She had planned to condition M for a couple of years, leading up to her first attempt. Trainers and participants at the educational ride encouraged Lange to attempt that year, based upon Mís pre-ride performance. Knowing she would protect her horse from overexertion, Lange figured, "Why not try? The worst that can happen is I will get pulled."

Try she did and M finished in 19th place carrying about 184 pounds fully tacked. Lange returned in 2010 (tacking in at 169) and finished 25th. Both 2009 and 2010 had only 51% completion rates.

Third Times the Charm
Tevis 2011 was unique. Since 1955, the ride has always been held on the Saturday closest to the full moon in late July or early August. Freakish high country snows in July forced ride management to reschedule to October. Around 800 volunteers and 17 veterinarians retooled their plans to allow the event to take place. Only the wildfires of 2008 have forced cancellation. Lange and M arrived at the Auburn Fairgrounds to camp for a couple of days and pre-ride the rideís final miles to set the terrain in Mís mind. Langeís daughter, Ainslee Lara accompanied her Mom on foot, running in front, or behind M along miles and miles of trail, pacing the pair.

Soon, Ainslee was joined by her brother, Chris, to complete Team Lange. Chris flew from his overseas job to crew for his mom, explaining, "She crewed for Ainslee and me all our childhood. She was so dedicated. It is nice to have this time to help her." As Chris brushed dirt off M preparing him for his daily pre-ride, he recalled how his Mom cleaned dirt off his dirt track racing vehicles and continued, "Momís awesome. I talk to my friends about what their moms doÖ. Things like book clubs, which she does, too, but still, she and M are pretty impressive."

"My mom is one of the most intense people I have ever known," concurs daughter Ainslee. The intensity was apparent in Langeís serious consideration of tack, body clipping patterns and attention to detail in planning. On Thursdayís pre-ride, Lange left with ride partner Peter Claydon and his bay Arabian, Khnight To Remember. They planned to ride together if the horses matched pace well. The Arabian towered over M, but Claydon observed, "That little horse can really move."

The pair rode to famed No Hands Bridge, celebrating its centennial this year. Spanning The American River, this old railroad bridge arches 70 feet over the water and riders traditionally cross in darkness, missing the canyon views. M looked ripped and danced with pleasure in his outing. Little did Lange realize her Tevis plans and strategy were about to be changed, once again, by Mother Nature.

By the time Claydon, Lange, and jogging Ainslee returned to Auburn, talk was circulating about heavy snow falling on the traditional Tevis starting camp, Robie Park.

American Adaptability at its Finest
Stunned ride officials (perfect weather had been forecast) gathered and conferenced debating alternatives. Ride cancellation was considered. With riders from Australia, Japan, Canada, Netherlands, South Africa, and United Arab Emirates, poised to ride, a bold decision was made to re-route the event, starting at the finish line and riding the trail east for 50 miles, reversing, and returning back. Riderís plans for timing, strategy, and pacing now had to be adjusted. Langeís decision to body clip M proved wise as now the ride would miss the cooler start and begin with a lower elevation climb.

M timed out at 6:30 AM with 176 other horses on a new adventure. Dr. Greg Fellers, DVM, head veterinarian reorganized his crew of 16 additional veterinarians to staff check points where teams would pass through twice, once going out, and once returning. M arrived at Foresthill, 38.6 miles down the trail at 10:45 for his first one-hour hold. Dr. Fellers voiced, hours before the ride, that he felt the next vet point, Chicken Hawk would be critical to the horses. Riders pass through Chicken Hawk at mile 42.7, descend into a canyon, and then must climb back up to Chicken Hawk to check in again at mile 57.3.

When M arrived at the second Chicken Hawk check, criteria required his heart to fall to 64 beats per minute and he was required to trot out soundly for the vet. Veins popped out on Mís sweating gray coat, but his ears were up and Lange appeared to have plenty of horse left. "Iím running close to predicted times," Lange noted. When it came time for M to trot in hand, Lange requested, "someone with better knees than mine" to handle M. He gaited solidly and received "Aís" on his report card, carried in a plastic holder around Langeís neck. At this point, Mís Arabian traveling partner was pulled and M now traveled solo down the trail.

The Perfect Hostess
When Lange arrived at Foresthill again, for her second one-hour hold, Chris and Ainslee greeted her with water and sponges to cool the hard working horse that had just completed 61.4 miles. After his heart rate fell to 64, he walked to his trailer for a smorgasbord of treats including grains and alfalfa and all the water he could drink. Electrolytes were administered. Chris and Ainslee massaged his neck and back muscles. Lange ate a sandwich, but stopped her snack to fetch electrolytes for a fellow rider and when another crew member wanted to borrow a beer, Lange again stopped her own re-fueling to fetch fresh limes for her neighbor.

Adding a knee brace to her riding outfit, Lange accepted a leg up from Chris and M seemed impatient to get back on the trail. He fidgeted at the time-out point and when allowed, gaited off, alone, towards the finish line, 38.6 miles away.

Magic Moments
"Tevis is a magical experience," explained Lange. The last miles of her third Tevis were especially magical. On her first Tevis, M followed other horses. On her second, M led his companions. But on her third, Lange and M finished the last 38 miles alone. It was a journey in the dark. "M was so in tune with me that I felt we were one. I let him pick his pace and he just moved along like he was floating on air." It was a journey over more than miles, but seemed to traverse both spiritual space and literal time. Langeís thoughts drifted to a dear friend, Henry Logan who mentored her on her first Tevis. Although Logan passed away last year, Lange recalled, "I felt Henryís presence and he was guiding me along and keeping M and I safe. It was just magical."

Lange and M entered the fairground and his flowing, braided mane and distinctive gait showed his pride in his Kentucky heritage as he passed beneath the official finish banner. The crowd cheered and then son Chris and daughter Ainslee went to work, cooling and bathing M for his final vetting. This year five horses were "pulled" after their finish, so there were some tense moments until Mís finish was certified. Missing a prestigious top ten finish by only 28 minutes on a 100 mile journey, Lange was extremely pleased with her partnerís performance.

Weeks later, back home with her collection of three Tevis belt buckles, Lange summed up her Tevis experiences and future Tevis expectations. "I hope to do the Tevis for as long as M wants to do it. I am sure that he will let me know when he has had enough. I canít see doing it with any other horseóM is my one and only. Although M and I do other endurance rides, there will never be another ride like the Tevis for us. It is our time to truly bond; to feel as one; and to experience the beauty that God created."