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Down the long, dusty trail

Fairfax woman finished 100-mile horse ride endurance race

Sarah Maass with her horse "Opie" placed 75th in the grueling Western States Trail Tevis Cup 24-hour, 100-mile endurance ride held in the California Sierra Nevada mountains in July. Photo by Steve Palmer

Sarah Maass with her horse “Opie” placed 75th in the grueling Western States Trail Tevis Cup 24-hour, 100-mile endurance ride held in the California Sierra Nevada mountains in July. Photo by Steve Palmer

Sierra Nevada Mountains, 100 miles, 24 hours…on horseback.

That’s the criteria for finishing the Tevis Cup, best known as the world’s most difficult equestrian endurance race, held annually since 1955, that attracts some of the top riders from around the country and internationally.

For Sarah Maass, of Fairfax, her daughter Dana Gasner and a pair of young junior riders in Grace Steffl, 17, of Sleepy Eye, and Cassie Wiethoff, 16, of Gibbon, the opportunity to participate in the July event was a challenge they’ll most likely remember for a long time.

The race, which begins at Robie Equestrian Park near the town of Truckee, Calif., and ends 100 miles away at the fairgrounds in Auburn, Calif., is the ultimate ride that tests the limits of endurance and horsemanship skills.

It’s a race where just finishing is considered the main objective, and winning would be a bonus after successfully navigating the steep, narrow, rocky, high-elevation, mountainous trails.

Maass owns and operates the Fort Ridgely Equestrian Center, located south of Fairfax along Highway 4. She mentors horse enthusiasts of all ages and trained her team of junior riders and their horses for several months to be physically prepared to face the difficult Tevis Cup trail that has a 40,000-foot elevation change over the course of 100 trail miles from start to finish which must be completed within a 24-hour period of time including riding through the moonlit night.

Maass and Gasner have both competed and finished in previous races, with Gasner finishing the ride in 2011 and Maass in 2012. But each ride is different, and this one was a first-time experience for team members Steffl riding Ajax and Wiethoff on the saddle of Jack.

There were 185 riders signed up to participate with 165 qualifying to start after passing prerace testing by veterinarians. This year 87 riders finished the race, which is about 52 percent of the participants and near the average completion rate of those who begin the race each year.

The race starts at 5:15 a.m., and after a sleepless trip, on the trail Maass and her 8-year-old horse named Opie crossed the finish line at 4:55 a.m. for 75th place. “We’re at a slight disadvantage having to transport our four horses and all our gear and supplies 1,800 miles through the mountains out there to get to the event, but the horses really did well,” Maass commented.

The Fort Ridgely Equestrian team that participated in the Western States Trail Tevis Cup 24-hour, 100-mile endurance ride included from left, Sarah Maass and Opie, Grace Steffl and Ajax, Dana Gasner and Remington and Cassie Wiethoff with Jack. Photo by Steve Palmer

The Fort Ridgely Equestrian team that participated in the Western States Trail Tevis Cup 24-hour, 100-mile endurance ride included from left, Sarah Maass and Opie, Grace Steffl and Ajax, Dana Gasner and Remington and Cassie Wiethoff with Jack. Photo by Steve Palmer

The foursome all rode together when the race began. Prior to the race a black bear wandered through the horse camp one night. Out on the trail they encountered a Grizzly bear which fortunately kept its distance. They also experienced snow in July on the high-elevation portion of the trail while riding in tank tops.

The trail was 8,700 feet at its highest point, but temperatures soared to 118 degrees at sea level when riders descended into the hot canyons, Maass recalled.

Keeping horses and trail riders healthy is a priority for race organizers. There are two mandatory 60-minute holds for rest and evaluation by veterinarians. One is held at Robinson Flat at mile marker 36 and the other at Foresthill or milepost 66.

There are several other points along the trail, including the finish, where vets evaluate the condition of the horses. At any one of those checks a vet can disqualify a horse for any reason, including heart rate, respiration rate, or hoof, muscle or joint soreness that would prevent a horse from continuing the race.

Each rider who finishes the course within the 24-hour time limit and whose horse is judged “fit to continue” receives a Silver Completion Award buckle. However, there are riders that come in at the end but get disqualified because their mount wasn’t fit to continue.

It’s the responsibility of riders to take care of themselves as well making sure they eat and drink properly in order to function out on the trail and guide their horses over the rough terrain. During the ride it’s not unusual for riders to get off their horses and walk or jog them past some of the treacherous downhill sections of trail in order to prevent injury to the horse.

Maass nearly didn’t reach the finish line when her horse stumbled on a downhill grade and somersaulted, throwing Maass off Opie at mile 93.

“Opie rolled on my arm and only got a few scrapes and bruises,” she stated. “Opie skinned his knees and face and was banged up a little, but he amazingly was able to keep going. He actually seemed stronger at the finish as he trotted out sound at the end of the race where the temperature was 104 degrees that day.”

Maass said about the only thing that bothered her horse the entire race was the chalk line at the finish where Opie got spooked and jumped over it.

The Tevis Cup race starts with about 60 horses from the first pen with the top 10 to 20 qualifiers leading the way. After that it’s a controlled start for the other racers until about a mile out on the trail when everyone settles into a position.

Because Steffl and Wiethoff were junior riders Maass and Gasner were required to ride with them. Of the nine juniors entered in the race none finished, but Steffl stated, “It was really a cool experience just to be there.”

She added: “The whole ride was new to us, all the training and fundraising we did definitely helped, but it doesn’t really prepare you for how involved and difficult it actually is with the rocky, narrow trails and elevation changes.”

Maass said trail conditions were really dry and dusty. “We rode through a burnt section of forest, and we had to wear bandanas over our faces so our group looked like bank robbers,” she joked.

At the 50-mile marker riders have to make a decision as to whether they want to continue the race.

“It’s called ‘Last Chance,’” explained Gasner who rode Remington in the race. “It’s a spot where riders begin a winding drop into a hot canyon,” she said.

A rider has the option to pull their horses from the competition at any time. The horses of Gasner, Steffl and Weitoff were pulled at Last Chance. Although the horses were still in good condition, Gasner and Wiethoff pulled out at Last Chance. Steffl’s horse was pulled from the race by the veterinarian.

“If you get down into the canyon part of the trail and run into trouble it’s your responsibility to get out again, and sometimes in an emergency a helicopter is needed,” Gasner explained. “It’s not a place where you want to have an issue.”

Maass, however, continued on into the canyon, traversing 37 switchbacks over the next 1.5 miles of trail. “I got off my horse and jogged him down on foot just so it was easier on him and then rode up again 2,500 feet to Devil’s Thumb to get out of the canyon. Opie only had to stop three times to catch his breath. There were water stops along the way, for the horses. During the course of the race, the horses typically drink about 20 to 30 gallons of water,” she said.

“It’s a physically demanding event for riders and horses, and there’s a strategy involved for the race,” Maass explained. “Some start the race slow, some faster. The trail is very technical so we trained to start slower,” added Gasner. “Our aim was to do negative splits by starting slower but increase our pace as we went forward in the competition.”

Maass noted there was a lot of preparation and creative planning needed to pack the horse trailer and truck with four horses, tack, feed and hay along with four riders in the vehicle.

And having a good “pit crew” was equally important. The pit crew for the group were Steffl’s parents who drove the truck and trailer from start to finish and three women from the Minnesota Distance Riders Association along with Emma Christopherson, 13, who also is a member of the Fort Ridgely Equestrian Endurance team.

The crew’s contribution is vital to the riders’ success. Their duties include saddling and unsaddling horses, cooling off horses with water, providing minerals, and feeding and watering horses while the riders take care of themselves during rest stops.

The horses ridden by Maass’ team are part Arabian, chosen because of their endurance capabilities. “They have great energy and leaner muscle mass meant to do long distances,” explained Gasner. “I have a huge respect for our horses. They handled all the Tevis Cup trail rocks really well and stayed solid.”

For Steffl the best experience of the race was just getting out there on the trail. “And our crew was really awesome. We wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on riding without them.”

Wiethoff also was impressed with the 800 volunteers spread out at different points to assist riders and horses. “They were amazing. When I pulled my horse from the race he was a little dehydrated and had to have IVs at the vet check,” she said. “When we trailered him out of there a lot of volunteers came over to see how he was doing.”

“It’s a huge endeavor by the entire Auburn community. They call themselves the endurance capital of the world as they also hold a race for runners over that same trail earlier in the year,” Gasner commented.

“The Tevis Cup has been held every year since it started except for 2008 when wildfires cancelled the event,” Maass noted. “This is the event that started endurance racing. It’s the most difficult 100-mile race in the world. There were riders from seven different countries participating this year.”

The Tevis Cup race costs each participant $500 to enter plus the expense of traveling. The junior girls worked at the Equestrian Center to pay for boarding of their horses and also helped Maass with trail rides. Wiethoff and Steffl were among the first juniors to register this year for the Tevis Cup and had their entry fee paid by a sponsor.

Maass is also a promoter of endurance racing in the state as she coordinates a couple of competitions held each year in the area. She has also written five children’s books about horse breeds.

“I feel blessed that our team was able to do the Tevis Cup race together this year,” said Maass. “We’re all strong faith people and God was watching us out there on the trail.”

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