It was 5 a.m., August 1st, 2015. 200 horses and their riders stood in the quiet darkness of the Tahoe National Forest. The adrenaline kicking in, and the butterflies stirring in my stomach, were settled by the calmness of my partner “Karl.” Only 100 miles of the world’s toughest terrain in front of us and a year of training behind. This was the moment. “Let’s do this!” I said.
200 horse and rider teams took off down a winding and treacherous trail, and the dust became so thick that even my bandana did not keep it out of my mouth. The first 13 miles of climbing straight up Squaw to Watson Monument, meant that the year of physical training for myself and my horse was about to be tested. The sound of steel against hard rocks, and the motion of a large and obedient steed under my saddle, rocked me into a peaceful lullaby state.
We reached the top of our first huge climb at almost 12,000 feet. As I took a firmer hold of my reins, I looked back over my shoulder to see our accomplishment of the last 13 miles. Clouds were gathering and the sun poked tiny holes in the sky, magnifying the beauty of the landscape. The terrain was rugged and isolated, but I felt the presence of God in that moment. The moment I realized I was taking a once wild and free animal, strapping leather to its back, and asking him to travel 100 miles over rocks and through streams and down canyons. He was more than willing.
My horse, a creature of the most majestic proportions, let me, a predator and flawed human, ride on his back for a glory would never truly understand.
Fast forward to mile 94. At 3 a.m. the next morning. We had been riding for 22 hours. Half of the riders had quit. We were tired and hungry. It was dark. Karl had been my eyes in that dark for almost 6 hours now. We climbed hill after hill together, and sweated and drank and ate together. I had cried on his back. I had been exhausted; he had kept carrying me. He never said no. He never gave up.
We sat there, with 6 more miles until the finish line in Auburn, CA, where a stadium of people would greet us with food and water and blankets. But we paused. I let him eat. I rested my legs for a minute. I looked at him with gratitude. He looked at me as his jaw chewed in its circular motion. The river was flowing beside us. I could not see, it but I could hear it flowing South towards the finish.
I was sore and weak and tired. I climbed aboard one last time. We walked the last 6 miles, taking in everything I could from the day: the beauty, the wildness of the country which I had crossed, the heat, the sweat, the sore muscles, the grand views. But in that moment, those were not as important to me as I thought they would be. The accomplishment of what I was about to do, finish 100 miles in one day, was not on my mind.
I put my hand down on my horse’s neck and rubbed him softly as he climbed up one last hill and in the distance we saw a shimmering light which was the finish line. I could hear people clapping. I whispered “Thank you” to my partner. He was my feet and my guide and my eyes and my ears throughout the journey.
What keeps me in gratitude? What stitches me into the fabric of this world? What brings me closer to God? My dear companion and friend, the horse. We finished our ride and while I was getting pats on the back and handshakes from friends, he was eating.
We took him home just two hours after finishing The Western States Trail Ride (Tevis Cup), often called the hardest ride in the world. We did it! Only 46% of the people who started actually crossed the finish line! When my horse stepped back into his pasture, he stopped and rolled in the dirt, scratching an itch he must have had all day. He stood up and shook off the dirt. He walked away from me and began to graze on the grass that lay before him.
I learned something that day. What keeps me humble and grounded is the fact that my horse is more like Jesus than I will ever be. He is truly selfless and humble. He is pure and honest. He never asked for anything in return for his 100 miles of service but a good itch and some food. I am forever in gratitude for his service to me. I think we can all learn a little something from a horse like Karl. He grounds me; he holds me accountable. A horse never lies. He just doesn’t know how.