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Vet Gazette

Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine eNewsletter

CVM Student Completes Grueling Endurance Ride

October 1st, 2012

Rita Wehrman and Dragon on the Western State Trail Ride. Wehrman describes Dragon as ‘fierce’ and had to tie caution tape into Dragon’s mane and tail because she liked to kick other horses on the trail.

The Western States Trail Ride, also known as the Tevis Cup, is widely considered the toughest endurance ride in the world. The trail follows part of the original Pony Express route through 100 miles of steep canyons, rocky pinnacles, sheer drop-offs, and deep forest in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Competitors have only 24 hours to complete the ride so it’s not surprising that only half finish successfully.

Endurance riding is not a race. The challenge is for a rider to finish with a horse who is judged “fit to continue”, which means he is mentally, emotionally, and physically ready to keep going. Veterinarians make sure that happens. The Tevis has more vet stops per mile than any other endurance competition.

Fourth year vet med student Rita Wehrman has been dreaming of riding in the Tevis since she was seven years old. “I read a book about it and I was hooked,” she says. “I knew I was going to do this ride eventually.”

Wehrman grew up around horses and began riding in local endurance races six years ago with a plan to work up to the Tevis. This year, she got serious and started cross-training her Morgan horse, Thompson. They did the usual trail riding, where Wehrman tried to present Thompson with obstacles and other challenges, but they also spent time in an arena. “We did light dressage to keep the horse balanced and collected,” she says. “You want their back up and their head down and them really listening to you.”

In May, three months before the Tevis, Thompson was injured chasing a goat friend who had escaped from the pasture. Wehrman realized he would not be able to compete and calls it “heartbreaking.” But she didn’t give up. She had nine weeks to find another horse and get it ready. Fortunately, a friend who was pregnant and not participating in Tevis this year offered Wehrman her horse, Dragon, an experienced endurance competitor.

During all this preparation for the Tevis, Wehrman was enrolled in the DVM program at OSU and about to start her clinical rotations. Those are two tough challenges to tackle at the same time so it took a lot of determination, and not much sleep, to get her through. She also relied on friends and mentors in the endurance community to help. “Once I started my clinical rotations, I hired a trainer to help,” she says. “I couldn’t ride the five days a week needed to train a new horse.”

The Tevis guide book encourages extensive training for both horse and riders planning to ride a trail that is “relentless and unforgiving to those who are not prepared.” So switching horses late in the game was risky. Although Dragon knew her stuff, she didn’t know Wehrman. “It was difficult not having that same relationship and rapport with the horse,” says Wehrman. “There is this extension that what you are thinking becomes what they are thinking. You make little movements in the saddle and the horse learns what that means and what to do. She makes little movements and I know what I need to do to help her.”

At the end of nine weeks, Wehrman entered the Tevis with trepidation. “I had many doubts. We got down to California with a week to acclimate them to the elevation change and try them on the trail. We had some of the worse rides of my life out there. I was not feeling confident at all, both about my relationship with the horse or her decision-making process.”

At five in the morning on Saturday, August 4th, Wehrman took off with 208 other Tevis riders. The first thirty miles of the ride are some of the most challenging, especially for a horse and rider who were not getting along. “She wanted to go really fast and the terrain is ridiculously hard,” says Wehrman. “You are hopping over boulders to try and find the trail. I had blisters on my hands from holding her back so hard. But after several hours, we finally hit our stride together and it was quite wonderful. She just knew what I wanted. She got it.”

One thing that sets the Tevis apart from other endurance rides is the large variety of challenges. The names of many of the obstacles on the trial are an indication of what is ahead: No Hands Bridge, Black Hole of Calcutta, Last Chance, and Devil’s Thumb. “They have these huge canyons you climb down into and then climb back up – your elevation change is 40,000 feet over 24 hours,” says Wehrman. And the Swinging Bridge really does swing. “We stepped out onto it — I was leading her — and we did three strides then stopped and looked at one another,” she says. “We were both going ‘this is crazy’. But there is no space to turn around so you have to keep going forward.”

Wehrman and Dragon did the last thirty miles at night.  They swam the American River at three o’clock in the morning under cloud cover with no moon. “The bottom of the river was all lit with glow sticks,” she says.

Because the first part of the race was so difficult, Wehrman didn’t think they were going to finish in time. But Dragon liked the last section of terrain because it was similar to her training ground in Oregon. “She was used to doing hills at speed,” says Wehrman. “We were in a time crunch at that point and needed to make up some ground and she really gave it her all. And she is very fast. I started thinking, ‘Holy moly, we might actually finish this race.’”

The pair rode across the finish line to cheering crowds just in time to make the cutoff and take possession of the coveted silver belt buckle. “I was in a bit of a daze when I crossed the line,” she says. “All I could think was, ‘Holy heck, I just did the Tevis!”

The same determination that helped Wehrman complete her first Tevis ride has also come in handy at CVM. “I was surprised how hard vet school was. The only thing that prepared me for vet school was vet school,” she says. “No amount of prereqs did it. You think you are busy — you are trying to work and take your classes and all that – but then you hit vet school and the ante has been upped ten-fold.”

But I can also say that over the last couple of years, the people I have met and in the situations that arise, I have never laughed harder. The caliber of the students, and the faculty, and the staff — there are some great people here.”

Asked if she would do the Tevis again, Wehrman says, “Heck yes. I’d love to keep on doing endurance. Vet school taught me something: In order to do the things you love, you make the time. Time never finds you.” Now externing at an equine hospital in New Jersey, Wehrman is concentrating on completing her DVM in the spring. “While I am definitely focused on becoming a great veterinarian my hope is to work in an area that has an active endurance community and keep riding as much as possible!”

Want to see highlights of the grueling Tevis ride? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6wIWHacqNM


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