The Cougar Rock of My Heart

Our first attempt at Tevis 48 hours behind us, I walked out to the pasture in the hot, dry morning sun of the Sierra Foothills in drought July. I felt the palpable peace of Ananda Village, and the many prayers of friends, holding us gently.

Tru was grazing off in the distance, while his mama Giselle stood dosing and swatting flies at the water trough. She gratefully lowered her head for her fly mask. I gave her a kiss (best smelling horse muzzle I’ve ever known). “Your baby gave his all, and that’s quite a lot, Mama G.”

My Tru Companion summiting Cougar Rock Tevis 2022

I stepped through the dust toward Tru, looking routinely for signs of wellness or distress. Tru whinnied deep and handsome and languidly walked to me, not concerned for anything but his morning belly rub and fly mask. I smiled at memories of his sweet-pitched foal whinny and his urgent teenager whinny. I put my naked ear to his flank and listened to the rumbling world of his gut sounds, feeling a thrilled relief at hearing the gurgling party within.

Not wanting to ask anything of him today, I kissed him and inhaled his warm, herbal scent of sweat and pasture grasses, before starting back up the slope for the barn. The dry grass crackled behind me with his footfalls. He followed me and stopped touching his belly to my breast. He curved his neck round to reach me gently with his muzzle. “Be here with me a little while, my friend.” I draped my arm over his back, and my tears started rolling.

“Thank you so much. You tried so hard. I’m so proud of you….We have to figure out the start….I know now, it’s something inside of me, not just training you.”

“You want to win. That’s what’s inside you, and I want to give it to you,” Tru said, so simply, and nibbled some grass, staying close to me. I’m just a rider, trying, learning, very few competitive miles. I feel small to the 11,000, 27,000 miler riders, afraid of the ego impulses, of what winning requires…searching to define a winning way for us, curious to find out what it makes of me, reaching for the courage to step up to the task of Tevis and of this Tru-ly powerful horse. I called him into this body, for this purpose, for this journey together. How do I live up to him?

I stand humbled by the first try turning out exactly the way I did not want it to. The lack of water in the troughs at Robie Park Thursday night and Friday morning took away his opportunity to do his routine of drinking at every trough in camp. I’m so used to him taking good care of himself that his dehydration Friday caught me completely off-guard. The 60 BPM, slow skin tenting, C’s on gut sounds shocked me. He drank and ate mash and re-checked at 40 BPM and A gut sounds. He drank at least 122 swallows by the time we arrived at Robinson Flat. He ate grass along the way. He pulsed down to 56 at each stop within minutes, just as we agreed. We simply did not have time to recover the deep hydration he needed to ride out his way.

On the start, I sought advice, I trained. No advice was really right for us. None of our strategies for other ride starts apply to Tevis. Mostly, I got sympathy. Seems that most people just don’t know how to solve this one. They either have a “steady-Eddy” or the fight and ride it out horse; both train the best they can, and give it a shot.

At the awards banquet, a good rider told me she is not sure she wants to ride like that again, in the top 10, over the Granite Chief, watching rocks fly, horses misstep and recover as they slide again 6 inches into the deep, fine dust of the treacherous trail, asking her horse to slow down, fighting with him as he gets emotional to catch up. Sounds familiar. The horse who died trotted out of Robinson Flat with The Tevis Cup winner. Only the winner mentioned the loss, the cost through the microphone.

“All feeling, all character, all thought, all life, exist for us only in so far as it can be reflected upon…Stand still where you are, stand alone, isolate your life, and forthwith you are nothing. Enter into relationships…look upon yourself and be looked upon from without, and then indeed you are a somebody, a self with a consistency and a vitality, a being with a genuine life.”

G.W.F. Hegel

Probably the best advice I got came too late for this try…from a rider whose horse stood stabled next to Tru in Barn C. As she waited for her husband to literally come and pick her up, she generously chatted with me: “Try to stay toward the back. In training, don’t let him get up on the butts of other horses, and don’t let horses get up on him. It’s worked so far.” That strategy probably would have been our only chance, given the hydration deficit, but it’s not what we had practiced. Holding back takes energy, maybe more than moving out. The canyons after we pulled, at 120 degrees, would have been more dangerous still. She finished in the last half hour, with a 6 year old whom she had never let go out ahead. “Now, maybe he is ready to go out in front.” Maybe we should not have started at all.

Admittedly, I do not know how to achieve that. In our meditations the weeks before, I could feel the promising possibility of a calm start together. In our dressage lessons, we found lightness, suppleness and power. At the start, he stopped on my exhale at the back if Pen 2. He walked quietly, weaving carefully among the horses and stopped on my exhale again at the front of Pen 2. I had given up the Pen 1 ticket to avoid its big energy rush, but was warned and it happened…

Once the trail was open, horses and mules surged forward, and Tru found a way through on the left. “Sorry,” I called out. “It’s okay,” I heard back. I had to ride with as straight a back as I could, sliding the bit across his mouth, quick jerks up, guide and ride our way through, as safely as possible. We stayed in our lane. We slowed. We surged. With the trail open in front of him, he shied 4-6 feet back and forth across it, emotional to be scouting out front. We felt exhilarated, embarrassed, forgiving, worried, grateful, honored, chastised, everything.

Within a minute or two we were up into the Pen 1 horses. Guide and ride this freight train forward to a spot where we found one horse/rider at the end of a string who was not bothered by us up on her butt. We probably should have stayed there. But we passed with another rider who we thought might be smart about the trail, to relieve the pressure, not wanting to be a problem for others. Slow a bit, give trail, rush to catch up, pass to relieve. Repeat. It was what we could do, this time.

Tru is A LOT of horse—energy, heart, talent, drive. “Managing him” is not enough, not even “it,” perhaps. I was not clear inside on how to ride the horse I have, the emotions we both have in this heady moment. We are still on the journey of a 1,000 miles to this 100.

“You can’t die for this, Tru. Not worth it!”

The worst nightmare flashed through my mind—the stories from riders hearing the horse die in the canyon, one of three horses that went off the trail this year. I can’t write what I heard, in deference to the rider who must be in such agony now. I winced at my own memories of Tru clenching his belly in pain, stomping, pointing at his side. “Mama, it hurts right there. Help me.” I pushed my fear’s drama away, and said to him again “We have to figure this out.”

“We will. I trust you.” He nibbled some choice blades of grass near him, barely taking steps, staying with me, as I held him, my arms around his vast, sleek shoulders, his whither jutting above me—the Cougar Rock of my heart. I cried into his freckled white coat, once star dappled dark grey, astonished, humbled, grateful that my Shagya war horse would still want to be with me more, after all that.

“I don’t want to give up winning,” he said. “I can do this. We can do this. It’s not just my potential we’re living into. It’s yours too. Go figure it out. I’ll be ready when you know it in your body.”

“For now, let’s just go back to grazing, together.”

3 thoughts on “The Cougar Rock of My Heart

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