Back on the horse
Rider Melissa Harris and her horse Bailey endure injury, illness and trail troubles—again—in a quest for the 2012 Tevis Cup
The toterhome engine hums assertively, disrupting the sleepy silence of the cold, dark morning in an otherwise vacant grocery-store parking lot in Folsom. It’s 5 a.m. on October 7, 2011, and the truck sits idle, waiting, while one of the passengers inside the cab, a 20-year-old blonde, Sara Patrick, locks eyes on a nearby Starbucks, counting down to when it finally opens so she can fetch a caffeine fix. But the focus of the brunette 30-year-old sitting shotgun, Melissa Harris, is her 14-year-old horse, Bailey, now standing inside the trailer hitched behind the RV.
“I’m surprised at how calm Bailey is,” Harris says.
Patrick agrees—the horse is usually “bad” when being hauled.
What does he do?
“He shakes the whole trailer,” Patrick says.
A few minutes later, the sound of pounding comes from the trailer and the toterhome vibrates.
Harris has been riding horses all her life; on this particular morning she and her agitated mount are waiting with her father, Gabe Harris, the vehicle’s driver, and Patrick, a riding student of Harris’, to meet up with the rest of her racing crew: Harris and Bailey are on the road to the Western States Trail Ride, more commonly called the Tevis Cup.
The Tevis Cup, set to take place again this Saturday, August 4, is an equestrian endurance ride, widely known as one of the world’s toughest. It covers 100 miles in 24 hours, with riders from across the United States and Canada, Japan, and Australia traveling here to conquer the trail that begins near Truckee in the Sierra Nevada and concludes in Auburn. It’s a grueling journey that includes 17,000 feet of ascents and 22,000 feet of descents over rocky granite terrain, narrow trails that hug the mountainside and through the American River—and some of this in the dark of night.
So why would Harris want to put such physical and mental strain on herself and her horse through countless months and thousands of miles of training, a process in which one small misstep on the trail could result in injury, or worse?
“I wanted to see if I even had what it took,” Harris says.
Her love of horses runs deep.
“I’m to blame,” Liz Harris, Melissa’s mother, admits. It’s Liz who planted the seed of her daughter’s equine obsession early on when they lived in Southern California, and then later in Garden Valley in the Northern California foothills, where they had a few horses of their own. She even used to take little Melissa to the babysitter on horseback. At age 5, Melissa got her own horse, and years of riding, horse shows, riding in parades in elaborate homemade dresses and working at stables followed, until eventually, Melissa opened her own training stable, El Dorado Training Facility, on an 88-acre ranch near her Shingle Springs home.
Still, she was drawn into the world of endurance riding, and her ultimate goal was to complete the Tevis Cup and finish in the top 20. In 1997, Harris got Bailey—formally named Sol Del Valiente—an elegant bay Arabian stallion with a white star on his forehead and a snip on his nose, when he was just 8 months old. She wanted to start from scratch, she says, to shape this horse into an endurance athlete.
“I didn’t want to be one of those riders that just went out and bought a horse they knew was [already] capable of doing it. I wanted the experience of training one and bonding with one,” she says.
The thing is, though, when working around 1,000-or-so-pound animals, one’s bound to get hurt. And Harris did.
In 2000, when Harris was 19 and Bailey was 4, the two were already racing in 25-milers. Then, one day, he attacked her.
Before the incident, Harris was leading the horse, walking in front of him, and she sensed that something was amiss.
“I turn around, and he’s rearing straight up, and his ears pinned and his mouth open,” she says. “So I bent down and put my hands over my neck. … He grabbed my arm and threw me in the air a couple of times.”
Harris wound up in the emergency room, but says now, “Even though he was the one that hurt me … I knew it was my wrongdoing; I just needed to figure out how to fix it.”
Shortly thereafter, in an effort to reduce his aggression, Harris had Bailey gelded.
Then, in 2005, Harris became ill with encephalitis as a result of mosquito sting. And, like some soap-opera plot line, she suffered from amnesia.
“She lost her memory for three years,” says Melissa’s father, Gabe Harris.
Her physical capacities were impacted as well:
“I lost my equilibrium, I had a hard time walking down hills; I would fall down,” she says.
So Harris moved back in with her parents temporarily. She recovered, but more horse-related injuries followed, including broken teeth, courtesy of a spooked stallion, and some equine-inflicted broken ribs.
Still, Harris and Bailey persevered and were able to compete in the Tevis Cup in July 2010. But during the race, another misstep when somewhere around the trail’s 90-mile mark, Bailey stepped on a plastic water bottle and came crashing down, dragging his rider momentarily.
The pair finished the race with Harris leading her horse in the dark for the last 10 miles.
Afterward, Harris set her sights on the 2011 race, which, due to unsafe conditions on the trail (the river was too high and too swift to cross) was postponed from July to October.
At first, Harris was relieved—she’d have three extra months to prepare, after all. That changed in September, however, when vets discovered Bailey was suffering from ulcers and stress-induced temporomandibular joint disorder, a.k.a. TMJ dysfunction.
Harris was devastated.
“I laid awake crying that night.”
Bailey rested for the next few weeks until the condition subsided, and Harris decided he was well enough to ride.
The morning before the race on that October day in 2011, the toterhome leaves the grocery-store parking lot around 5:40 a.m. after the rest of Melissa Harris’ crew, the McCormick family—Wendy, Bob and 11-year-old daughter Emily, another riding student of Harris’—arrives in a truck and SUV and caravan to their destination, the Gold Country fairground in Auburn. It growls through the fairground and parks on a bluff that overlooks the race’s finish line and sets up camp before dawn. This year, the trail’s usual starting line is snowed out, forcing the race to be rerouted into a loop that begins and ends in Auburn.
Before the race, Bailey undergoes the required preliminary vet check. The horse, whom Harris calls “really high maintenance,” has a red ribbon braided into his tail: a visual cue to others that he’s a kicker. The horse clears the exam, but the vet secretary writes “Careful!” on his form.
“’Cause he’s an asshole!” Harris jokes.
By 10 p.m. that night, Harris has retired into a nest of blankets and pillows in the toterhome. Just a few dozen yards away on the bluff, however, sits a railroad track; throughout the night, trains roar by, spooking Bailey.
So much for a good night’s sleep: Harris goes to soothe him several times, and by 4 a.m., she’s dressed, feeding and tacking up Bailey in complete darkness, save for the glow of one tiny flashlight.
Finally, just before 6 a.m., riders, mounts and crew stumble through the blackness, over the railroad tracks and across a field to the check-in point. The riders will stop for vet checks at several points during the race, but there are also two one-hour mandatory “hold” breaks in Foresthill for resting and refueling.
At 11:40 a.m., Harris arrives at the first hold. Bailey’s shoulders are wet with perspiration.
“My feet hurt so bad,” she says. The McCormicks hustle to get Bailey to gulp down some water and a mouthful of hay. A vet checks his pulse and respiration rate. Bailey passes inspection.
Horse and rider rest and eat lunch. Harris nibbles on a croissant sandwich with cheese and swallows a Motrin for her aching ankle.
By 12:40 p.m., they’re back on the trail, but when riders begin arriving for the second race hold, McCormick thinks she’s close behind.
“Oh, she’ll top 20, for sure,” she says with assurance.
But hours go by, and there’s no sign of them. Did something happen? Did Bailey misstep again? There’s hearsay that a horse and rider stumbled off a cliff; could it have been them?
At 5:19 p.m., Harris finally rounds the corner up the road walking next to her bay.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” she says. “The next loop is going to kick my ass. … I can feel it.”
The sun setting, Harris pulls on a white sweatshirt and embarks on the next section of the trail. The next time Harris’ crew will see her is at the finish line back in Auburn.
The McCormicks return to Auburn just after 7 o’clock as the first rider crosses the finish line. The crew’s long wait into the night begins, not knowing when—or if—Harris and Bailey will make it to the end.
Wendy McCormick and Patrick bundle up to wait at the stadium, fighting off sleep as the temperature drops. Finally, at 2:52 a.m., they see a white sweatshirt approaching the stadium out of the dark. Harris and Bailey emerge.
“I feel like shit. I can’t eat or drink anything; I’ll throw up,” says Harris, who, ultimately, finishes in 100th place.
The weary crew yearns for a shower and sleep, but Harris insists on waiting for the afternoon awards ceremony to receive her certificate of completion.
“I worked hard for that piece of paper!” she laughs.
Despite everything, she says, the race was easier than the typical Tevis Cup because it didn’t include the trail’s usual harsher mountain terrain.
It was difficult, nonetheless.
“I’m amazed he even finished after everything he’s been through.”
As such, Harris says she considered skipping this year’s race because of Bailey’s medical issues.
In February, however, a muscle biopsy on Bailey led to diagnosis of a disease that can be managed by altering his diet.
And so Harris and Bailey plan to race this Saturday along the trail’s traditional excruciatingly difficult trail.
Why would she put herself—and her horse—through it once more? Simple.
“I wanted to try it one last time.”