Last Sunday, about the time most people were rubbing the sleep from their eyes, John Melville was blinking back something else. Dust. A sky full of it.
For Melville, however, the dust was a mere hindrance. The real challenge lay ahead, where the open field funneled to a small gap in a wall of pines--hardly room enough for the 90 horses and riders charging across the field kicking up a smoke screen. Instead of racing for the gap, Melville, 69, slowed his mount to a trot, dropping back into the gritty haze.
Ride and tie may be a sport for the brash, but it's not for the reckless.
Melville, of Ojai, was one of 300 individualistic souls (including horses) who gathered in Frazier Park, just south of the Kern County line, last weekend to compete in the 19th Ride and Tie World Championships--a raucous, dusty, homey affair mixing horses, humans and a rash of intangibles.
"It takes a sporting event back to the fundamentals," said David Taylor, a 50-year-old ride-and-tier from Salt Lake City. "In ride and tie, you dispense with the creature comforts. You're dealing with sweat and dust and rattlesnakes. You go back to the last century."
In fact, you go back two centuries. Ride and tie traces its origins at least as far back as 18th-Century England, where writer Henry Fielding documented a trip made by two men who, short tuppence, were forced to share a horse on their 120-mile trip to London. The impoverished Englishmen were not the only ones to make such a trip; in the 19th-Century American West, the ride and tie was a common form of travel.
"One person would hitch the horse to a tree and hike on until his partner came up to the hitched horse," said Steve Shaw, a top-notch ride-and-tier. "They would share the horse by hitching and hiking into town."
But today's ride-and-tie bears little resemblance to the leisurely strolls of the past. Shaw calls ride and tie "a combination horse race, a long-distance marathon and a chess game."
Lightweight saddles, pure-bred horses and complex strategy play a role. But ride and tie has by no means been reduced to an antiseptic science. Runners accidently speed past horses, horses run off without riders, and riders get bucked off without ceremony, making for a wild and woolly affair. One competitor carved his place in ride-and-tie history by pursuing through the brush what he thought was his horse, only to find he was chasing a bear.
Contested over 36 miles of rough trail, the competition last weekend was not without its accidents. John Loeschhorn of Irvine, a top-notch runner but a very green rider, teamed with Judy Cummings of Anaheim to win Saturday's novice event. Buoyed by this success, Loeschhorn entered Sunday's competition, teaming with an unfamiliar partner and, more importantly, an unfamiliar horse. Five miles into the race, Loeschhorn and 900 pounds of overeager mount ran headlong into a barbed-wire fence.
"He went through the barbed-wire fence, I stopped at the barbed-wire fence," said Loeschhorn, who, despite stitches in his face and neck, remained upbeat. "I'm lucky to be alive."
Most mistakes were less serious, although no less frustrating. Afraid he had run past his horse, Ed Butrovich, a 27-year-old Newbury Park competitor, turned back 20 yards short of his mount.
"I thought he was tied at the bottom of the hill, but no horse," he said. "So I ran uphill for five minutes, no horse. I ran back down the hill, no horse. I thought, 'OK, maybe somebody else is riding my horse.'
"We lost 10 minutes, but, hey, that's all part of the race."
Butrovich and partner Jeff Herten were among Sunday's 60 finishing teams. Approximately 30 other teams were disqualified at the race's three veterinarian checkpoints after vets determined it was no longer safe for the horses to continue.
"We always err in favor of the horse," said Jim Steele, the head veterinarian, who monitored everything from lameness to dehydration.
The vet checkpoints play perhaps the most important role in the competition. In an outburst of frenzied activity, loyal crews of family and friends work to calm and cool the horse, lowering the animal's pulse to the requisite rate of 72 beats per minute. Again, methodology varies widely, a mix of horse sense and science.
"Everybody has their own strategy," Shaw said. "Let the horse eat a little, drink, sponge him down. Some people even spray them down with enormous bottles. Anything and everything to make sure they pass the vet check."
And how do you monitor the runners?
"We're on our own, we should know better," said Shaw, laughing. "We do have medical personnel available, but if anything, we should do a psychological profile."
Ride-and-tiers are the first to admit that the sport requires what one rider calls, "a certain degree of zaniness." However, just being off-center has its own rewards.
"It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on," said Chuck Jones, a premier ultra-distance runner who took up ride and tie six years ago and was promptly thrown in his first race. "I knew right then that this was the sport for me."
Others agree, although not necessarily for the same reasons.
"This sport is responsible for my health, my well-being and my focus in life," said Wayne Hindrichs, moments after he and partner Mark Richtman won Sunday's event in 4 hours, 24 minutes--one minute ahead of the runner-up team of Con and Tod Wadsworth. "I've done a million things, but I guarantee you, there's no sport that's this much fun."
Also among the finishers was Melville. Coated in dust, but no worse for wear, Melville and partners Peter Moock (human) and Doc's Shadow (equine) finished in 7 hours, 5 minutes.
"It should have been under seven hours," Melville said. "But it was still a hell of a good ride."