MITCHELL, S.D. (KELO) — Emma Christopherson is a 19-year-old from Mitchell, South Dakota, and she’s crazy, by her own admission.
On Saturday, July 16, Christopherson was in sunny California, just west of Lake Tahoe, competing in the 2022 Tevis Cup, a horse race. “It starts at Robie Park, in northern California — then it follows the Western States Trail to Auburn, California, which is where it ends,” explained Christopherson.
This is a distance of 100 miles, which Christopherson and the others must traverse in just 24 hours. And this is no simple trail ride. From start to finish the route has a difference in elevation of more than 5,000 feet, and to add to the challenge much of the ride is done in darkness.
“It took me from 5:15 Saturday morning until 4:28 Sunday morning,” said Christopherson. “Almost the full 24 hours.”
The race is also not without danger.
“There were three horses that went over-trail, one of them through the first canyon,” said Christopherson, referring to horses falling over the edge. “When we were going through it, we were off our horses walking them.”
Both rider and horse had to trust one another in order to make it through the trek. “It’s really a manner of luck and knowing your horse — sometimes you get lucky with it, and sometimes you don’t,” said Christopherson.
The official incident account of the Tevis Cup by the organizers note that one of these horses died. Another had to be airlifted to safety.
Just finishing the race is a feat in its own right.
“The ride has a 50% overall completion rate,” said Christopherson. “This year it was 45% — the 6th lowest percent in the last 30-years.”
Christopherson finished 40th out of all riders, which included some as young as 12, and a man in his 80s.
“I started riding — in 2014,” said Christopherson “and started in endurance — doing 25-mile rides.” After gaining some comfort with this, Christopherson then began riding more challenging horses and doing 50-mile rides in 2015.
This year’s Tevis Cup was her first experience with a 100-mile ride. Her partner in this trek was Diesel, a 13-year-old grey Arabian gelding. “He loves being out on trail,” she said.
Emma and Diesel made use of a reactor panel saddle for the 100-mile race, which consists of adjustable panels on the sides, and an open spine to make movement easier for the horse.
In addition to the saddle, Diesel was also hauling supplies. “I had a saddle pack on front and a saddle pack on back, and I was also wearing a camelback through a majority of the day to carry enough water for me and my horse,” said Christopherson. “Two of my water bottles I just used to dump on him to cool him off.”
Luckily, Diesel and Christopherson didn’t have to carry all the supplies needed for the 100-mile race. “There’s 11 vet checks, and at each vet check there’s tons of volunteers that will ask if you need anything or if your horse needs anything,” said Christopherson. She was also able to meet up with her crew, made up of her mother and four others, three times during the ride, as well as two holds to re-stock.
To prepare, Christopherson said she has done weight lifting for muscular endurance, as well as running so that she could run alongside her horse while descending certain parts of the trail.
“You honestly have to be kind of crazy to do it because there’s a lot of points on the trail where you’ve got about two-feet of trail, and on one side of you is a drop-off, and on the other side of you it just goes straight up,” said Christopherson. She went on to describe one of the tensest parts of the ride.
“After Forest Hill — you go out in the dark onto what’s known as the California loop, and I’ve heard from people that it’s the scariest part of trail, and you don’t really want to see it in the daylight because it has some of the biggest drop-offs.”
Through this part of the trail, Christopherson said she attached glowsticks to the front of Diesel’s breast-collar so that he could see where he was putting his feet. She was also wearing a headlamp. “As we were going down that trail, I was telling him ‘I’m putting every ounce of trust I have in you right now to please not go off this trail.'”
Despite this type of stressful trail riding, Christopherson said the worst part of the ride for her was being stuck in a sort of horse traffic-jam. “We got caught up in a group of about 30 people,” she said. “We were kinda toward the back of the group and just eating dust.”
The more dangerous parts of the race, Christopherson actually looks back on fondly. “The drop-offs and stuff were definitely scary, but I love seeing stuff like that because I’m kind of an adrenaline junky.”
Christopherson said the best part of the experience was finishing it, 100 miles after starting. “It was just crazy to think that I was able to go out and do that with my horse.”