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15 September 2014

20 Mule Team 100  By Clive Pollitt

In 1880 a team was established to haul borax from the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley and the Amargosa works near Shoshone to the railhead at Mojave.  These 20 Mule Teams soon became a legend, with each team of 18 mules and 2 horses hauling a 30 ton load (2 borax wagons and a 500 gallon water wagon) over 165 miles of desert in 10 days, with only an overnight unloading stop before returning.

With this in mind, when a 100 mile endurance ride was organised, based in Ridgecrest in California, with a route into the Mojave desert following part of the mule team trail, it was decided to name the ride  “20 Mule Team 100”. 

I knew both Christof and Dian from earlier trips to the States. They run a business breeding and training endurance horses and riders at their home base of Moab in South East Utah.  In October last year Dian gave me a call and offered both Penny and myself horses for the ride.  Needles to say we jumped at the opportunity. 

Moab is stunning in it’s rugged beauty, being the base for many of the old John Wayne movies, and the town itself is the starting point for access into the Arches and Canyon national parks.  The final part of the film Thelma and Louise, where they drove over the cliff, was filmed just down the road.  The riding is endless and beautiful and I for one would have been happy to stay put and forego the pleasures awaiting in Ridgecrest.  However that was not to be.

Our plan was to take 5 horses from Utah to California via that den of iniquity (Los Vagas)  to Ridgecrest. This was to be the first 100 mile ride for 4 of the horses and 1 of the riders (Penny), and would be important ride in that it was to be an FEI qualifier for the horses, the ride being a joint FEI/AERC run event.

Due to an above average rainfall in California, the desert was not its normal great expanse of rock and sand but emerald green with a carpet of flowers.  However go off the hard packed track and you were soon up to the knee caps in soft mud.

Like most others riders not in the FEI race, we were crewing for ourselves, and so the first day was spent packing crew bags for shipping to the 35mile and 85 mile Vet Gates.  This is a fairly standard practice and probably 60% of the riders were without crew.  Christof did the packing of the crew bags while we vetted and clipped the horses, made food parcels and worried over our gear.

There were 72 riders for the 100 mile and at 6am on Saturday morning we all gathered at the start line.  Although being a mass start, these starts are generally steady and friendly occasions and it was agreed that as the only mule in the FEI race Mule would lead off the pack. 

The ride day started three fleece cool and didn’t warm up until about 8-o clock, by which time our team of 4 was having it’s first problem of the day.  Dian’s horse’s pulse was slow in dropping below the required criteria at the first vet check, it being so excited.

Once through the vetting we were soon on our way and onto to our second problem of the day.  Christof’s horse started showing signs of suffering from the Thumps, an electrolyte imbalance causing the diaphragm to pulse at the same rate as the heart contractions. This was a serious setback that would to be need managed.  It was decided that Penny and I would go on and do the best we could with our young horses with the hope of seeing Christof later in the day

We were soon at the first Vet Gate at 35 miles with a one hour hold.  Due to our unfamiliarity with Christof’s crew bag, we ended up taking an extra 20 minutes, but apart from that, all went well and the horses passed muster. We were a little concerned that Dian and Christof hadn’t arrived by the time we were leaving, and only later found that Christof had walked with the horse for two hours while giving it doses of electrolyte to counter the Thumps.  At the vet gate, to our amazement, they also passed vetting and were able to continue.

The next 30 miles were a lovely mixture of long canter tracks and rolling hills with plenty of rain water puddles for the horses. The desert is not flat as some may think and some of the hills were long pulls.  Care also had to be taken not to ride too close to the old mine workings, on a previous ride one woman did, and lost her horse down a shaft. (They did say she seemed a bit thick though))

There was another “trot through” vet check at about 50 miles before the second vet gate of the day back at Ridgecrest at 65 miles.  The horses vetted well once again and we were able to go back to the trailer for food and much needed coffee.  Luckily we were  met by one of the other Utah riders,  Howard Kent, who managed to find some real food from somewhere which really did get to the parts.

By this time the horses were thinking that it was all over and started going into relax mode,  so the look on their faces when we started to saddle up was a real treat.  Definitely a touch of  “you must have the wrong horse”,  anyway it was only after I had saddled up that my horses decided he should get some food inside him and started eating.

Again we were about 90 minutes at the vet gate, but we had agreed that we would take as long as it took to get both ourselves and horses in the best possible shape before heading out once again into the desert for the final 35 miles.

By the time we set off it was inky black.  The trail was marked with light sticks and it would be normal to have a light stick attached to the breast plate of your horse, but we couldn’t find them in the trailer.  In fact they were under our noses on the table and must have been moved aside so that we could eat. Almost immediately on leaving we bumped ( literally ) into Dian and Christof coming into the Vet Gate.  It was great to see then still in the game.

After leaving the vet gate it was a continuous and steady climb for almost eight miles into a range of hills.  Although we couldn’t see anything the horses soon cottoned into the fact that they were to follow the light sticks and were able to follow the route without a problem. 

After a couple of hours the moon came up and we reached a vet check at about 85 miles.  By this time the temperature had shot down and there was a strong breeze (3 fleeces and a shell ) so there was no hold period and fit horses were allowed to leave as soon as ready.  The crew boxes had taken a bit of a hammering by this time, but there was hard feed and electrolyte for the horses and we had enough hard feed and drink for ourselves on the saddles so we pressed on as soon as the horses had fed.  The last 15 miles or so rejoined the afternoon’s route back to the venue, making it easier as both horses and riders were by this time getting very tired. 

We arrived at the finish vetting area in time to see the mule being vetted.  Getting a mule to trot up at any time isn’t easy, but after 100 miles, almost impossible.  However the impossible was done and it passed muster.

Our young horses vetted well and achieved straight A passes on all but one of the functions which was a B.  We were placed 30th and 31st with a total ride time of just over 16 hrs. Dian and Christof. came home about three hours later with  all five of the horses completing the ride,  a fantastic achievement.

We’ve been offered horses for this years Tevis, all we need now is some money and time.

For those interested in riding in the States, Dian and Christof have a web site.


Clive’s philosophy on life: Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, I know for me that isn’t possible anyway,  but  you should skid through the Pearly Gates broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming- WOW- what a ride!!