The Tevis Cup in California covers 100 miles of mountains, canyons and switchback. Tracy McIntosh (above) of Glidden completed he first “real” Tevis this summer.
The Tevis Cup in California covers 100 miles of mountains, canyons and switchback. Tracy McIntosh (above) of Glidden completed he first “real” Tevis this summer.
Riding a horse on narrow trail with sheer cliff on one side and straight drop-off on the other isn’t for the faint of heart.
Navigating such terrain safely, riders employ their considerable skills and also put great trust in their horses.
A misstep can mean tragedy.
That’s the challenge Tracy McIntosh of Glidden accepted this summer when she and her 14-year-old Arabian horse, Amigo, who’s already proved himself to be a survivor, participated in the annual Tevis Cup in California, considered to be the country’s pinnacle of endurance horseback endurance racing.
Riders push to complete the 100-mile course that steers riders and horses through highly demanding of terrains — mountain, canyons and switchbacks — within 24 hours.
Tevis Cup began shortly after 5 a.m. Aug. 4, at Robie Equestrian Park near Truckee, Calif., crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains and finished at Gold County Fairgrounds arena at Auburn.
Right off the bat, riders climbed from 6,200-foot elevation at Squaw Valley to 8,750 feet at Emigrant Pass.      
For McIntosh, that was a grueling start but also a favorite part of the ride. “That was really beautiful climbing. And the scenery was beautiful up there,” she says.
Indeed, the course’s dramatic changes in elevation was one of the biggest challenges for McIntosh and Amigo.
“In Iowa, there’s no place you can train for those elevations,” she says. “You can’t really train for the altitude. You just have to put in your miles and try to do some hills.”
With the cliffs, canyons and dropoffs, the Tevis Cup course has a lot of other features McIntosh doesn’t normally see.
Danger adds to the challenge.
“You don’t have a lot of trail space,” she says. “The trail can be barely a foot wide. They’ve widened it a little bit, but you have cliffs and you have dropoffs, so you can’t add too much.”
With the course crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains, she remarks, “It’s tough stuff. You just have to trust your horse you won’t slip and fall.”
Canyons also are some of the toughest parts of the trail.
“They go down for three miles, then up for three miles,” McIntosh says. “That’s tough on a horse at that elevation.”
At Last Chance — 4,500 feet elevation, the halfway mark of the ride — McIntosh says, “I got off my horse and ‘tailed,’ where you hang onto the horse’s tail, you run on foot, and the horse will take you up. That saves their strength a little bit. I did that, and, oh, it about killed me. That was really hard.” McIntosh prepared for the ride also by improving her physical fitness, running several miles a day.
Watching out for horses, Tevis Cup requires a one-hour stop at two checkpoints, where veterinarians see if horses are fit to continue. Horses receive a third and final check at the finish line. Riders haven’t officially finished until veterinarians say their horses would have been OK to continue.
Spending so much time together on the Tevis Cup, McIntosh says, horses and riders get to know and trust each other.
“Some people say you get to know your horse even better than you do your spouse,” she says. “And trusting your animal, that’s pretty neat being out there alone your horse. You understand your horse if he’s not feeling well. Looking out for each other is part of the game. You’re aware of what’s going on with your horse.”
And McIntosh credits Amigo with living up to his name by looking out for her.
“I had this weird, sleepy feeling about 2 or 3 in the morning. I just wasn’t feeling quite with it,” she recalls. “I was starting to slip, and the horse bumped me back this way (upright on the saddle). He did that a couple of times.”
That occurred on about 15 miles of switchback, and McIntosh observes, “So I know he knew we were on a bad part. That would not have been a good place to fall off.”
Catching sight of the finish line at the Gold County Fairgrounds arena, McIntosh says, “The emotions are pretty high after you have ridden that far.”
Out of 204 men and women who started the Tevis Cup, only 98 finished, and McIntosh took 69th place in 21 hours, 3 minutes. She finished at 4:18 a.m. Riders’ times include the two one-hour checkpoints.
Riders start the Tevis Cup from two “pens.” Elite riders begin ahead of the rest of the competitors. The second-pen riders are led out about five miles to start.
The first- and second-place riders finished in 14 hours and 50 minutes, entering the arena shortly after 10 p.m. the same day they started.
McIntosh has a certificate and buckle to show for her accomplishment.
“For me, it wasn’t really a race. It was just to finish,” McIntosh says, adding, “They say, ‘To finish is to win.’”
McIntosh, who’s competed in endurance rides for four years, says she decided to tackle the Tevis Cup challenge after a five-time Tevis buckle winner who has moved to Iowa from California told her, “There’s no way you can take a horse from Iowa and go out there and do that.”
“Well, that’s why I did it,” McIntosh says. “Yeah, I can. I proved her wrong.”
This year’s Tevis actually was McIntosh’s second. She also rode last year, but the course was dramatically altered because of snow. So riders began at the finish, rode out 50 miles, then returned. Snow shut off some of the hardest part of the course.
So this year was McIntosh’s first “real” Tevis.
“The reason I went back was that last year’s was not considered a real Tevis,” McIntosh says.
Satisfied she’s now completed this challenge, she doesn’t plan to return in 2013.
“The horse proved himself, and I proved a horse from Iowa can do it,” she says. “I’m not going to take that horse again. We’ll try other rides now.”
McIntosh, one of only five Iowans in the 3,500-member American Endurance Ride Conference, and  Amigo qualified for Tevis by completing more than 300 miles of endurance rides — 50 miles or longer — together.
Since she began endurance riding four yeas ago, McIntosh and Amigo have totaled 1,525 race miles in events of 50, 75 and 100 miles.
McIntosh primarily races in events in Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Wyoming.
In September, following the Tevis Cup, McIntosh and Amigo took 20th place in the AERC National Championship in North Carolina. At National, McIntosh rode with top U.S. riders who then went on to take fourth place in the world championships in London following the Summer Olympics.
McIntosh is doing more endurance riding this weekend, competing today and Saturday in the AERC Season Finale events at Chandler, Okla.
A native of Kansas City, Mo., where she learned English riding when she was a youth, McIntosh, 47, began endurance racing under the mentoring and coaching of Alvin Grabill of Audubon. She’s thankful for the support she’s received from family and friends — her dad Vic Webber; farrier Allen Riesenberg and his wife, Lynn; and riding companions Barb Brockelsby, Ruth Nellesen, Sue Schrad and Diane Tracy. A number of them have provided not only encouragement but also crewed for her at Tevis and other events.
Tracy’s husband, Bill, is an optometrist in Carroll, and the couple have two sons: Wesley, 22, and Kyle, 20.
 At their home on the northwest side of Glidden, the McIntoshes care for Amigo as well as Rupert, a black Shetland pony; Storm, a 24-year-old gray Arabian; Dance, a 16-year-old paint horse; and Candy, a rescue horse from South Dakota that’s in training to do some endurance racing. McIntosh says that at 14 years old, Amigo is actually middle-aged for an Arabian, so she’s looking forward to more good years with him.
The McIntoshes bought Amigo, an Iowa-bred dark bay Arabian, at Belle Plaine. Amigo stands a little over 15 hands tall and weighs 1,150 pounds. Tracy says Amigo comes from a bloodline of Polish-bred Arabians brought to the U.S. by Army Gen. George Patton. She notes that Arabian endurance horses are stockier than  show horses.
Amigo is proving his heartiness after he received a new lease on life. At age 9 he nearly died of a colic attack when a tumor wrapped around his intestine and veterinarians at Iowa State University in Ames removed 2 feet of his intestine.
McIntosh says of Amigo’s performance in the Tevis Cup, “For a flatlander, a horse from Iowa where we don’t have mountains, that’s a pretty good accomplishment for an old feller like him.”