Fair Hills, Maryland, September 2022

From left to right: Janice, Kevlar (horse), Courtney, Bobby (horse), me

Seen a guy running in a bike helmet? The women on horseback shook their heads. My eyes widened. I was on a horse I’d never ridden before, looking for a man I’d just met, along a vast network of trails I’d never treaded, competing in an unusual sport I’d only tried once before. The other horsewomen were competing in the standard 25-mile endurance ride where riders stay on the horse, or at least try to. Chris and I were doing a two-sport hybrid called ‘ride ‘n’ tie’ where two partners share one horse and alternate between trail running and riding, leap-frogging each other and tying the horse to random trees between transitions. The sport was invented in 1971 by a young California marketer at Levi Strauss & Co wishing to showcase the American jeans company’s quintessential rough-and-ready cowboy image. I had just swung into the saddle when Chris went missing somewhere along William duPont Jr.’s former 5,600 acre fox hunting estate, a verdant paradise of wooded trails, open galloping fields, and bubbling creeks situated at the crossroads of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. As I wheeled Ray around to retrace our steps, the horse shook his chestnut mane in rebellion and flared his large Arabian nostrils. Ray had more ride ‘n’ tie experience than Chris and me combined; he knew I had no idea what I was doing.

A few days before the Chesapeake 25-mile endurance ride, Chris’s original ride ‘n’ tie partner came down with COVID-19 and I filled in last-minute, with the barest qualifications. Living in Washington, DC, I hadn’t ridden a horse in months. In fact, I hadn’t ridden a horse consistently since I was 13. Now, in my forties, I was a competitive trail runner, recruited by a horse friend to try my first ride ‘n’ tie in July 2022 in Virginia’s Shenandoah mountains. Halfway through the 20-mile race, I learned why some dub the sport “ride ‘n’ die.” After miles of slogging through mud, rocks, roots, and streams, the trail dumped out onto a long dirt road where horses could open up their stride. When most people think of race horses they think of Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds, but Arabians raced long before their sprinting brethren, bred by Bedouins thousands of years ago in the Middle East for athleticism, speed, and remarkable stamina. Bobby could sprint when the mood struck him. Once he spotted a rival horse Kevlar cantering ahead on the road, Bobby jetted off like a bee stung him. The two Arabians raced neck-and-neck, goading each other on. Bobby accelerated into speeds I’d never felt in a horse. It was thrilling, but my smile turned upside down when I realized I had no control of the runaway locomotive. Whoa, I commanded in a low voice, trying to project calm. But it was no command. Ride ‘n’ tie bridles lack the metal bits found in English and Western bridles so the horses can eat and refuel, drastically limiting the power of the reins, which merely tugged on his noseband. Bobby shook his head up and down, left and right, bouncing me out of the saddle as we tussled for control of his head. Dark thoughts spun through my mind. The last time I lost control of a bolting horse, I landed on my head and blacked out with a concussion.

An important lesson from childhood was that if you can’t stop a bolting pony, turn it. Preferably towards an immovable object, say a fence. Even the wildest pony will stop short before crashing and injuring itself. Of course, there were no fences out in the Shenandoah mountains to drive Bobby into. After the longest minute of my life, I managed to whip Bobby sideways into a hillside on the side of the road, like a cowgirl cornering a quarter horse around a barrel. No stopped short and I shimmied off his back, declaring I’ve had enough of this nonsense. Courtney, Kevlar’s rider, hooted a hearty laugh; our race-within-a-race was solid fun for an experienced rider on a familiar, trusted horse. My trembling hands tied Bobby to a sapling that hardly qualified as a tree. I dashed down the road, savoring the feel of solid earth beneath my feet again. For once, running served to bring my heart rate lower. Over the next half hour, the sun slid behind the mountains and I rode the final miles by headlamp, the melodies of the forest coming alive under the stars. Whippoorwills echoed eerily through the darkness and barred owls caterwauled in a dreamlike trance. I wondered how I could convince my trail running friends to ever try this magical mayhem.

Few trail runners know how much they owe to ride ‘n’ tie, which played a central role in the birth of ultramarathons. The world-famous Western States 100 mile trail race was invented in 1974 when the plucky Gordy Ainsleigh had a ride ‘n’ tie horse go lame and completed the 100 mile endurance ride on foot. The rest is history. Trail running and ultramarathons ballooned so fast in popularity that top athletes get prize money and amateurs wait years to win entry to Western States through the lottery. Why did ride ‘n’ tie stay fringe and miss the trail running boom? Horse sports are more dangerous, more expensive, and people with horses generally prefer to ride them, not run after them. Trail runners interested in trying a ride ‘n’ tie can connect with horse owners through Facebook groups. Ride ‘n’ tie is a friendly and welcoming community that helped me overcome imposter syndrome. But, as I well learned, running muscles are different from riding muscles, focused in the inner thigh, and saddle sores burn like hell. Despite these barriers, the sport is addictive for a small, diehard following of adrenaline junkies lining the East and West coasts. If long mountain runs are the ultimate test, imagine throwing a horse into the mix.

At last I found Chris! He’d missed a turn and was grateful I’d wheeled around to search for him; otherwise, he would have run the whole course on foot. Today’s course had no mountains to climb, but the forest trails were twisty and narrow, with short lines of sight and sudden turns. Intersections were marked with blue ribbons dangling from trees that were difficult to follow at high speeds. Chris and I endured several more cycles of getting lost and reuniting. Ray endured near-misses with mountain bikers and off-leash dogs. It took a lot to razz Ray, but we found it. A pair of bowhunters were smeared in camouflage paint, with long pointy arrows slung over their shoulders. Ray reared, swerved, and snorted. I couldn’t blame him; the painted faces looked like cannibals.

We were finally out of the woods when Ray began limping through the meadow like a car with a flat tire. I wondered if an injury cropped up when he dodged the cannibal archers. Fortunately, a hoof inspection revealed that Ray merely threw a shoe, a problem remedied by a rubber boot Chris pulled from the saddle bag. Game on.

Running was supposed to be my strength, the one thing I could count on, but as the morning sun rose over the open meadows, I began to overheat. There is no right way to dress for a ride ‘n’ tie, just different degrees of wrong. The event is not a pampered triathlon with designated transition zones for swaps into suits tailored for each sport. Ride ‘n’ tie transitions are too fast and frequent to change stirrup length, let alone pants. In the tradeoffs between bodily protection on the ride and heat dissipation on the run, I picked protection. I wore tall soccer socks layered under winter running tights to protect my inner calf from saddle sores and enveloped my skull in a thick padded riding helmet to prevent a second concussion. Possibly I could have pulled it off, had it not been for one serious miscalculation. Silly me thought the water stops along the course were for runners, so I didn’t carry my own bottle. I’ve never come so close to drinking from a horse trough. As severe dehydration set in, I got wobbly. Chris noticed my head bobbling like a drunk and pulled another race-saving item from the magical saddle bag. I drowned his spare bottle in one gulp. Ray, who’d rebuffed every drinking opportunity at stream crossings (he thinks he’s a camel, Chris explained), finally arched his long neck and drank his fill.

Ray was stalwart all day, braving one obstacle after another: cannibal archers, lost shoe, lost runner. He leapt over creeks and picked his way over fallen logs. But those obstacles he could see. For the day’s final challenge, Ray had to blindly trust the rider on his back while he crossed a thin concrete bridge over a highway with zooming trucks screaming under his feet. When the first truck sent Ray dancing sideways, I looked down and wondered if scared horses ever jump off bridges. Ray collected himself and padded across to the finish line. By some measures, Ray’s ride ‘n’ tie victory was easy; there was only one ride ‘n’ tie horse to beat. But Ray was handicapped by directionally challenged riders, footwear malfunctions, and a frightening array of hunters, bikers, canines, and vehicles. Ray was a champion.

I could have spent all afternoon grazing the horses, sponging them down, feeding them treats. As a kid I treated the ponies like pets, nuzzling their velveteen noses and braiding their manes and tails. But now I had adult responsibilities, and my son’s school barbecue began at 3pm. Other parents hovered over their kids on the playground like china dolls, ready to snatch them if they slipped. I sat back on the bench and watched my four-year old play, his mop of bright blonde hair gleaming in the sun. You can’t bubblewrap a kid who’s already discovered skiing, mountain biking, and rock climbing, but you can impart lessons. Horses taught me so much as a kid — how to be tough, but gentle; fearless, but never reckless; and be a good teammate with a powerful animal who communicates only through body language. Someday horses will teach my son more than I ever could.

Next year, in September 2023, the 50th Ride ‘N’ Tie World Championship will kick off in Asheville, North Carolina. I hope to be there, if someone’s willing to trust me with their horse, ready for whatever misadventures come our way. Even if I’m not, my running trails feels wilder and full of possibility after the summer of 2022, just knowing these zany American sporting traditions persist, sustained by a hardy few.


2 Responses to Ride ‘n’ Tie: The Wildest Trail Race You’ve Never Heard Of

  1. Courtney Krueger says:

    I will always remember our wild race down that road! Kevlar and Bobby were going ALL OUT! THANKS for a great article.

  2. Jeanne Abbott says:

    Wonderfully written! Makin me really look forward to 2023’s rides!!!

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