Man riding a horse in running outfit

Leslie Yates on Kayla. Photo by Barry Thorpe.

To compete in the Ride & Tie World Championships, held in Humboldt in June, takes wealth or a little match-making luck. To win, well … try finishing!

By Gordon Wright

If you want to get into Ride & Tie – the hardest, most deliriously fun sport you’ve never heard of – here’s the best way.

First, become fabulously wealthy. Buy a big spread out in the country with plenty of outbuildings and pastureland. Then, buy a horse or two with strong Arabian bloodlines and take several years of riding lessons.

Finally, ramp up your trail running mileage to that of an ultrarunner, find another person who is equally wealthy and fit and, well, now you’re set – perfectly positioned to enter the Ride & Tie World Championships.

Does that sound like a high barrier to entry?

You can, instead, do it the way I’ve done it two of the past three years: go on and sign up on their online listing matching people with horses with people looking for people with horses.

It’s a necessary online dating scheme for this two-person sport, and if you’re lucky, like me, you’ll get a call from an anesthesiologist from Kentucky who looks (and sounds) just like Tommy Lee Jones.

My anesthesiologist friend is named Leslie Yates, and with his help, I was introduced to Ride & Tie in 2009, when we first competed in the World Championships.

Luckily, I had years of childhood riding that I could dust off in my muscle memory and that was enough for me to try my hand at a sport that, while founded in 1971, remains resolutely under the radar.

Ride & Tie (you’ll have to trust me here – there’s no Wikipedia entry for the sport) got its start in the frontier West, where families and communities often had more people than they did horses.

It turns out that the most efficient means of getting two people and one horse over a lot of ground isn’t riding tandem, but rather having the horse and one rider gallop off into the distance, tie the horse to a tree and start running. The trailing runner comes upon the horse, unties it and sets off in pursuit, ultimately passing the first rider.

Hop-scotching this way means that even the most demanding, 35-mile trail courses – such as the 41st annual Ride & Tie World Championships – can be smoked in about five hours.

Unless you’re a middling ultra-runner and a 62-year-old anesthesiologist from Kentucky.

When Leslie Yates and I competed in the 2009 World Championships, we wrestled a willful but speedy mare named Nastasha over 34 miles to finish in a credible time of 6:27 – even winning a prize purse for a podium finish in the Men’s Division. This year? Well, this year was different.

With his meticulous nature, Yates is a natural at plotting strategy for a race that demands it. There are plenty of subtleties to Ride & Tie: when to tie, where to tie, how often to tie. How to exploit your stronger runner. How to carry enough hydration to stoke the runners and how to find water for the horse.  How to manage the horse’s exertion levels so that it passes two mandatory veterinarian checkpoints.

I left all that in Yates’ capable hands. Being a newcomer to the sport, I knew only enough to get out of his way, and to do what he suggested. But our strategy held a Grecian hamartia this year – a fatal flaw, based in hubris – that would spell our near downfall. See, while I’m a fairly strong runner, especially by Ride & Tie standards, Yates tragically over-calculated my abilities, leading to a very, very long day at the race venue in Humboldt Redwoods State Park on June 18th.

To begin the 35-mile course, Yates’ plan had me running much of the first 11-mile loop by myself. He would push our horse, Kayla, up the first long ascent and first descent, making our first tie nearly five miles into the race.

So, as our competitors worked together jumping on and off the horse at short, furious intervals, I was slogging up and down a forested peak, increasingly alone with the realization that I was near the back of the pack. After passing three runners and two horses on the downhill, I found our horse and shortly afterward, found Yates not far ahead.

Another part of Yates’ strategy, aside from the anomalous start, was to practice what’s known as “short ties,” where we were to stay close together and tie the horse to a tree at handy intervals.

This wound up working well for the two of us, though I rode very little and ran very much. Over the next loop of 11 miles, we traded off frequently as the temperatures rose and Kayla worked laboriously to haul us through the towering oaks and redwoods.

It was only on the third loop where it all fell apart; where we not only lost touch with the rest of the pack, but I also, in a small way, lost my mind.

The final 13-mile loop began with a punishing ascent of nearly 2,000 feet, during which we worked efficiently, though slowly. As befitting a 62-year-old, Yates was fairly serene in his running. In fact, when off the horse, his default pace was best described as a mosey.

This gentility was equally apparent when he rode Kayla – rarely did the two of them get past a stately trot. All of which would be fine, had I been an elite runner; since I was not, what it meant was that my mileage for the day was approaching the total mileage I’d been logging monthly in training.

By the end of the ascent, I was about cooked. At mile 27, we completed one last hand-off as I passed Yates, tossed a “see you soon!” over my shoulder and, a quarter mile later, tied Kayla to a tree and took off running.

I never saw Yates again until the finish line, where I lay sprawled in a chair with worried co-competitors scrambling around, forcing fluids down me while I tried not to vomit.

The eight miles after my last tie should have been the easiest: a gentle three-mile ridge traverse, followed by a five-mile descent into the finish. For the first mile I ran strong. The second mile, my gait faltered as I wondered where Yates was. The third mile involved high-decibel internal lectures that I would deliver to my teammate while I slowed to a shuffle.

By the start of the fourth mile, self-pity had shouted down anger, and I finally ground to a halt and sat down in a beautiful meadow before the descent. Then I laid down in that beautiful meadow before the descent. I may have napped, I’m not sure, but I was damn certain I wasn’t going to go a step further until Yates came around on the laggard Kayla, especially because the horse was – quite literally – carrying my water.

That plan didn’t last long, as I was significantly dehydrated, and I knew that five short downhill miles were all that separated me from ice-cold Gatorade. Plus, I reckoned as I groaned my way to my feet, what if Kayla had broken an ankle? Someone would have to get down to civilization to report the bad news. I trotted onward, cotton-mouthed and aching.

I wobbled through the last bit of the race in a woeful 51 minutes, mincing through the stream-laden descent and musing on the trade-off between giardia and kidney failure.

Seven minutes after I reached the finish area, and after I had regained some of my composure (and electrolytes) thanks to my competitors, a remorseful Yates came strolling into view atop Kayla.

“I’m sorry man,” he said as he dismounted. “She was tired, and I just didn’t think I could push her.”

I felt a shift in my mood. Yes, I had killed myself, but hey: I had outrun a horse.

Stifling an urge to point out that I was a bit tuckered as well, I gripped Yates in a cowboy hug, and we crossed the finish line for an official time of eight hours and ten minutes. It was nearly an hour and a half longer than it took me to run my last 50K.

Ride & Tie is as full of challenges as it is full of fun. As the organization’s website says, “Finishing a Ride & Tie is humbling and gratifying. To finish is to win.”

Indeed, some of the pre-race favorites either didn’t finish or were disqualified because their horse had been ridden too hard. Kayla, for her part, looked remarkably spry at the finish, even as I drove exhausted from the race home to Marin County.

Our finish was a win, in my book, and despite the wreckage I’d put on myself, I’ll be back to Ride & Tie.

Gordon Wright is head honcho of Outside PR & Sports Marketing in San Francisco. He’s assured his wife that he won’t be coming home with a horse anytime soon.