The spirit of the Old West lives in the emergent sport of Ride & Tie racing. Part Pony Express, part Boston Marathon, and part US Marine Corps nature survival course, Ride & Tie requires a team of two people and one horse to cover a grueling course in the fastest time.
One partner sets off riding, the other on foot. The rider ties the horse to a tree at a predetermined point and continues down the trail. When the original runner comes to the horse, he mounts and rides beyond his partner before tying again. Thus the team leapfrogs to the finish, the clock stopping when all three have crossed the line.
While superb conditioning and equestrian skills are requisites for Ride & Tie races, it's strategy that wins them.
''Ride & Tie is a thinking man's sport,'' says Bud Johns, a corporate executive who is the inventor of the sport as a formalized professional competiton. ''Nobody does well unless he or she is intelligent. There are too many problems to solve.''
The best Ride & Tie horses are pure- or half-bred Arabians and can cost as much as $10,000. Like superior marathon runners, Arabians are tough and wiry with a high degree of endurance, and they also have the advantage of being nimble over mountainous terrain.
Ride & Tie racing isn't just for men either. Female and mixed divisions are part of every race. Jon Root proposed marriage to partner Robyn Dubach just before the gun went off at last year's world championships in Eureka, Calif. She accepted, and the excitement helped carry them to fourth place overall as well as victory in the mixed division for the second year in a row.
The Roots repeated as mixed winners this year and were fifth overall among the 95 teams entered in the 14th annual world championships held in Park City, Utah, last Sunday. Brothers Con and Tod Wadsworth were the top finishers, completing the 38-mile race in 3 hours, 50 minutes (6 minutes per mile) to capture an unprecedented third straight title.
The original Ride & Tie idea struck Johns in the early 1970s while he was seeking a Western-flavored sport his company, Levi Strauss, could sponsor. He remembered reading of a San Diego father and son who, during the 1870s, set off to catch the rustlers who had stolen all but one of their horses. They rode and tied into Mexico where they retrieved their stock.
By now the sport has grown to the point where Ride & Ties number approximately 350 worldwide each year, about 250 of them held west of the Rockies in the United States and Canada. Some races also are conducted annually in England (one wag calls them ''Ride & Teas''), France, West Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, while new events are planned for Mexico and Japan.
The world championship of the sport, however, is still the original competiton sponsored each year by Levi Strauss and moved around to various locales.
Once you've acquired a horse (even a mule will do), Ride & Tie isn't expensive. All you need for the world championship is the $50 entry fee, a saddle and bridle, a sturdy pair of running shoes, and a surfeit of courage. A pair of pantyhose isn't a bad idea, since that saddle can begin to feel pretty rough by the time you and your partner have covered 40 miles or so of rugged terrain. Hosiery adorns as many men as women competitors.
''The real expense comes in the time involved,'' says veterinarian Joe Cannon , who won the 1980 world championship at Big Bear Lake in the mountains near Los Angeles. ''I spent a minimum of three hours per day for six months getting myself and the horse ready for the Levis.''
At the Levis there are six mandatory ''ties'' (rider changes) and three ''vet checks,'' where horses must meet predetermined physical standards. Horses that are showing signs of distress are pulled out.
Most teams schedule a tie just before the vet checks so the horse goes in rested. Teams also try to have their best runner tackle the uphill portions of the course, although it is impossible to formulate plans too precisely. ''Hand tying'' (passing the horse back and forth on a steep section without stopping) isn't permitted, nor is ''tailing,'' hitchhiking up a hill by hanging onto your horse's tail while your partner is in the saddle.
''People get hooked on Ride & Tie once they've done one,'' says Cannon. ''I think it's because of the strategy. You have to be flexible as the race progresses and at the end there are always ways you could have improved.''