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Extreme horse racing: Where man and beast both run

The extreme sport of 'ride and tie' inspired modern triathlons.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 9, 2007


It's just after dawn here in the arid, semi-desert region outside Sacramento where a group of extreme athletes have gathered for a 22-mile foot race.

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Some of the runners are former nationally ranked contenders in elite events like the Boston Marathon or 100-mile ultra marathoners. Others are, well ... horses.

Along the starting line, Nikes and horseshoes kick up a cloud of dust and an air of excitement. This is no Fox reality special that pits man against beast; it's a little-known sport called "ride and tie" that teams humans and horses for long-distance, backcountry races.

It works like this: Two humans and one horse constitute a team. The race starts with one person running and the other riding. At least six times during the competition, the rider – who has gone well ahead of the runner – must get off the horse; tie it to a tree, bush, or whatever he or she can find; and begin a leg of running. The first runner catches up to the horse, mounts it, rides past his running teammate, ties the horse, and starts running again.

"It's basically a leap frog where you're going run, ride, run, ride, run, ride with one partner and one horse for anywhere from four miles to 100 miles," says Carol Ruprecht, who volunteers as the Ride and Tie Association's public relations director and is also an avid participant.

Though ride and tie – created as a sport in 1971 – has never held what anyone would consider mass appeal (it's even a mystery to most equestrians), it was arguably one of the first "extreme sports." Some triathletes credit it with helping to inspire the modern triathlon, says T.J. Murphy, editor of Triathlete Magazine.

Bob Babbitt, an Ironman Hall of Fame triathlete, is uncertain of equine sport's role in inspiring the triathlon, but after competing in a ride and tie race in the early 1980s, Mr. Babbitt says he thought, "This is a really cool thing, if we could lose the horse." So he created a version with bikes instead of horses, now popular among triathletes.

Unlike the sporting events of the X Games, seemingly dominated by unbreakable 20-somethings, the average age in ride and tie is over 40, with some competitors in their 70s and 80s. Good strategy and skill allows the elderly to beat much younger teams. Despite competition among all age levels, the sport is almost never cutthroat.

"It's based on a historic means of transportation," says Bud Johns, the sport's creator. "When two people had a long distance to go and only one horse between them, how did [they] maximize the fact that [they had] a horse? The horse can't carry both people very far, and if one person is riding, then the other person's not benefiting."

Travelers in this predicament often alternated between walking and riding, allowing them to travel greater distances.

Noted 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson and actor David Garrick are the first known ride and tiers. In 1737, the virtually pence-less pair decided to try their fortune in London, 120 miles from their home in Edial. With only enough money for one horse, the two rode and tied all the way. Henry Fielding, who described their journey five years later, said the unlikely ride and tiers' method of travel was long popular among their "prudent ancestors," meaning it presumably existed well before Dr. Johnson and Mr. Garrick.

It was a decidedly grittier context in which Mr. Johns first discovered the concept. While researching the history of Pine Valley, Calif., to promote it for real estate development, he happened upon the story of Charles Emery and his father, William, who in 1873 used ride and tie to catch a band of horse thieves. The rustlers had taken 14 of the Emerys' horses, but made the mistake of leaving one behind. The father-son "team" took off after the bandits – ride and tie style – traveling 40 miles a day until they reached Mexico, tracked down the criminals, reclaimed at least seven of their horses, and watched the Mexican Army execute the desperados.