by Nancy Sluys
August 1 2020
Since the beginning of my experiences with endurance and competitive trail riding I have had a dream of riding out west at one of the iconic buckle rides. Of course Tevis is high up there on the list but the one that has always caught my interest has been the Big Horn 100 in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming for its rugged and remote nature. This past winter I got it in my head that this was going to be the year because it was the 50th anniversary of the ride and I knew it would be extra special. They had an offer that if you paid the entire entry in the month of February you would get the buckle included with no extra charge so I went ahead and entered so that I would have a concrete goal to work towards. My mount was going to be my mule, Danny (Jet’s Danny Herlong), who was becoming my main endurance animal and this would be his first 100 miler. The ride was to be the second weekend in July so it fit perfectly into our busy summer schedule.
Then the Corona Virus hit and the world was all turned upside down. I watched the status of the ride hoping it wouldn’t get cancelled. When the date got moved to the weekend of August 1st I was doubtful that we were going to be able to make it because our niece was getting married the following weekend in Northern Vermont and I just could not see a way that we could get from one place to the other in time without killing ourselves and we certainly would not want to take a chance in missing the wedding. Then, with the Covid situation not improving, the wedding was postponed to next year. The pathway to the ride opened before us and we took it.
Bill and I decided to make a vacation of it since we were fully self contained in our living quarters horse (mule) trailer and social distancing would be easy while camping along the way. The first stop would be my sister Diana’s place in Arvada, Colorado and it took us three days to get there with stops in Evansville, Indiana and Salina, Kansas. Diana’s mini ranch backs up to a green space area so I was able to get Danny out on the trail so he could start adapting to the western environment.
After a couple of days rest in Colorado we headed up to Cody, Wyoming for a few more days of acclimating and sightseeing before heading to Shell, where the ride camp was, on a ranch in a field called the Beef Slide because of a steep hill they drive the cattle down. The camp was hot and dusty but the atmosphere was electric. With most rides being cancelled because of Corona Virus, people had come from near and far to the 50th annual Big Horn 100. The rider numbers swelled to more than twice the normal size, giving the ride manager a challenge. The scenery was breathtaking with red rock formations and distant mountains in every direction.
Friday I took a ride to let Danny see the last couple of miles before the finish so he would know where he was when he got near. We got all vetted in and everything was good to go. The weed free hay we purchased from the ride was beautiful and green and Danny spent the night knee deep in it. He was fueling up for the day ahead although he couldn’t know the extent of the distance since this was to be his first 100 mile ride. My husband, Bill, and Gina Hagis, my best riding buddy from Virginia, were going to be our crew. The start time was 4am and would come too soon.
I felt like Danny would do better if I had someone to ride out with at the start so I asked Joni Burden (from Alabama in the Southeast region) if she minded if I tagged along her and her friend Laura, who was riding Joni’s extra horse. Joni’s mother, Jody Buttram, had bred Danny and his dam’ was the sister of both of Joni’s horses so it just seemed fitting to ride together. We met up just before the start and rode out in the pitch dark, following red LED lights along the trail. I left my headlamp off except where necessary and my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, although it was a little disconcerting trotting through the dark over footing that I was unfamiliar with. I just trusted my mule and trotted on! The blackness morphed into sunrise about 5:30 with some beautiful color. We came up on one of the many gates, 38 total, that we would have to open and close. Laura jumped off and opened it as we thanked her and promised to get the next one. Most of the gates are barbed wire with a post attached that you have to fit into loops on the gate post and many were tricky and took some muscle.
The first 21 miles were through the desert and fairly flat, gradually rising in elevation. Danny was feeling good and settled into a brisk trot. There were a lot of horses around us but Danny didn’t pay them any mind. I lost Joni and Laura for a while but they caught back up and we rode into the first vet check at Beaver Creek together. Danny’s pulse came down right away and we were good to go according to the vet. Danny settled in and ate well. There were no crews allowed at this check but lots of hay and water was provided.
The 19 mile second leg of the ride starts out on a dirt road that climbs the mountain, curving out and in revealing ever higher views of the valley below. In this segment between vet checks 1 & 2 the elevation changes from around 5000 feet to almost 10000 feet. Much of the trail was in the sun which was becoming stronger and the heat started to build. The road became a track which became a narrow trail as it travelled in and out of several canyons, some rocky, some grassy. We rode through incredible fields of wildflowers with so many species I couldn’t count. As we gained elevation I recognized miniature versions of common wildflowers that were stunted, due to the high altitude. The riders were starting to spread out and we had some trail to ourselves for a while before passing a big group in a creek. The trail rose more sharply before arriving at the second vet check at Horse Creek just as a quick shower mixed with ice pellets came through cooling things off considerably. I was starting to feel the altitude and became breathless from walking around. I rested and rehydrated while my fabulous crew took care of Danny.
We left Horse Creek at a canter as we had to make the 3:00pm cut off time at hwy. 14 which would be at 50 miles. The going had been slow coming into Horse Creek as the temperature was unusually hot for the mountains but now we had some dirt road to move out on. By this time Danny had taken up position behind the two mares as they were acting pretty bitchy to him if he tried to pass or got in between them so I got real used to seeing those two round grey butts bobbing ahead of us! We pushed pretty hard until we arrived at hwy. 14 with 30 minutes to spare. The trail after that is a blur to me as the altitude was making me lightheaded and a little disoriented. I just remember lots of climbing and changing scenery. Every time you came around a bend a different scene would greet you, it was just amazing! Incredible rock formations, vast meadows filled with wildflowers, virgin groves of pine and spruce, mountain views, it was all just breathtaking (even without the high altitude!). The going was slow and rocky but the vistas were awesome. Sometimes we would come to a meadow and could pick up the pace but then we would have to stop and graze because the grass was too good and Danny and the girls were getting hungry. There was so much good grass on the trail and Danny would snatch mouthfuls without even stopping!
By the time we came into the Battle Creek Vet Check at 63 miles I was hitting my low point. I was getting altitude sick and was feeling nauseous and dizzy, I couldn’t eat anything at all. Then I remembered the gift my sister had given me as we were leaving her place in Colorado which was a small oxygen inhaler, just in case I needed it. I took several hits of the oxygen and started feeling a bit better. I put it in my pack for later and mounted up and rode off. I was feeling that Danny was being affected by the altitude too as he had slowed from his normal pace. He was still forward but had adjusted his overall pace a bit slower to conserve energy. Mules are famous for taking good care of themselves to I figured that’s what he was doing. I told Joni and Laura not to worry if I dropped back because I had to take care of Danny and do the pace he was comfortable with and I didn’t want to hold them up.
This segment deviated from the big loop and was an out and back with a lollypop in the middle. Right off the bat Danny was telling me we were going the wrong way because he had already pictured in his mind where camp was and we were going in the opposite direction. He hesitated and kept looking back but I urged him on forward trying to convince him that we were going the right way. After a while as the sun was setting we started down a section called Shag Nasty. It was nothing but rocks and boulders for several miles and was very technical. Actually it reminded me a lot of the high country near Mount Rogers in Virginia, our home trails. Danny put his mind to work and negotiated the tricky terrain as only a mule can do. He skipped through the rocks and started picking up speed as the trail made a turn and he knew he was headed back to the vet check. We circled a beautiful reservoir before returning to the dirt road that would take us back to Battle Creek. Once on the road Danny picked up an easy trot and we made pretty good time back to the vet check. By now my condition had improved in the cool night air and we both were getting our second wind.
Gina and Bill were relieved to see me looking better and we all had confidence that the team would finish the ride as we had only one more leg to go. There was come confusion leaving the vet check and I was misdirected down the road the crews were leaving on. After a short while I knew there was something wrong so turned back and asked for clarification and was sent up a hill towards a distant green light. I was a little frustrated as I didn’t have time to waste and the detour had cost be at least 15 minutes. There was also some confusion as to whether the trail back to camp was 13 or 16 miles so I was a little uncertain as I headed out to find the proper trail. About 15 minutes later my headlamp died and I searched my bags for a flashlight. I couldn’t find it even though I knew it was there somewhere. Luckily the full moon was rising over the mountain, providing enough light to see my way well enough. I was all alone in the night and had no one to help open the gates, which had become harder and harder to operate as fatigue set in. The moonlight started playing tricks on me turning rocks into buffalo and other strange creatures. A small band of antelope crossed the trail in front of us and at one time Danny stopped and alerted as we passed two coyotes watching us pass from the hillside nearby. The night was scary and magical all at the same time! The last leg seemed to take forever as we descended for an eternity. The last big obstacle was the slick rock section which seemed to go on for miles, even though it was maybe only a half of a mile long. By now clouds had covered the moon and I was having a hard time seeing so I used the flashlight on my iPhone to see the difficult footing when needed. Slabs of slick rock lay all over the trail and we had to pick our way finding purchase along the edges but sometimes the rock would cover the whole trail and was very slippery and treacherous. At first I tried to get off and lead Danny, as that is what those riding horses had suggested, but I almost rolled my ankle so I thought it safer to get back in the saddle. Mules are so sure footed, I put my trust in Danny and hoped for the best. When he would get to a slick section he would baby step his way down and never slipped one time.
At this point I knew we were running late and I was becoming worried that we would not make it back in time. As soon as we were past the slick rock section I put my leg on Danny and he moved right off without hesitation, feeling the pull of camp. After a few turns we came to the section we had ridden the day before and Danny quickened his pace as he recognized the trail and knew we were almost back to the trailer. As we came off the mountain and hit the flat ground he broke into a canter and I had tears in my eyes as I recognized his strength and will to move forward after almost 100 tough miles, he felt as fresh as if he was just on a Sunday outing! My anxiety was high as the clock ticked away but I finally saw the lights of the finish line and glanced at my watch. It was a bit after 4:00 am, over 24 hours since we started the ride and I knew we were not going to make it on time. As I crossed the finish line, a little less than 10 minutes late, the ride manager called out that she was going to see about allowing a completion only which would at least make our hard fought miles count. At that time I really didn’t care, I was so proud of my mule for finishing what felt like the hardest and most beautiful ride I’ve ever done and bringing me back safely. I knew in my heart what we had done and how great my mule was and I will hold that thought forever in my mind and heart!
It was to my great relief that the completion only status was upheld and the mileage for this great challenge would now count on our record. Many thanks go out to all the folks who helped make this challenge possible, Cindy Collins (ride manager), my crew, Bill and Gina and all the many volunteers who gave their time to allow us to have such a great adventure!!