2015 Tevis Cup: Q&A with Auburn Journal Tevis Cup photographer Michael Kirby

By: Ike Dodson of the Auburn Journal
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2015 Tevis Cup

Entries: 201 riders (9 junior) from 11 countries and 20 U.S. states

The trail: The Tevis Cup Ride follows a rugged portion of the Western States Trail, which stretches from Salt Lake City to Sacramento. Beginning at the Robie Equestrian Park (elevation 7,000 feet), south of Truckee, California, the trail descends gradually approximately nine miles to the Truckee River at the Midway Crossing on Highway 89. The trail takes a route through Squaw Valley, the U.S. Olympic training facility and site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and ascends from the valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass near Watson's Monument (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in 4½ miles. From the pass, following the trail once used by gold and silver miners during the 1850s and rediscovered by Robert Montgomery Watson in 1929, riders will travel west, ascending another 15,540 feet and descending approximately 22,970 feet before reaching the century-old town of Auburn via the traditional route through Robinson Flat, Last Chance, Deadwood, Michigan Bluff, Foresthill, and Francisco's.

Advisory: Much of this territory is accessible only on foot, on horseback, or by helicopter.

How many years have you covered the Tevis Cup?

You know, I’m not sure. I would venture to guess that of the 20 or so years I have been a freelance photographer with the Journal I have covered the Tevis Cup 15 of those years. It is one of the assignments I look forward to each year, though it is a long day for photographers as well. Years ago we would usually have one or more photographers working on the ride.

What about the event appeals to you?

The relationship between the horse and rider. After you absorb that this horse and this rider are going to ride 100 miles in one day over some of the most difficult terrain in the world and usually on one of the hottest days of the year, what it boils down to is taking care of the horse. A horse can not vocally tell a rider or vet what it needs, that is why there are mandatory one hour rests. It is up to the rider to have a special connection that only comes with miles in the saddle to know how strong a horse is. It’s a special rider that says, “It’s over today,” when a horse is unable to continue, keeping the horse’s well-being first over finishing the Tevis. 

Favorite place to photograph the Tevis Cup?

This is a hard question to answer. As an Auburn Journal photographer I do not have the luxury of choosing a perfect place way out in the forest to shoot. My job is to move along with the front runners and get as many great shots as I can at several places along the trail, then be at the finish line to shoot the winner. My favorite place is Robinson Flat. Thirty-six miles into the ride, Robinson is the first major stop and a mandatory one-hour hold for the horse. At Robinson I can get great photos of rider, horse and crew as the horses come in. Then the vet check shots are also very interesting. Riders trot their horses in front of the veterinarians to check their gate, and also heart and respiratory reading are taken and recorded, before the horse is cleared. Riders and their crew then rinse and feed their horse before rider and horse leave Robinson after an hour. With a little walking, great trail shots can be taken, also. If I could only shoot at one location it would be Robinson Flat.

What does it take to complete the Tevis Cup?

I am not a horseman and have spent very little time on a horse, but I have shot this race for many years and have seen up close what these athletes (horse and rider) experience and I believe the most important thing is for the horse and rider to be is excellent shape. Most of the riders I see that finish in the top 10 dismount the horse on all hills and run up the grades to save the horse some energy. After 100 miles in the hot canyon trails, an out-of-shape athlete will not finish. Also, a strong crew to support the team is very important. A well-run crew will be able to anticipate what their rider and horse will need at each aid station. It takes a huge effort to coordinate the support rider and horse will need on a 100-mile ride.

Most memorable moment on the Tevis Cup trail?

I think my most memorable moments come when I see a rider have care and compassion for their horse. What I mean is a rider that is more concerned about the condition of their horse at the finish line than what place they finished. That is why I think that the Haggin Cup award is just as important as the Lloyd Tevis Cup award for first place finisher. The Haggin Cup award is for the horse that finishes in the top 10 horse in the best condition after 100 miles of trail riding. The Haggin Cup award recognizes sportsmanship and horsemanship throughout the grueling ride. There are some very touching moments between riders and horses you can catch with patience. One rider that comes to mind who cares for his horses in this way is local rider Hal Hall, who has ridden in 30 Tevis rides and  who has won the Haggin Cup award three times and has finished first three times.