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Readying for the ride of their lives

Alex Close/Sierra Sun Phyllis Keller and her horse Aireus are finalizing their preparation for the 100-mile Tevis Cup race.
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After five months of long horseback rides, Phyllis Keller and her horse Aireus are finalizing their preparation for a grueling, 100-mile race over the Sierra Nevada in early August.

“If people knew what Tevis [Cup] riders went through, what the horses accomplish, they’d be amazed,” said first-time rider Keller of her training for the oldest modern-day endurance ride.

The Tevis Cup was first organized in 1955 by Wendell Robie, essentially on a dare. People doubted the ability of a modern-day horse to ride from Lake Tahoe to Auburn in a single day, and he set out to prove otherwise.



The race has since been held annually and is now organized by the Western States Trail Foundation. Keller and “her boy,” Aireus, are also challenging this dare by riding in the 100-mile, 24-hour endurance race on Aug. 5.

Keller was first turned on to the Tevis Cup years ago from being around horses and other rider friends in the area.



“[I] kept thinking it would be an experience of a lifetime to complete the challenge,” Keller said.

Training itself is a feat. The horses should be able to complete 50-mile rides and get well-acquainted with the trail. Keller has been out on numerous practice rides.

“We pull hills, do flat work,” said Keller. “Just like training for a marathon, but with a horse.”

Besides familiarizing Aireus with the terrain, like certain water crossings and bridges, Keller also works to train him to drink water and to eat at certain intervals. The horses run on such adrenaline in long-distance, mountainous races that they often neglect to re-fuel.

“It truly is a sport. Not only do you have to keep on what’s going on with you. But what’s going on with him.”

The elements play a large role in the comfort and completion of the race. Riders face daunting 24-inch wide trails with 1,200-foot dropoffs into the American River, swinging bridges, peak temperatures, steep canyons and night riding.

“How am I training?” asked Keller. “I’m a runner also. Lots of times you get off the horse and run with him. Eating properly. Riding him. Showing him what he needs to know.”

Keller turns 50 this year, and in looks and spirit appears maybe half her age. In addition to being a rider and a runner, Keller is a wife and mother. Her family supports her in training, and will be there to congratulate her with a hug when she finishes.

“Trying to imagine completing and making that lap is an overwhelming feeling. I can just imagine what it’s like. I’ll probably be in tears … I know what my first marathon was like. The accomplishment is amazing,” she said.

As Keller brushes his mane and tacks him for a hill climb training ride, Aireus prances around like a dog waiting for his walk.

They clearly have a long-established rapport which will work to their advantage as they embark on this 100-mile feat.

“We’re a team. . . the biggest thing I learned is to trust my horse. Let him do it. Hopefully he’ll take care of me.”


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