Long way back: From ‘Crawl of Grit’ to Tevis Cup, equestrian’s dream comes full circle
August 17, 2018
Crossing the finish line after the overnight horse ride from Truckee to Auburn, she wasn't just arriving at the race's end.
She had landed on the doorstep of her dream.
And the emotional release spilled out through tears, laughter and unbridled joy that spread a smile wide across her face.
Susannah Jones and her Arabian, Diablo Maj, had conquered the Tevis Cup. But the journey they'd completed extended far beyond the 100 miles they'd just covered.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Whatever it is, it’s not unattainable. You just have to take it step by step.”
— Susannah Jones
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'I WILL SURVIVE'
Horse and rider set out that 2012 morning for their first endurance ride training, something Susannah said she'd wanted to do since first seeing the Tevis Cup.
But after a long ride out from camp, they came to a cattle grate blocking their path. They looked for an alternate route when Maj got tangled up in barbed wire and brought them both to the ground and rolling down a rocky embankment, the twisting barbed wire tearing at their flesh as their bodies were banged bloody, bruised and broken.
All alone on a 9,000 acre ranch in the middle of nowhere — an area known as the Renner Valley in the "Oregon Outback" — she knew she had to get help.
So Susannah, who turns 64 next month, set off on what she calls "The Crawl of Grit."
"We had our tendons severed at the knees and I had broken mine (kneecap) along with many other injuries," she said. "I somehow dragged myself for eight miles in desert heat … It was sheer willpower, man, because I was bleeding all over.
"It was bad. I had buzzards and coyotes following me, waiting for me to give up."
But she pressed on, wanting to see her daughter again.
"My mom left a message telling me what her plans were for the day," said Kristina Jones. "When I left work at 7 p.m. and still hadn't heard from her, I just knew something was wrong."
Twelve hours after setting out on her first endurance training ride, and after nine hours of crawling along that dirt road, she was lucky to be discovered by a group of people hosting a family reunion in the area.
"I knew I still had about four miles to go before I'd get to the (highway) and I would not have made it," she said. "Then I saw those golden headlights … they nearly ran over me, as I looked like a heap of rags in the road."
The next day her badly hurt horse, still saddled, was found by a friend. Once rescued, they were safe. Yet the damage was done, as Susannah was told neither she nor her horse would be the same again.
"When she called and said, 'I've had an accident,' I felt this overwhelming moment of, 'I knew it!'" Kristina said. "Just that feeling of connection I have with my mom; it was powerful. I was terrified for her and immediately left the dinner table of a crowded restaurant in Tahoe. I just wanted to be there at her side."
BUILDING A BOND
From the time she was a young girl in her hometown of Cornwall, England, Susannah loved being around horses. She didn't have one of her own, but remembers hopping on horses in neighboring pastures and riding bareback, until she had the chance to learn to properly ride "English."
It wasn't until she was 46, when she and her family landed at their Rough and Ready home, that she saddled up her own horse. He was one of several animals she's rescued, endearing her to animal lovers who know she's ready to rescue others when needed — and adding to the chores for Kristina, her husband Michael and any other helping hands around the ranch house.
That's how she met Diablo Maj in a Gilroy backyard, when she learned he was soon to be sent to auction and couldn't bear the thought of him ending up as dog food.
"He's a unique and special horse. He's from royalty," she said. "He's the one, not me."
Diablo Maj was the one who could make her hopes for endurance riding a reality. But their first steps toward that goal came crashing down on that Oregon hillside before they'd even started.
"That ride in 2012 was my first training ride for endurance," Susannah said. "It would be three years before either my Diablo or I would be recovered enough to really ride again."
Once she was back on the horse, however, their recovery seemed to speed up. Eventually they entered endurance rides of 50 miles and 75 miles, and finding success at the finish line, which boosted her confidence.
"We made a great team and he performed well," she said. "It was time to put that Tevis dream to the test."
THE TEVIS CUP
There wasn't much beginner's luck with their first attempt at the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile endurance ride held annually since 1955.
In 2016, they were pulled from the race when a time limit expired at a checkpoint, while Maj was massaged through muscle cramps. Susannah was disappointed, knowing her family was waiting to see her along the trail at the point they'd first watched the race.
"I knew they were waiting for me," Susannah said. "I knew Kristina wouldn't see me. It was fine, of course, we were OK. But you still want your kids to be proud of you."
One year later, they made that rendezvous a reality. And, thanks largely to the kindness of a Tevis veteran, Pat Chappell, her family also met her at the finish line.
"It was one of the biggest highlights in my life. I'll never meet another human being as strong as my mama," Kristina said. "She's a hero, she really is. She gets up every day rain or shine and is with her horses. The aches and pains she feels get tucked away. The passion and energy she holds is larger than her petite body, it radiates and inspires others.
"She has an unconditional bond with her horse, Maj, and I feel very blessed to be along for the ride."
That 2017 finish was the first of two Tevis Cup belt buckles she now owns, earning her second last month.
"That's the thing with the Tevis, it's a family," Susannah said. "I was going along this highly technical ride in the mountains … and when riding through the darkness, (Chappell) took me right on in. She took me through the dark section. I followed her for 36 miles.
"This year, I came across another woman who was nervous in the dark. I told her 'You follow me.' Just as Pat had shepherded me, I was able to shepherd her."
Susannah encouraged her new friend to ride ahead to the finish line, where they both finished among the top 25 of the 64 who completed the course. Half the riders who enter the ride typically reach the finish line. Last month's ride, amid 100-degree temperatures and smoke-filled skies, saw about 40 percent of the 153 entrants arrive in Auburn.
"To finish the Tevis is a true test of horsemanship," Susannah said. "For me it's all about the challenge. The rawness. The going to places you'd never see. In the quiet of night, hearing the river down the canyon, it's almost a religious experience."
One day after this year's celebration came to an end, Susannah was devastated when one of her rescues — a blind dog named Helen — died. Needing an outlet for her emotions, writing a song — and recording it the same day — about her Tevis Cup experience proved to be just the catharsis she needed.
It all served as a reminder that no matter the challenge, whether '"The Crawl of Grit" or the Tevis Cup, it all has to start the same way.
"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something," Susannah said. "Whatever it is, it's not unattainable. You just have to take it step by step."
Brian Hamilton is editor at The Union, and among those "rescued" by Susannah Jones, whose family rented him a room when he first arrived in California in 2000. Contact him at email@example.com or 530-477-4249.
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