Home on the ranch
Escaping the single file of commuting cars speeding through southwest Nevada County, he pulls out of line and to a stop. Throwing open the driver’s side door, he hops out to open the gate – a ritual made necessary by the livestock on the opposite side.
Back behind the wheel again, he drives on through, before braking to tend the gate once more. Then, with a strong squeeze of the hand, a quick click of the latch and a drop of the heavy chain, Frank Smith locks it all out.
The hustling, bustling Highway 49, a mere 50 yards behind, fades from mind as he hits the gas, grinds some gravel and winds his way home through the shade of his 700-acre south county slice of heaven.
It’s a serene scene.
Flickers of sunlight filter through the foliage above, passing across the dashboard at a 10-mile-per-hour pace. A young buck springs from the dirt road to the safety of steep hillside, while another, a doe, stares at the passer-by over her shoulder.
Now, imagine being in such a moment while quietly swaying along in the saddle.
“The feeling I get, for me, is total, total freedom,” Smith said. “And, also, I get a feeling of really getting at what life’s all about, in terms of our creator, nature and the importance of my relationship to my natural surroundings.”
That’s not so easy to find on the other side of that swinging gate, where a once countryside setting now collides with what many see as the natural growth of civilization. But Smith, who moved here from the Bay Area in the mid ’70s, continues to live, and love, life on the ranch.
“Hey, as long as people like hamburgers, there are going to be cowboys,” he said, but acknowledging many ranchers now use ATVs or SUVs to herd cattle rather than round ’em up on horseback. “It’s just not part of the job anymore.”
A “shoer by trade,” the 52-year-old Smith still farms on the ranch, but also buys, sells and trains horses. Though he’s typically in the saddle on a daily basis, he said it’s the equestrian sport of endurance riding that keeps him Ð and others – passionate about honing his horsemanship skills. And it’s events like this weekend’s Tevis Cup Ride – a 100-mile, one-day ride from the Tahoe Basin to Auburn – that demands him logging a lot of time doing what he most enjoys.
It takes substantial training for both mount and rider to prepare for a trek over terrain as demanding and dangerous as the mileage covered. Two hundred and fifty riders are expected to begin Saturday’s 50th anniversary of the event Ð typically less than 50 percent of those at the start line reach the finish line.
Smith, who once again will ride a mule rather than a horse in the Tevis, has reached the finish line in six of his nine attempts, including two top 10 finishes. He knows what it takes and thoroughly enjoys doing just that.
“You’re talking a minimum of 20 hours per week on the trail,” he said. “Those are some pretty special hours, though.
“You certainly have to condition yourself to be able to do it, so it motivates you to stay fit. That, of course, makes you feel good in itself. But you’re also out there in nature, with the mules or with friends, where you can see wildlife and everything out there.”
Smith said its during those training sessions that he develops a relationship with his ride that gives him intimate knowledge of the animal’s abilities and tendencies. That’s especially good to know when trouble arises, such as with a swarm of bees. He knows how 9-year-old mule, Batman, will react – and that reaction is one reason he prefers mounting a mule for the Tevis instead of a horse.
“They’re easier than horses, because of their ability to negotiate that kind of terrain,” he said. “Mules will head off a problem, where horses aren’t capable of that, because a horse’s thought process is totally different.
“If you got into some bees, a mule might sit there and get stung a few times rather than getting off the trail on a cliff. He’ll look at the situation before diving into it.”
Smith said from start to finish, he takes on a similar mindset. He said the technical challenge of the Tevis is such that he doesn’t spend much time surveying the surroundings – at least not now by his 10th start – because his focus rarely strays from the trail ahead.
“It’s like tunnel vision,” he said. “For 24 hours, your are focused on your animal and the condition of the trail, and what other riders are doing.
“When I ride, I actually like the individuality of the whole thing. Others will hook up with groups of other riders, but I actually like doing it by myself. So I always plan on doing it by myself, unless its with my wife.”
Joannie – who has completed both of her Tevis starts, including 2003 when she rode Batman and Frank was atop another mule, Elvis – won’t be alongside for the ride this time. She gave birth to Frank Jr. in May and didn’t think she’d physically be ready.
“If we had a mule in shape, and had I known that I was going to bounce back as well I did, I’d ride ’em,” Joannie said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to ride the Tevis a few months after having a kid. But if I knew what I know now, I would have had (Frank) keep working them both.”
Instead, Joannie will serve as a member of Frank’s support crew, she will have access to her husband at two stops along the trail, both being one-hour stops. Riders also must submit to vet checks throughout a series of gates along the 100 miles to ensure the health of the horses and mules.
“They don’t care if the rider’s in good shape,” Frank said with a laugh. “As a matter of fact, they might just tell you ‘Hey, your horse looks good. Now cowboy up and get going!'”
The goal, of course, is to finish.
“There is so much involved in accomplishing a finish,” he said. “There are so many little things that could go wrong. You really have to dot all the ‘I’s” and cross all the ‘T’s’ to stay on the trail for 100 miles.
“Some say it’s half luck. I don’t think it’s half luck, because there’s your skill, your training and your conditioning. There’s a little luck involved, but most of it is just the ability of the rider to be focused 100 percent on his horsemanship skills.
“And there is such a feeling of euphoria after you finish the damn thing, because it is such a challenge and because of the beauty and serenity of all those hours you spent training for that one day.”
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