When you participate in a niche sport, you can expect to unearth a small cadre of hardcore participants. Because more is sometimes better, especially when it comes to competition, and because enthusiasm likes to spread, people involved in fringier endeavors tend to proselytize, to seek to bring new members into their fold. Unlike with professional football or street basketball, this can make beginners feel warmly welcomed.
For many years I’ve been a ride and tier. You might think this sounds kind of dirty. Often, it is. I have finished ride and ties covered in dirt, dust, blood, horse snot, Gatorade, and pee (you don’t want to know). I have been exhausted, depleted, elated, pissed off (at myself), and overwhelmed with gratitude. I’ve crossed the finish line in first place, in the middle of the pack, holding hands with my partner, limping from a badly sprained ankle, and always, always smiling.
Ride and tie started out, as many things do, as an invention of necessity, when two people needed to cover a lot of ground and had but one horse between them. One rode ahead while the other walked. The rider might stop at an inn, rest for a night, and then continue ahead on foot. When the walker reached the inn, the horse would be waiting, and the walker would get off his feet and ride. In the early 1980s, when the Levi’s company was looking for a sport to sponsor, their PR man, Bud Johns, came up with the idea of making this practice, common in the Old West and mentioned in Henry Fielding’s 18th century novel, Joseph Andrews, into a race: Two people, one horse, leapfrogging a distance of 10-40 miles.
Not long after I started running I met a grizzled biology professor at Duke who told me about the sport of ride and tie. I’d grown up horse-crazy, though I hadn’t ridden in years, and once I heard about this wacky event, I had to do it. The good professor and his even-better wife were willing to teach me, train me as a runner, and let me practice on their horses.
Even though I’ve never had a horse of my own, I’ve always been able to find a ride and tie teammate with one. There’s usually someone whose partner has dropped, or gotten injured, or who has an extra horse and is willing to lend him out. In a niche sport like this, the atmosphere is family reunion-friendly, with people coming to camp out before a race, spending days exploring the course and nights drinking and roasting marshmallows while listening to banjo-plucking jokesters. If it sounds like summer camp, that’s because it is.
What I love most about the sport is what I call the ethic of care. As a runner, you answer only to yourself, but in a race like this you are responsible to and for your partners, human and horse. The team isn’t finished until every member crosses the line; the horse has to be checked by veterinarians before, during, and after the race. You can run yourself into the ground, and yell at your partner, but you have to make sure your equine teammate is treated well. Usually, though, you don’t yell at anyone. You have a great time, and then can’t wait for another race.
This year, instead of getting antsy between seasons, I’ve managed to find another zany niche sport.
For a while now I’ve lived in the mountainous west. It gets cold here, and it snows. Sometimes, it snows a lot, like a couple of years ago when we had as many inches of snow as I am tall—just in December. I carp and complain, grumble as I do archeology to uncover my car, stay home and eat canned soup for days because I’m afraid of driving, and wear so many layers of clothing that it’s hard to squat to tie my shoes or bend my arm to drink tea.
Last year I decided to try to make friends with winter and bought cross-country skis. I had a young dog who loved snow and liked to follow me, so we’d go in big circles around the back yard. Since I don’t really know how to cross-country ski, what I did was more shuffling than gliding, but that was fine.
This year I remembered that my friend Nikki Kimball, one of the best woman trail runners in the country and a competitive ski racer, had told me about a sport called “skijoring,” where your dog pulls you while you ski. Snow? Cross-country skis? Dog? I had everything I needed, and so I looked for local folks who could teach me about this arcane sport, and of course, in a few key strokes and a couple of mouse clicks, I found them.
Acquiring the necessary equipment—a harness for the dog, a belt for the person, and a tether rope—was another story. I nearly died of sticker shock when I went to REI to get the stuff, so I improvised: I made long line by clipping two leashes together, got a seatbelt dog-harness at Petco, and in the dark and scary part of my closet found a wide black leather 80s-style belt.
Okay, sure, I may be deluded by my love for Helen, but she is, you must believe me, the smartest dog in the world. Here’s one small data point: Helen understands the laws of thermodynamics. To wit, I keep marrow bones for her in the freezer. Last month, I decided to heat one up in the microwave, but then, of course, it was too hot to eat. She left it in the driveway for a while, then picked it up by a tiny corner, brought it to the one, small patch of snow in the backyard, let it cool there, and then carried it to the grass and settled in for a good gnaw. See?
So it took about five seconds for Helen the prodigy to learn how to skijor. Since I didn’t know any of the official jargon, I put the harness on her, linked us up, and told her to “Go, go, go!” (sounding, I have to say, a whole lot like Tim Gunn on Project Runway). When we got to a downhill, I’d scream, “Slow down!” and when I started to lose control, which happened, well, a lot, I’d shriek, “Yo! Dude! Watch out!” and she’d jump off to the side. We are planning to do much skijoring this winter. And then it will be ride and tie season.
It’s not that I like niche sports, just that I love animals. To be able to partner with them, to see how hard they try, realize how competitive they can be, enriches my experience as an athlete and strengthens our connection. A horse who acts like an asshole when you first meet him can be your BFF by four miles into a race. My book, The Pig and I, carried, on its first edition, the unfortunate subtitle “Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal and So Hard to Love a Man.” It was a bad line for many reasons, including that it didn’t represent the book, and it was wrong. The fact is, it can be all too easy to love a man. But for some of us, it is also no effort to love animals. (Though living with Emma, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig I co-parented with my ex-boyfriend and who, though she was clever, had no moral center—unlike a dog, she never felt shame about misbehaving, which she did often, and usually in ways that made you laugh so hard you 1) nearly peed your pants and 2) couldn’t help but forgive her—could be a challenge.)
I feel guilty doing athletic outdoorsy events while leaving my athletic outdoorsy dog at home. Helen comes with me to ride and ties, and during hours I spend racing, gets to hang out with pit-crewing friends. She’s fond of camping, likes to socialize, and loves to roll in manure, so the experience is good for both of us. (Except when she gets stinky just before bedtime and we’re sharing the tent.) Skiing often requires a bigger time commitment, so finding a way that we can do it together is ideal. As long as she doesn’t take off after a squirrel, or fall for some hunky border collie, we slide along the trail, have a great time, and come home tired and hungry, a good way to end a winter day.
I’m sure there are plenty of other niche sports you can do with animals that, once I hear about, I will want to try. For now, though, ride and tie and skijoring should keep me busy.
RACHEL TOOR is a distance runner who used to be an “either/or” kind of person. She thought: either you were a nerdy little egghead, or you were an outdoorsy jock. She spent the first thirty years of her life indoors with a book. Then she started running... more »