Each year, some of the top endurance horses and riders in the country flock to California to try their hand at the Tevis Cup, a grueling 100-mile ride through the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s no easy task for the most well-conditioned equine athletes in the prime of life. But what really impresses me is that each year, a handful (or more!) riders bring older horses to compete at Tevis … and many of them do very well!

This year, as in past years, our roving reporter Marsha Hayes was on-site with photographer Ron Osborn to cover the ride for TheHorse.com. She kept tabs on the golden oldies during the ride, keeping a special eye on the oldest horse in the field: 25-year-old PL Mercury (or “Merc” for short), owned by Claire Godwin, DVM, and ridden by Lisa Bykowski, both of Laytonsville, Maryland.

Lisa Bukowski and 25-year-old Merc (left) kick up dust alongside 17-year-old Amos, ridden by Merc's owner Claire Godwin, DVM, as the pair head into the first one-hour rest hold at Mile 36.

Photo: Ron Osborn

Here’s what Marsha had to say:

Compared with Tevis 2015, the older equine population seemed to have chosen to stay home and skip the 100-mile challenge this year. Only six horses out of 165 equine entrants were listed at age 18 or older. And of those six, one completed the 100 miles within the allotted 24 hours to win a coveted Tevis belt buckle.

The oldest horse, PL Mercury, at age 25 was my favorite. I watched Merc and his pilot Lisa Bykowski cruise to 14th place at last year’s Tevis Cup.

Merc’s story this year ended differently at Mile 94 (just six miles from the end!) when his heart rate failed to drop to the required 64 beats per minute within the allotted 30 minutes.

“He was eating and drinking well all day,” Lisa said the next morning. “He seemed to feel better as the night progressed. He was sound, we were actually moving up on people, but his heart rate hung around 66 to 68 at Lower Quarry.”

Merc and his owner Claire Godwin, DVM, finished in the Top Ten at the famously humid and rocky Old Dominion 100-Mile ride in June. As she did last year, Claire entered Tevis on EH Ahmose+// (“Amos”), Merc’s very good friend.

Seventeen-year-old Amos began to fall behind around Mile 85, and Claire sent Lisa and Merc on to do their best. Asked if Merc perhaps missed Amos, Lisa said “he certainly wanted to head down the trail. He was all business. He knows his job, but maybe.” Amos and Claire ultimately finished the race in 18th place.

The bright spot in the senior horse statistics was an 18-year-old Tennessee Waling Horse named Spin Out Merlin. Merlin’s rider Lora Wereb, adopted a slow and steady philosophy that proved successful. The pair crossed the finish line within the 24 allotted hours.

The senior horses weren’t the only superstars contesting the 2016 Tevis Cup: One highlight belongs to 75-year-old rider Jesse Caswell who finished 6th, close behind FEI endurance horse Monk and rider Lindsay Fisher. Jesse took up endurance riding about 10 years ago and purchased his now 10-year-old gray Arabian gelding and Tevis partner, Apollo, as a yearling. When Jesse turned 70 and Apollo turned 5, Jesse started training the gelding for endurance.

Dismounting after crossing the finish line, Jesse’s voice cracked with emotion as he told his many well-wishers, “This has been my dream for over 50 years.”

Congratulations to all the Tevis competitors—just getting there is a huge accomplishment! Not all equine seniors could pull it off, but it’s a huge feat for those that do.

Does your senior horse still compete? What disciplines do they participate in?