Hal V. Hall: Tevis Cup Legend

Hal V. Hall is a legend in the endurance trail riding world and has won the prestigous Tevis Cup. Learn his secrets to endurance riding success and gain insight into his personality.

On the day Hal V. Hall was born in Auburn, California, his mother’s maternity nurse drafted an announcement for the first meeting to organize an arduous Western States One Hundred Miles in One Day Endurance Ride – today, known as the Tevis Cup.

Years later, Hall became a Tevis legend himself. He’s thrice won the prestigious Lloyd Tevis Cup (1974, 1977, and 1990), and the equally coveted James Ben Ali Haggin Cup, given for the best conditioned horse among the first 10 Tevis finishers (1972, 1978, and 2002). Since his first Tevis as a 14-year-old, he’s rarely missed a year, racking up 25 finishes in 31 starts, and achieving the most top-10 finishes in the event’s history.

In more than 36 years of endurance competition and 10,000 career miles, the talented horseman has become an expert on conditioning horses for trail challenges. He’s also a saddle designer, and has pennedThe Western States Trail Guide, which details for riders the 100 miles of trail over the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Squaw Valley and Auburn, California. Hall is also a founder of the American Endurance Ride Conference; both he and his favorite mount, El Karbaj, are in its Hall of Fame.

In addition, Hall was a member of the United States Equestrian Team Selection Committee that chose the gold-medal-winning squad for the 1996 Federation Equestre Internationale World Endurance Championship. He’s competed internationally himself.

We caught up with Hall V. Hall just after his return from the 2005 FEI North American 100 Mile Endurance Championship, where his team earned the silver medal. Read on to learn more about this top endurance competitor, trail-riding enthusiast, and consummate horseman.

MyHorse:How did you become involved with horses?

Hall:My parents were city slickers from San Francisco; they moved the family to the outskirts of Auburn when my dad opened a pharmacy there. When Tevis Cup competitors would ride by our home, my parents would let me stay up all night to watch. In those days, the ride finished at the end of our street, and riders would walk their horses into town for the victory lap. It looked like a big adventure to me.

When I was older, I’d offer to hold horses for the veterinary exam at the finish line. The riders always looked weary, but there was a twinkle in their eyes that said, “I’ve accomplished something.” It intrigued me.

MyHorse: When was your very first trail ride?

Hall:I was 11 when I started riding friends’ horses on the local trails. Eventually, I got my first horse: an Appaloosa gelding named Sinbad. I rode with kids my age, and a friend’s older sister gave me riding lessons. Sinbad wasn’t the most athletic individual and wasn’t suited for the Tevis, but my buddies and I would ride into the woods a couple of miles and race back, our own mini-version of the Tevis Cup.

Later, a woman who lived across the street invited me to ride with her and her friends, and they became a huge influence. Her name was Drucilla Barner; she was the first woman to win the Tevis Cup and the first woman to complete Tevis 10 times.

MyHorse:How did your first Tevis Cup ride come about?

Hall:When I was 12, my mother and I – my dad had passed away – purchased a Half-Arabian that had already successfully competed the Tevis. I entered. But that year, I also made my Little League all-star team, and the state championships were on the same day as the Tevis. I chose baseball over the ride. The next year, the same thing happened.

So the following year I knew I had a decision to make – baseball or horses? I chose horses and rode my first Tevis Cup. The ride was everything it was cracked up to be: rocky, dusty, hot, grueling. I quickly came to understand how demanding a sport it was. Three-quarters of the way through, my horse was pulled [out of the event] at a vet check. He just wasn’t conditioned for the ride. I’d failed miserably.

MyHorse:Did you consider just chucking horses and going back to baseball?

Hall:I really didn’t like not finishing something I’d started. I was very fortunate to have two individuals step in to influence me. One, a close family friend and horseman, came to me and offered to take me over the course in five days. We horse camped, and he helped me see the total landscape and all its elements. We got down to basics and talked about tackling that terrain, step by step. I needed that.

The second individual was a cattle rancher named Barney Dobbas who had grazing rights in the High Sierras. I was invited to his cow camp. That night over dinner, he said he’d seen me at the Tevis, and that he had something for me to read over the winter months. It was a book on horsemanship, and included lessons on the horse’s body, the breeds, and how to train. It was enormously helpful.

Also, I prepared with Drucilla Barner, and she sponsored me on two 50-mile rides. I started to learn about pacing, shoeing, and conditioning.

MyHorse:What happened when you next competed?

Hall:I earned my first Tevis buckle, awarded to everyone who finishes the course in under 24 hours. Even though I’ve finished the Tevis 24 times since, that’s the only buckle I ever wear. It’s great encouragement to a young rider to feel that you can put it all together at that one place and time. It remains my most memorable endurance ride.

I also started to look for another horse, mostly because my horse was “hot,” wasting valuable energy and time on the trail.

MyHorse:What were you looking for in your ideal trail horse?

Hall:I wanted a physically strong, structurally sound horse that was tough-minded and gutsy, yet businesslike on the trail. I found him on a cattle ranch in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Ted and Sheila Jeary, who owned the ranch, raised Arabian horses for their ranch horses. In the 1960s, they sold horses that went on to become Tevis winners. So in 1970, my mother and I headed to Nebraska, where I found my ideal horse – a 5-year-old gray gelding named El Karbaj, Arabic for “the cutter.” We would have many adventures together.

MyHorse:Was he as good on the trail as you expected?

Hall:Better. I’d learned that you didn’t do well on long rides without working at it. The Tevis has 19,000-feet of climb, and 23,000 feet of descent. You don’t do it fast, but if you can do it steady, you’re on the right track. For conditioning, we did serious strength and speed work on the trails once a week. Then two or three times a week, we’d just go out, get exercise, and enjoy the countryside. El Karbaj was willing, mentally tough, and didn’t waste any energy. He enjoyed these rides, and always had his ears forward, looking around the next bend in the trail.

All of that time in the saddle paid off – in 1972, we placed second in the Tevis Cup, and were awarded the James Ben Ali Haggin Cup for the horse judged to be in best condition of the first 10 finishers. We were thrilled about the whole thing!

MyHorse:Was El Karbaj your all-time favorite horse?

Hall:Yes. I rode him competitively for over 15 years – he was 20 or 21 during his last Tevis – and he never lost his interest in what was around the next bend. At the time, he had more finishes than any other horse in Tevis history. We won the Tevis Cup in 1974 and 1977, and in 1978, we were awarded the Haggin Cup for the second time. That year, El Karbaj was inducted into the AERC Hall of Fame. He happily lived the rest of his long life with us, until we lost him at 35 years old to Cushing’s disease.

MyHorse:Who’s your current favorite horse?

Hall:Bogus Thunder, whose sire is a three-quarters brother to El Karbaj. Twice, he’s carried me to second place in the Tevis and was awarded the Haggin Cup in 2002. We bred him. The day after he was born, I rode his older half-brother (also Tevis winner) along the American River. On this remote stretch of wild river, early gold miners mistook the thundering of the river for an approaching Sierra storm. As the river surges through a series of rock narrows, it sends up a roaring sound that vibrates along the ridges above. “Bogus thunder” is a secondary rumble to the river’s surface sounds, best enjoyed in solitude. We thought it was a good name for our new bay colt.

MyHorse:What makes the Tevis so special – and so addicting?

Hall:It’s a combination of many things – the history of the trail and riding through wilderness where Indians and gold miners traveled by foot; the sheer beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains; the fact that people from every different walk of life compete.

And then there’s the challenge, which I divide into three parts: the high country wilderness; the canyons, rugged and 2,000 feet deep; and night riding when you’re fatigued and must put your full faith and trust in your horse. I tell our kids, it’s better than Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland!

MyHorse:Is your entire family involved with horses and endurance riding?

Hall:I met my wife, Ann, through the sport. She’s a talented rider and has finished the Tevis six times. Our son, Quinn, 17, doesn’t compete, but he’s our very savvy crew chief on rides. The horses love him! Our daughter, Alyssa, 13, has done limited distance rides (25 to 30 miles), but doesn’t want to do the longer ones. She’s more interested in showing.

MyHorse: What’ve been your most memorable recreational trail rides?

Hall:The rides in the Sierra Mountains that we made helping our rancher friend, Barney Dobbas – now deceased – move his cattle. From late spring till fall the cattle grazed high in the mountains, then he’d move them down into the valleys for winter. In late fall, we’d help gather and herd the cattle down towards his cabin and corrals. The leaves were colorful, the air cool and crisp, and we’d ride good horses and enjoy the companionship of great friends.

MyHorse:What was your strangest trail experience?

Hall:There was always something strange surrounding Amanda, a lovely, athletic mare I used to ride but who is now my wife’s mount. Because I work [as a banker] during the day, I frequently train on the trails at night. One night, just as we emerged from the trails onto our street, I heard a crash – a large tree fell right across the trail just after we’d passed.

Another time, I took Amanda out for an afternoon ride. When I returned home, I saw helicopters and a firefighting plane heading toward the place where we’d just ridden. I later found out that they suspected that sparks from a horse’s shoe had ignited a small fire.

MyHorse:What was your most challenging trail experience?

Hall:In 1976, a fellow organized an event called The Great American Horse Race. Every rider would alternate riding two horses from New York to California. The first to finish took all. Five days into it, the organizer ran out of money and left camp. It was a farce, and I was ready to go home.

But then some other riders and I decided to ride from Saint Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento on the old Pony Express Route and the California Immigrant Trail. We traveled on wild, remote trails across much of America. A vet was with us while we followed the paths of the pioneers who settled the West. We went through South Pass, the lowest spot in the Continental Divide, and along the Great Salt Desert in Utah, into Nevada and California. We traveled 1,950 miles in 52 days, and it turned into an even bigger adventure than any 21-year-old could’ve hoped for! By focusing my entire attention to the well-being of my horses, I became a better horseman for it, and endurance competitions were easier afterward.

MyHorse:What can endurance competitors teach pleasure riders?

Hall:How to identify overuse injuries on the trail, and how to deal with them effectively if they occur. And how to condition a horse for long rides.

MyHorse:What can pleasure riders teach endurance competitors?

Hall:Patience. And how to relax and enjoy your surroundings and the companionship of your horse.

MyHorse:What’s your ideal trail saddle?

Hall:First, the saddle must fit the horse. Because I’m six feet, two inches tall, I need a saddle suited to my long legs. I also need a saddle that will help me find a centered, balanced spot on the horse where I become less of a factor when he’s moving.

I use three saddles: a Podium saddle made in Italy that I helped design is a favorite for competition; an Australian stock saddle for training; and an English saddle for arena riding lessons. I like a saddle that’s lightweight but durable, and has knee rolls, calf panels, and a narrowtwist –the point where the tree molds to the horse’s back – for close contact.

MyHorse:What three people of any era would you invite for an evening around the campfire?

Hall:I’d invite William Tevis Jr., who, with his brothers, donated the Tevis Cup to honor their grandfather, Lloyd Tevis. He was a former Cavalryman who raced nine Army officers from Nevada to San Mateo in 1923 – over 230 miles. When he won, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. gave him a watch with a medallion – the same medallion awarded to each Tevis and Haggin Cup recipient today.

I’d also invite Robert Montgomery Watson, who came from the Alaska Gold Rush to settle in the Tahoe region in the early 1900s. He was a great outdoorsman and horseman who kept track of the trails over the Sierras that eventually became the Tevis trail. And I’d invite Arabian horse breeder John Rogers. In the 1960s, he demonstrated his top show horses’ versatility by competing in the Tevis with them.

MyHorse:What do you most value?

Hall:My family.

MyHorse:If you had a motto, what would it be?

Hall: Work hard and play hard!

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