TRUCKEE, Calif. — A Mitchell native and her horse have won what is widely considered one of the most prestigious endurance riding competitions in the world.
Nineteen-year-old Emma Christopherson and her trusty Arabian steed, Diesel, completed the Tevis Cup on Sunday, July 24, successfully covering a 100-mile stretch of the Sierra Nevada mountains in less than 24 hours.
Beginning at Robie Equestrian Park in Truckee, Calif., Emma and Deisel were among 131 teams that competed in the event. With a time of 23 hours and 13 minutes, she was one of 59 competitors to complete the course in less than 24 hours.
Completing the challenging trek through mountainous terrain, Christopherson verified a memorable seven-year journey that stemmed from an invitation to go horseback riding after church.
“She first took up horseback riding when she was about 12,” Emma’s father Burl Christopherson said. “She was asked to go after church one day and pretty soon we drove her in at an hour just for practice. We really had no idea what she was getting into.
After her coach brought up the Tevis Cup during a driving session, Emma’s excitement turned to passion to complete the ultimate endurance race.
“After doing some research, I wanted to see if I could pull this off,” Emma said. “It only had a 50% completion rate, and it was so cool to know that I had a horse good enough to try it out, let alone finish it.”
Now a student at Dakota Wesleyan University, Emma began training for this competition more than two years ago.
“I hiked over 20 miles a day in state parks trying to prepare for similar terrain and climates,” she said, citing weightlifting as another necessary preparation for this long. race. “I need to be able to mount and dismount my horse efficiently, as we only have 24 hours to finish the race.
After her horse suffered an injury in 2021, her plans to compete in the Tevis Cup were postponed, but her determination drove her to continue training, working harder than ever, despite the small setback.
To qualify for the Tevis Cup, a rider must complete at least 300 endurance miles – overseen by the National Endurance Conference – and the horse entered must be 6 years of age or older.
However, despite the difficulty of the qualifications, the conditions during the competition are even more difficult.
“Where it wasn’t rocky, it was dusty,” Christopherson recalls.
Visibility was minimal. At one point, canyon temperatures hit a sweltering 115 degrees. In some sections of the race, the altitude climbed to 9,000 feet. The incredibly steep terrain combined with thin ledges and rocky terrain leading into and out of the canyons can be extremely dangerous, even deadly.
“On the first canyon, there was a horse that must have stumbled. He fell off one of the cliffs, hit his head and died,” Emma said.
The hardest part for Emma, however, was what is called the California Loop. She recalled that section of the canyon with some of the biggest falls and only two-foot-wide trails — which she hiked in the dark.
“I just remember hoping and putting all the faith I had in Diesel to stay on track,” she said.
After 11 vet checks and two one-hour holds, Emma and Diesel crossed the finish line just before 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, finishing 40th out of 59 runners remaining.
She thanks her crew members and family for getting her to the finish line, specifically pointing to her parents, Sandy Byrd and Burl; crew members Janet Sarver, Deb Moe, Janet Cram; as well as her trainer, Sarah Mass.
“It was the most miserable and exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Emma said, “but it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and I want 100% start over.”
When not with her horse, Emma is studying equine science at Dakota Wesleyan University, hoping to one day become a horse trainer.