Chasing Dreams: The True Story of the Youngest Female Tevis Cup Champion is the incredible true story of Sanoma Blakeley’s 2019 Tevis Cup championship, won aboard her beloved horse Goober, and the tale of how at 18 years old she became the youngest woman to ever become a Tevis Cup champion. In this exclusive excerpt from the chapter “My First Race”, Sonoma shares some of her earliest adventures on the trail.
When I was seven, I got my first horse that I didn’t have to share with Barrak or my mom. Midnite was the best horse I could have asked for. We were both seven years old when our timelines intertwined. We depended on each other, and I was just as important to Midnite as she was to me.
My parents had bought Midnite for a very low price and were training her. In her sales ad, the previous owner had written: “NOT A KID’S HORSE.” Indeed, Midnite was extremely stubborn and had a strong mind of her own. My parents determined that her behavior issues stemmed from her anxiety and insecurity. However, as soon as they put me on her, she was a completely different horse. She melted like butter and was as soft and sweet as a horse could be.
For me and Barrak, our favorite playmates were our two horses. I had my Midnite, and he had his Boogsy, and we did just about everything with them. On the weekends, we would wake up early, dress up like cowboys, and sneak out the window in the guest bedroom so the front door would remain locked and our parents would think we were asleep.
In our second-hand cowboy hats and boots, we would practice mounting our horses like Pa used to do when he was a kid, swinging up bareback from their manes. We learned other ways to get on them unconventionally—leapfrogging from behind, or even getting their heads down, laying across their necks, and hoisting ourselves onto their backs. With my brother and me on their backs, we came up with all sorts of crazy ways to ride them, sitting side saddle or backwards. Then we would stand on our two patient steads and dismount by sliding off their butts.
Sitting on our horses bareback and letting them wander around their pen without any tack, we carried around an old rawhide lass rope just to complete our cowboy costumes. We tried throwing the rope off the horses a few times, but my rope-throwing skills were hopeless and I quickly gave up.
Barrak and I dreamed of living on the range. We would sit in our forts after riding bareback all afternoon and make plans of how we would buy a big ranch and cut our own hair. I was Barrak’s little shadow. Whenever he had an idea, I wanted to do it, too. He loved his Boogsy and was always suggesting fun things we could do with our horses besides just riding down the trail.
On lazy summer days, we would occasionally try our hand at jousting with PVC pipes. Barrak and I set up jousting lanes in the horses’ paddock, so they had to run past each other without veering to the side. Unfortunately, Boogsy was the dominant horse, and when Midnite and I got too close, he would put his ears back and chase her away. When it got too hot outside, we would take our two trusty steeds to the neighbor’s pond and swim with them. Poor Midnite and Boogsy had to put up with everything: jumping, swimming, jousting, and playing cowboy.
That same year, at seven years old, I competed in my first 25-mile race. I proudly brought my ribbon to school the next day for show and tell. I owned the title of “The Horse-Crazy Girl” in my class. Throughout school, whenever anyone said the word “horse,” I was the girl all heads turned to. Going to school in a small community, I knew my classmates well; it was the same 30 kids from kindergarten through eighth grade. I was always a little distant from my classmates, and although I got along well with everyone, my best friends were Barrak and my horse, Midnite.
Several months after completing that 25-mile race, Midnite and I were training for our first 50-miler. The race we picked would be in Nevada in April 2009. To get Midnite and myself ready for the race, my parents would often pick up my brother and I from school with the horse trailer, and we would head straight to the Henderson Flats trailhead to condition our horses. Henderson Flats became my second home. From the trailhead, there are endless miles of trails for hill work, flat work, and speedwork. In preparation for the early spring race, we trained during the winter. I would often finish the last few miles of our ride in the dark when the days were short.
On one of those after-school rides, we had planned to train to the top of Gray Butte, which is about 5,100 feet in elevation. Riding to the top gave us a solid 2,000-foot climb from the Henderson Flats trailhead. My parents planned that ride in correspondence to a full moon, since the 15-mile ride would take several hours and we would not be able to get it done in the limited daylight.
A few days before our planned ride to Gray Butte, we received a heavy snowfall. We didn’t let the snow or darkness stop us from getting ready for my first 50-mile race, so we put on our snow boots, saddled up, and hit the trail.
There is hardly a more magical experience than breaking a fresh trail through the snow on a horse. We had a fun first part of the ride, but once we reached the top of Gray Butte it was completely dark. We dismounted our horses to walk them down by hand, since downhills put a lot of strain on horses’ legs.
I couldn’t feel my toes. They were completely frozen and numb. Walking down in the dark and snow, I was sobbing, doubting this was all worth the effort. My parents let Midnite follow their horses, and Mom carried my boots while Pa put me on his shoulders and tucked my popsicle feet into the sleeves of his sweater. As we walked a bit over a mile down Gray Butte, my feet slowly thawed and the full moon popped out of the horizon. It was so big and close, I felt like I could reach out and grab it from the top of my dad’s shoulders.
I have hardly ever felt more connected to the world and to reality as being out riding at night, the full moon shining over everything.
By the time we reached the bottom of Gray Butte and remounted, my toes were toasty warm. The full moon reflected on the perfectly white snow, and I forgot all about the misery of being cold and was completely content right there with my horse and my family. As we descended out of the hills and closer to the trailer, I looked behind me and caught my breath as the full moon silhouetted the hills and cast our shadows over the snow. This was what it would be like to race Tevis someday. Riding under the full moon, in complete unison with my horse.
As the days got longer, so did our rides. We were regularly doing rides between 20 and 30 miles to prepare for the Nevada Derby, and by the time April rolled around, I felt about as prepared as I could be.
Besides training for the race, I also wanted my beautiful mare Midnite to stand out in the crowd of horses at our first 50-mile race. To do this, I polished her hoofs with bright-green nail polish and braided her mane and tail.
The ride camp was located in a sea of sagebrush, and there were no trees to slow the howling wind. The barbed-wire fence that surrounded the ride camp was lined with tumbleweeds that had blown across the desert and created a natural wall. As the wind came off the mountains and whipped its way around the trailers and horses, we set up blankets to block the wind for the horses. It dried out my skin and filled my eyes with sand.
Once we started the race, the April wind gusts just about blew tiny me out of the saddle as we crossed the high desert and got into the Nevada high country. There was snow on the side of the trail, and the north hillsides were still frozen. The freezing temperatures made for a real endurance experience. I have never in my life wanted to quit as badly as I did during that first 50-mile race.
About halfway through, I was flung off of Midnite. She had been grazing, as she always liked to do. We had a mutual agreement that she could do what she wanted as long as she took care of me. Suddenly, Midnite realized the other horses hadn’t stopped to eat with her, and she took off at a dead run, slamming on the brakes when she caught up to them. This was nothing new to me, but this time the only trouble was she stopped on a very steep downhill, propelling me between her ears to the ground.
The first lesson my parents taught me in riding a horse is you always get back on. So, despite everything—my hurt pride and body aches from coming off Midnite unexpectedly—I got back on.
I finished in 6th place and was officially an endurance rider! Only four more years until I would be old enough to compete in Tevis.
Order your copy of Chasing Dreams here.