Just west of Fallon, Nevada, in the predawn hours of the morning when the world is still and silent, Tony Commendatore rode at a brisk canter through the desert night, with only the moonlight to illuminate the trail before him. A leather mochila bag hung over his saddle, carrying mail from nearly 2,000 miles away. He feared a misstep by his horse in the uneven terrain but knew that he had to keep pace through the darkness to stick to the schedule.
This may sound like a scene out of an old cowboy tale, but Commendatore is a contemporary resident of Truckee. He recently participated in the Pony Express Re-Ride, a historic commemoration of the short-lived, 19th century horseback mail route from Missouri to California. And it was his involvement in the Truckee Donner Horsemen that led him to this experience.
“The goal is to promote horsemanship throughout the Truckee community,” Commendatore said of the local organization. The Truckee Donner Horsemen hosts activities like horse shows, clinics and a juniors team, so people in the community that own or rent horses have a place to gather and ride, as well as interact with other people in the community that share the same interest.
Participants in the Pony Express Re-Ride replicate the famous original journey, carrying mail from St. Louis to Sacramento that along the way is transferred from rider to rider. Commendatore rode two very contrasting legs of the journey. The first was at 3 a.m. through the Nevada desert, in almost complete solitude. The second was about 12 hours later, through the crowded streets of Carson City, with a police escort and the path lined with well-wishers.
Commendatore said he initially didn’t think he would be interested in the ride, and when he found himself in the desolate desert while the rest of the state was sleeping, those doubts rang loud and clear. But once he started riding, ferrying a mail bag he knew had been passed from rider to rider over hundreds of miles, it all clicked for him.
“It’s the coolest thing in the world to be loping through the desert in Nevada, under a full moon, and having the sensation that you’re all alone cruising at night through the desert,” Commendatore said.
Back home, Commendatore is vice president of the Truckee Donner Horsemen, a role that has given him the opportunity to not only be involved with a community he is passionate about, but also help shape the new direction of the historic organization.
The group dates back to 1962, when the Truckee landscape looked much different than it does today. Commendatore, and Truckee Donner Horsemen President Kim Dabol are working to incorporate some new activities for the organization while maintaining its rich heritage and tradition. They organize trail rides on a regular basis for members to explore North Tahoe on horseback, as well as a few clinics during the summer. But something new they are working on are monthly meetups called play dates, where members can bring their horses and participate in friendly, casual competitions, like obstacle courses — called gymkhana — and cowboy polo, which uses brooms and volleyballs in place of the usual mallet and ball. Somewhat like taking a dog to a dog park, there is a socialization aspect to these events as well.
“These are 1,200- to 1,500-pound animals, whose main instinct is fight or flight,” said Dabol. “Even the play dates, part of that would have to be exposing the horses to the equipment you’re using and really watching their reactions and being prepared for that; it’s very involved.”
The Truckee Donner Horsemen have also been hard at work cleaning up and improving the Jim McIvers Memorial Arena, which sits adjacent to Truckee Regional Park. They see this space as a resource for Truckee and want to involve the broader community. Horse owners who are not members of the group are still welcome to use the facility when it is not otherwise booked. And the Truckee Donner Horesemen meetups are open to spectators, so if community kids have an interest in horses they can come watch the action on a summer night.
One thing that has been a constant with the Truckee Donner Horsemen is the Junior Horsemen program. It is open to kids 18 and younger, and incorporates the drill team, which can be seen performing annually at the Truckee Pro Rodeo. Aside from learning how to show horses and compete, Dabol says members of the Junior Horsemen — which has its own board of directors — also learn how to work cooperatively and develop leadership skills that are useful later in life.
Dabol’s daughter Natalie is a true example of the lasting impact the Junior Horsemen can have even after the kids have left the program. The 17-year-old competes in rodeo events like barrel racing and breakaway roping. When she comes thundering down an arena, turning on a dime while controlling a half-ton animal, she admits it can be scary. But, says Natalie, once you build a trusting relationship with a horse, that speed and agility is a completely unique experience.
When Natalie starts at Feather River College in Quincy in the fall, along with the usual school supplies and dorm necessities, she will also be bringing her horse, Dash. She couldn’t imagine giving up something that is such an integral part of her life and will be joining the school’s rodeo team. She aims to ride every day and trains for her rodeo events three to four times per week. This diligence is not just for her, she has to keep Dash in good condition as well — an added responsibility few other athletic endeavors involve. There are plenty of sage lessons that horse riding has taught her, whether it be the ability to drown out an audience and focus on the outcome you want in a competition or the feeling of success that comes with hard-fought training victories.
“It takes a lot of patience,” Natalie said of training horses. “It’s a lot of trial and error, but when you’re struggling with one thing for a long time and then you finally solve it, it’s definitely very rewarding. It’s not anything I’ve felt before other than training horses.”
The Tevis Cup Returns
Endurance events are nothing new to an active community like Truckee/Tahoe, but what about a horse-riding endurance event? Enter the Tevis Cup, where participants attempt to ride 100 miles in a single day — beginning in Truckee and ending in Auburn. Riders start in the early morning at Robie Equestrian Park, in its remote location off the 06 Fire Road, and have to forge the Truckee River — and Highway 89 — before entering Olympic Valley and linking up with the Western States Trail. Hosted by the Western States Trail Foundation, the event takes place Aug. 17.