Horseback riders and skiers join forces to chase away the winter doldrums in the West’s mountain towns.
When the snow, ice, wind and cold temperatures cut deep, some people head inside. For the hardy, adrenaline-pumping cowboys who compete in skijoring, however, winter is welcomed as they get their horses legged up and ready to ride.
Skijoring, which means “ski driving” in Norwegian, is a competition in which a horseback rider pulls a skier along a snow-packed course that includes whipping around slalom gates, flying over jumps and spearing a group of dangling magnetic rings in one fast swoop. In some places, dogs, reindeer or snowmobiles are used instead of horses.
The sport’s origins are more functional than today’s sport, and date back thousands of years to the first records of animals pulling people on skis or wooden sleds in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia for transportation. It was also a form of transportation and training for the Scandinavian military in the 19th century.
Competitive skijoring slid into the lineup at the Nordic Games three times in the first decade of the 20th century, and it was a demonstrated sport at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The oldest consecutively held equestrian skijoring competition began in 1949 on the streets of Leadville, Colorado. Today, equestrian skijoring competitions are held in five Western states: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming. Organizations such as the North American Ski Joring Association, Skijoring America and Skijor International promote the sport and schedule circuits of sanctioned events with year-end awards for high-point winners.
“It’s a competition amongst a lot of highly competitive people,” says Je Dahl of Durango, Colorado, a co-founder of the NASJA. “It’s a lot of work to get a horse ready. We pack and hunt on our horses, and [in November] we start getting them legged up [ for skijoring] by riding patterns and figure-eights, and long-trotting them to get their lungs strong.”
Held in the isolated elevations of small mountain towns where snow and frigid temperatures are prevalent, skijoring draws a mix of ranchers, cowboys, outfitters, speed-event competitors, trail riders and outdoor recreationalists and their families, who are all attracted to the snow, landscape, horses and Western lifestyle. It gives a seasonal economic boost to these small towns whose survival depends on tourism and outdoor recreation.
Dahl has raced for more than 22 years. This season he plans to haul his four horses to five races. He often competes with his two sons as skiers. His daughter has also competed.
“When we started my sons were 11 and 13 and needed to take their ski racing to the next level, we decided to try skijoring because the events were held locally,” Dahl says. “We started in Leadville and it’s become a nice way for our family and friends to get together. We get more excited about it each year.”
He says riding in brush, packing and ranch work help prepare horses for pulling a skier behind them who is holding onto a rope no longer than 33 feet in length fastened to the saddle horn or the rear D-rings of a saddle with a carabineer like a water skier. It also helps develop their minds.
“These horses have to have a mindset to race, but then come back down through crowds of people and not be crazy,” explains Dahl. “They have to go from wide open to calm pretty quick. We spend a lot of time getting our horses broke, and year after year they learn the routine.”
Besides training and conditioning, Dahl and his fellow competitors take precautions before each race to help ensure the safety of horses, riders and skiers. Some have their horses shod with borium “cleats” welded on the shoes for traction, while others prefer rim shoes or to keep their horses barefoot. Most also apply protective leg boots and allow their horses to check out the course before competition. Horses cannot be run more than twice in a day.
“You need to do as much to take care of you and your horses ahead of the game,” he says. “The more prepared you are, the better your results and the less chance of you and your horse getting hurt.
“As a rule, I ride my horse down the course before we run it, because like any athlete he needs to see where he’s running so he can have confidence the ground is solid and nothing is going to jump out and bite him. I like to feel the depth of the snow, see the flags flying, and where the crowd will be standing.”
Volunteer crews prepare the course, which is usually 800 to 1,000 feet down a main street of town. Loads of snow are hauled in and dumped on the streets, and then packed and shaped with a snowcat, smoothed to consistency with a blade, and left to freeze overnight.
Race time is often around noon. Two-person teams take turns racing on the course in the open and sport divisions. The sport division allows horses and riders new to the event to give it a try with smaller jumps. After winning a few times they advance to the open. Horse, rider and skier must all be in sync to smoothly and quickly negotiate the course and remain mounted and standing with rope at the finish line. The speed, skill and daring nature of the sport draws a crowd at every race to stand in snow banks along the sidelines, on sidewalks or on balconies, cheering on their favorite teams.
“People enjoy coming to watch because it’s exciting,” says Dahl. “There’s something about skiers flying off 8-foot jumps at 40 miles per hour, and the crashes, that makes it dynamic and exciting.”
This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of Western Horseman.