Leave it to humans to come up with creative and challenging ways to maneuver across the snowy and icy terrain of winter. It could be as simple as strapping on a pair of snowshoes to go out and get the mail, or attempting the likes of alpine skiing, snowboarding, skating or skibobbing, a daredevil downhill sport where one hops on a bicycle-type frame mounted on skis. Other brave souls wax up shovels and take to the slopes, clocking in at 70 mph on a typical run. Talk about an adrenalin rush!
Not satisfied with swooshing through the snow alone, man (and many a woman) has partnered up with other means to get from point A to B with the sport of skijoring (‘skē-jȯr-in), where a person on skis is pulled by either a horse, team of dogs or a motorized vehicle such as a snowmobile, motorcycle or even a car. The term is derived from the Norwegian word skikjøing, meaning ski driving or to drive forward.
It began with humble beginnings long ago in Scandinavia while plodding through the snow during the long and harsh winter months, using rough-hewn wooden planks pulled by reindeer. What probably happened was one fellow decided he could go faster than his neighbor, and the race was on. Nowadays, people still ski behind reindeer for recreational fun and competition in Norway, Finland and other northern countries.
Equestrian skijoring is primarily a sport that involves fast and nimble steeds like the American Quarter Horse, but other breeds also excel at the sport, from miniature horses to drafts and mules. In Europe, there are typically no riders on the horses which take off in a mad dash all at once, with the skiers reining the animals from only a few feet behind their hooves; here in North America, it’s a team of two against the clock–one on horseback and the skier following suit, holding onto a rope. Obviously, skijoring with miniatures involves just the skier.
There are two different tracks in competition, ranging in length from 600 to 1,200 feet. The straight course allows the horse to run at top speed down the middle, with the skier navigating slalom gates and jumps ranging from three to nine feet high, set on either side of the track. To spice things up at some events, the skier is also required to grab one or more rings attached to supports with magnets at various stations along the way. The horseshoe-shaped course allows the horse to run on the inside of the track while the skier navigates slalom racing gates and jumps ranging from four to six feet high. The sport brings together the cowboys/cowgirls and the extreme skier. Two entirely different skills, combined with the agility and speed of a galloping horse, certainly makes for great fun on a cold winter’s day!
One would think this sport would qualify at the Winter Olympic Games, but it has only been allowed once merely as a demonstration in February 1928, in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where a group of enthusiastic skiers went head-to-head with one another around the track. Organizers of the sport today are diligently working on the logistics of getting a foot in the door with the Olympic committee.
The sport has certainly caught on here in North America with organized races, events and clinics dotting the map out west in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and back east in New Hampshire and parts of Canada in Ontario and Quebec.
“Skijoring is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Scott Ping, President of the North American Skijoring Association and owner of Scott Ping Construction/Montana Custom Homes in Whitefish, Montana. “I’ve been answering calls and e-mails from all over the United States, Canada and South America; people are excited about bringing the sport to their communities. I even had one fellow from Nebraska call me about the idea of creating an indoor venue with man-made snow at their civic center in town. It’s still on the drawing board, but just might be a reality in the near future.”
Scott has plenty of experience behind the scenes with The World Skijoring Championships that coincides with his town’s popular Whitefish Winter Carnival held every January since 1960. He and others in the community are quick to explain that 50 years ago the horse race was pretty wild with reckless abandon–so much so that in the mid 1970s, skijoring was dropped from the program. It wasn’t until 2003 that things changed when Scott spearheaded a successful campaign to bring the event back to Whitefish.
“People loved the sport” he explains, “but we knew there had to be guidelines so all competitions were in accordance with the rules, and safety was a priority for both people and animals. In April 1999, directors from almost every major skijoring organization in the country rendezvoused in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where we began the process that would change and improve the sport with the creation of the North American Ski Joring (spelled separately) Association (NASJA). For the first time in history, equestrian skijoring became a sanctioned sport. NASJA was conceived because of a basic need to consolidate existing skijoring races into a circuit where competitors can earn points that go toward a National Champion Award. By developing criteria that all NASJA-sanctioned events use as guidelines, each competitor will have an equal opportunity at becoming the official North American Champion. In a nutshell, it meant at the time of our first meeting and continues today, that we stand for the integrity, safety and growth of the sport.”
Safety for the horses, riders and skiers is top priority. There’s always a veterinarian and emergency medical team on hand for every race–just in case there’s a mishap, but NASJA stays on top of things to make sure every race is safe, such as preparing the course and making sure everyone uses proper equipment. If icy conditions prevail, races will be canceled.
All skiers must wear approved snow sports helmets or Motocross helmets; horse riders are encouraged to also wear helmets. The rope must be 30 feet minimum and 50 feet maximum with a ¾ inch diameter minimum. Knots are allowed, but handles on ropes are not. Cotton ropes are recommended for horse safety. Attachment to the saddle is either off the saddle horn or within four inches off the cantle with a quick-release system attached to the D-rings with a carabiner and harness.
If a skier falls, they simply let go of the rope (like in water skiing) and the rider brings the horse to a stop. Horses are only allowed to race two times a day. Studded horseshoes are highly recommended, and bell or splint boots are required if the horses are sharp-shod. Breast collars are recommended. The race is timed with the clock starting when the skier, rather than the horse and rider, passes the starting line. (For more specifics on racing and regulations, link onto the NASJA web site and other contacts listed above.)
Skijoring is also about friendship and family, a shared camaraderie among people from all walks of life who enjoy getting together before and after a race. In Whitefish every year it’s especially fun at Scott’s ranch where he invites folks to free clinics every weekend from the end of December through January leading up to the race, which will take place on January 24 and 25 in 2015 at the Whitefish airstrip in town. “There’s really no place to practice,” he explains, “so we built a course out here at the ranch. It’s a great opportunity to learn the ropes and get some riding and skiing practice under your belt. Saturday nights we have a big barbeque dinner with homemade chili, smoked brisket and all the trimmings, and thanks to our main event sponsor in town, Casey’s Pub & Grill, we have plenty of cold beer and soft drinks on hand. There’s a big fire pit to keep warm, and this year I’m building a large pavilion for more protection from the weather. Folks come from all over, some bringing their campers and motorhomes with plenty of space for the horses to graze. It’s a big part of what makes this sport so much fun.”
Another key player with Whitefish skijoring is Dale Duff, owner of Rocky Mountain Transportation, the local Hertz rental car operator and motorcoach company. “I’m known as the ‘mule guy’ in the circuit,” he admits, “and I can tell you my three guys–Burt, Ernie and Psycho Sadie–love to race. We do pretty well at winning, too. I first learned about mules long ago when working for the U.S. Forest Service and my respect for these intelligent animals continues to grow. My trio is quick as lightening, especially when competing at every skijoring event I can get to, and they’re also amazing animals when interacting and relating to people.”
“There’s nothing I like better than sharing a moment with my mules with the public, particularly watching the delight on a child’s face when first encountering such an animal. Many people believe the old wives’ tale that mules are stubborn and difficult, but I like to explain just how smart and agile they are. I also do this by volunteering with my mules on pack trips with non-profit organizations such as The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, here in Montana, connecting Americans with their wilderness heritage through education and challenging conservation projects, and The Woods Project, out of Houston, Texas. Their goal is providing wilderness education and exploration experiences for disadvantaged students, helping each one reach their potential in school and life. What better way to accomplish this than heading out into the woods with a team of pack mules, cooking dinner over a camp fire, and sleeping under the stars? It’s great for the soul, whether you’re ten or 70.”
Giving back to others is something Dale and others involved with skijoring believe in wholeheartedly. They’re able to donate a good portion of each event’s entry fees to local charities doing good work in the community such as some recent recipients: WINGS Regional Cancer Support (helping defray out-of-pocket expenses associated with cancer treatment); and Human Therapy on Horseback, Inc. (dedicated to providing financial assistance to physically, mentally and emotionally challenged individuals through therapeutic horseback riding). How great to be able to follow your passion and help one’s community at the same time.
Skijoring with mules is gaining new interest across the country, especially with the Black Star Mules Class where all skiers are required to be pulled by a mule. Dale enjoys talking with folks, young and old, about the fun and thrill of racing with mules and gets a kick out of showing off his trophies, especially being the oldest guy in the circuit at age 66. Together with skiing partner, Ron Behrendt, 55, the duo is a good match for any 25-year-old cowboy lining up for a race. “It’s good exercise and great fun,” he laughs. “Besides, it’s a hoot having a framed photo on the office wall at work crossing the finish line with Ernie, the mule. The caption says it all … ‘Half-Assed’!”
For 40 years in the dead of winter, folks in Sandpoint, Idaho, have been cooking up a surefire way to prevent cabin fever with a family-friendly extravaganza at the Sandpoint Winter Carnival; the dates for 2015 are February 13 through 22. It’s ten days chock-full of fun activities indoors and out, including a parade, fireworks, laser light show, trail rides, music and dancing, horse-drawn sleigh rides powered by three teams of draft horses from Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, a chili cook-off, craft show, food and knife demonstrations and a snow school where youngsters can explore and discover winter ecology, snow science and outdoor survival skills. There’s also the popular K-9 Keg Pull where dogs of all sizes and shapes run a short course pulling an empty keg or in the case of the smaller pooch, a tin can.
One of the highlights of the festival is the big Sandpoint Skijoring Race which is slated for February 14 and 15 in 2015. “In 2014 we had 23 teams competing and 2,500 spectators cheering them on,” says event director, Matt Smart, owner and licensed outfitter at Mountain Horse Adventures. “We’re sanctioned by NASJA and draw some of the best riders and skiers in the circuit every year. One of the crowd favorites is Jody Kirby and her Shire/Percheron-cross, Babe. It takes guts and tenacity to get in line with the fast-footed lighter horse breeds, knowing full well you’ll be coming in last, but that doesn’t bother Babe at all. It’s obvious she’s in it for the pure joy of having a good time and drinking in the sound of enthusiastic cheers and whistles from her fans. And besides, she’s fairly fast in her own right, clocking in at 22 seconds. Draft horses can definitely give you a run for the money!”
“That’s for sure,” says Jody. “Babe is always ready for any activity, whether we’re trail riding in the back country, skijoring, jumping, barrel racing or competing in other equestrian events. She’s a show-stopper with such energy and charisma, and people tell me they love her looks–the old style draft horse, short and stocky. There’s something special about Babe, inside and out. She’s an amazing animal and my best friend.”
Because of Babe, Matt and the other skijoring organizers are hoping to add a division just for draft horses and mules. “This will give her more opportunities to shine and it will be an incentive for others to enter their animals. I’ll be curious to see if Galactic, my Percheron mule, might be interested in competing. He’s one of the best when it comes to trail riding–steadfast and strong, especially carrying heavier people with ease, but he’s also very nimble. Time will tell, but for now, we’re all rooting for Babe!”
For driving clinician Nate Bowers, skijoring is something he does for fun and relaxation with his Percheron/American Paint cross, Peaches. “One winter afternoon in-between teaching clinics, I ran across a pair of my old downhill skis in the barn. I used to enjoy the sport and thought it might be fun to take a break to see if I still had the hang of things. Since there wasn’t time to get to the slopes, I remembered reading about the Scandinavian style of skiing behind a horse, figuring the field out back would be a good place to practice with Peaches.”
Like a duck to water, the duo did remarkably well, frolicking in the snow, enjoying the fresh air and getting in some good exercise before greeting the next student at class. It’s become a favorite pastime that Nate recommends others to try. It’s a great way to build trust with a horse and have fun at the same time.
Nate grew up with horses and cattle on his family’s Colorado farm. His dad, Steve Bowers, made a name for himself as a horse trainer (especially driving horses) and a trustworthy businessman. Steve taught Nate about being natural with horses and good with people. Nate was paid to start his first colt at the age of eight and by the time he turned 14, he was a partner with his dad, traveling the states teaching people and horses about driving naturally.
Nate now runs the family business with his wife, Amy, from their home in Fort Collins, where he created Bowers Natural Driving, a revolutionary program that uses natural horsemanship techniques, providing a natural foundation for horses before teaching the skills of driving. He currently teaches people how to drive at Bowers Farm and also travels internationally, giving clinics about natural horsemanship and driving. He recently partnered with Pat Parelli to produce the first of a series of DVDs on teaching a horse the foundation of driving.
For fun, there’s a short three-minute clip on YouTube of Nate and Peaches skijoring across the fields at the farm. The snappy fiddle music and ease Nate has in maneuvering those skis through the snow are a great incentive to give the sport a try.
As the snow flies, someone somewhere will be grabbing a rope and setting out on skis behind a galloping horse, whether it’s an afternoon jaunt out by the barn, or gearing up for a circuit race against the clock. Skijoring is here to stay! “Ha det gø!” ... that’s Norwegian for “have fun!”