All you need is a horse and a pair of skis to enjoy skijoring, a 100-year old sport.
Skiing and horseback riding. They’re like pickles and peanut butter; don’t knock it until you try it. I was raised on peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, so I never had a choice about that. But last winter in Russia, Montana cowboy Kraig Sweeney told me to hop in a calf sled for a ride.
“Let’s go skijoring,” he said.
Let’s go ski-whatty?
Kraig had the sled’s rope dallied off at the saddlehorn. I sat down in it, he spurred his horse into a lope and we sailed across the snow-packed ground. The horse’s hooves kicked-up snow clods that hit me in the face, blurring my vision. I didn’t care; the ride was exhilarating.
Then it dawned on me: how would we stop? If Kraig hit the breaks I’d slide into the backside of his horse, Three Stooges-style. I bailed out of the sled, instead, impacting the ground in a tremendous puff of snow. It was the most enjoyable 20 seconds I’d spent in Russia.
The definition of skijoring is when a skier (not a sledder, I cheated) is towed by a beast of propulsion – a dog, horse or in the case of the Finnish, a reindeer. In Norwegian the term means “ski harnessing” and it dates back to the 19th century when the Norwegian military used it to train soldiers. What kind of war were they expecting?
Skijoring caught on throughout Scandinavia and the first bonafide race was held at the 1901 Nordic Games. It made the big leagues in 1928 when skijoring was a demonstration sport at the Winter Olympic Games, in Switzerland. It hasn’t been included since, but skijorer lobbyists are petitioning to see dog-skijoring included at the 2013 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Let’s see, ski behind a lone Siberian Husky traveling at 10 m.p.h. or a racing quarter horse that tops out at 40 m.p.h.? I’ll take the quarter horse, even with the snow clods to the face. That’s the consensus among horsemen in the Rocky Mountains. The North American Ski Joring Association was formed in 1999, and held its first sanctioned race in 2000 in Frisco, Colo. Annual skijoring races have since popped up in other parts of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
European and American skijoring differ significantly. At the White Turf race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Europe’s primetime event, skijorers race around an oval track on a frozen lake, pulled by thoroughbreds without jockeys. The racehorses wear driving harnesses with lines connected to a handle bar that looks like what a trapeze artist swings from. They race in heats, and it’s common for skiers to collide and fall, leaving the racehorses to stampede around the track with the trapeze swings bouncing behind them. That’s my definition of bedlam.
In America, skijorers are nominally more rational. The horses are jockeyed, the skiers hold onto a Tarzan-style ropes fastened to Western saddles with carbineers, and they race one at a time. The race tracks are straight quarter-mile lengths, reminiscent of the colonial horseraces in Williamsburg and Roanoke, Virginia, that gave rise to the racing quarter horse breed. Only, in skijoring the streets are covered in snow, and the course features slalom gates and ski jumps for the riders to navigate.
Really, no skijorer is of sound mind. Skiers can hit 60 m.p.h. slaloming behind a sprinting quarter horse. One misstep or lost ski edge, and they could go down hard. You’d think that’d cause skiers to practice, but one skier in Telluride, Colo. asked about how he prepared, said: “I had a bloody mary.”
The best thing about skijoring is that it gets you horseback in the height of the winter. If you take a turn on skis or in a sled, hold on to the rope tight, don’t catch and edge, and beware the flying clods of snow.