Horses, skis, jumps and speed—skijoring is an unmatched thrill ride.
What do you get when you combine cowboy grit with alpine adrenaline? Saddles, skis, jumps and slaloms? The crunch of snow under thundering hooves? What seems like chaos blends perfectly into winter’s wildest sport: skijoring.
It’s the kind of thrill that’s tailor made for the social world, and the sport has exploded in global attention in recent years, garnering features on talk shows, top news channels and million-view viral videos. Amidst the powdered snow and throngs of crowds, vibrant, versatile and anything-but-ordinary Paints are standing out and making their mark.
Speed & Action
Skijoring (pronounced skee-johr-ing) works like a sub-zero version of waterskiing—as the horse gallops along a pre-determined path, the ski-clad passenger hangs tight to a rope while navigating a tricky course of jumps, gates and rings. The fastest time wins, but accuracy—avoiding penalties for missed obstacles—is key.
“You need all three parts: a fast horse, a good rider and a strong skier. Without all three, you’re not going to win anything,” skijoring aficionado Richard Weber said. “Some races are now down to the hundredths of a second between the top placings.”
Richard has two of the three key elements on his own. The Ridgeway, Colorado, cowboy started racing locally nine years ago but his interest has gained momentum since 2016 when he began traveling the skijoring circuit; in addition to serving as a board member on the sport’s sanctioning body, Skijoring America, Richard now maintains a string of five to six horses that he rotates through the January–March season. Royal Country Grip, his 2011 red roan overo gelding fondly nicknamed “Frank and Beans”—“Frank” for short—earned more than $52,000 and a handful of championships on the Paint Horse racing circuit before transitioning to life in Montana as a skijoring mount, ranch hand and hunting partner.
Horsemanship is important, both when it comes to preparing the equine athletes for the exertion, as well as navigating the track for optimum running. Knowing what each horse can handle is also critical when analyzing each new course. While some riders opt for increased-grip shoes or other traction-improving techniques, no two tracks are the same and the footing—which freezes or melts with the day’s temperatures—is ever changing.
“Sometimes the footing is hard-packed, and sometimes it’s 6 inches of softer snow, so runs really come down to how you ride your horse and knowing when to push it or slow up,” Richard explained. “One of Skijoring America’s major roles is to ensure that tracks are safe for our equine athletes, so that they have the best footing possible each run out.”
Ski caps and cowboy hats might seem like an unlikely combination, but both skiers and riders are drawn to the sport for the same reason: the unmatched thrill.
“Sitting in the starting gate is such a rush—skiers don’t have a ton of control at this point, so you just have to be ready to go—and then the horse takes off and the tunnel vision kicks in. Then, all you can see are your gates and jumps; there’s so much cheering, but I can never hear the crowd,” Jack Connors of Helena, Montana, said.
Jack, a skier, got hooked on the sport in college. When he married Rebecca, a horsewoman, the couple jumped headfirst into skijoring culture; Rebecca’s feisty tobiano mare, Miss Angel Kisses, is Jack’s go-to partner, and they also offer “Freckles” to other skiers in need of a ride.
Since each horse can pull up to two riders per event—thus forming different teams—competition is both fierce and friendly. Much like the rodeo and horse-show worlds, skijoring regulars form a family of sorts as they meet up throughout the season.
“If these two cultures were in a bar and didn’t know each other, they’d probably give one another the stink eye,” Rebecca laughed. “But skijoring brings them together and they can start to understand their differences, work as a team and have a lot of fun. Because whether you love skiing or horses, we all love adrenaline.”
For many skiers, the sport is also their first in-depth interaction with horses and the people who love them, Jack says.
“Most of my prior experiences were trail rides on very mellow horses,” Jack said. “Skijoring gave me a whole new appreciation for how powerful horses are and how tough it can be to be a good rider.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2018 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.