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Skijoring brings cowboys and skiers to small towns. But the lack of snow is leaving the sport in flux

A man on a horse pulls a person on skis over a snowy jump
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
A cowboy and his horse pull a skier in the Pinedale skijoring competition.

The year was 1949. Some skiers and cowboys were at a bar in Leadville, Colorado. Naturally, the conversation went to ‘who’s fastest?’ So they decided to see about it – but as a team. The cowboys pulled the skiers on their horses down Main Street, and that’s how what we know today as ‘skijoring’ began – at least according to the “legend”.

Over the years, the sport has gained traction, bringing in lots of money and visitors to small Rocky Mountain communities during winter. But, this all depends on snow, and this year’s unseasonably warm weather has made it tricky.

“By the skin of our teeth”

“Alright folks, here we go. Let’s make a little noise, let’s go buddy, let’s go,” the announcer shouted into the microphone at Pinedale’s recent skijoring competition.

Hundreds of people came out to watch. A skier whipped around a turn – one could hear his metal edges cut through the snow – going at least 30 miles per hour, bracing himself for a huge jump. A powerful, brown horse and rider with a cowboy hat barrelled down a flat, snowy track – pulling the skier by a thick rope.

“C’mon that’s how you do it. C’mon folks that’s a good run,” the announcer practically screamed with excitement as people cheered.

ski jore vid 3.mp4

The skijoring is the main event of Pinedale’s annual Winter Carnival. The horse and skier event takes place at the local rodeo grounds. This year the snow was sparse, one could see dirt and sagebrush lining the skijoring course.

“This year, come middle of January, was getting a little stressful,” said Monte Bolgiano, chair of Main Street Pinedale, which is the main organizer of Winter Carnival. “We were starting to sweat it, wondering if we were going to be able to pull it off.”

A man in a ball cap, flannel shirt, and puffy vest smiles at the camera
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Monte Bolgiano is one of the main organizers of Pinedale’s Winter Carnival, which brings in a much needed boost to the economy during the winter months.

Bolgiano said they pulled the skijoring off by the skin of their teeth, community support and a trusty snow plow.

“They scraped every square inch of the rodeo grounds with all three inches that were on the ground, and were able to make enough to have a course built over there,” he said.

And making this event happen is huge for the economy. Bolgiano grew up here, watching industries, like energy, wax and wane.

“In a small community like Pinedale, outside of the little bit of industry that we have, we are reliant on tourism,” he said.

But, during the winter it’s desolate. Compared to summer, a lot fewer people visit, so Bolgiano said an event like Winter Carnival, “gets hotels filled up and restaurants filled up and just makes it a fun, exciting weekend.”

A man on a horse pulls a skier over a snowy jump
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
John Hyde rides his horse who’s pulling a skier that’s going off a jump.

That translates to real numbers for local businesses. This year, they saw as high as an 80 percent increase in traffic during the event, according to Main Street Pinedale. So without pulling off the bread and butter of Winter Carnival – the skijoring – the economy likely wouldn’t have seen such a huge boost.

The conundrum of holding snow dependent events on a low snow year has rippled across the state this year. Saratoga had to bring in 171 dump truck loads of snow from outside of town to build their skijoring track. They found the snow in bar ditches and wind drifts.

“This year we were not blessed with any snow at the track – I mean zero snow,” said Will Faust, who’s on the Saratoga Skijoring Organizational Committee.

Even though it was a lot of time and money to bring all that snow in, Faust said a lot of people volunteered to pull it off, because it’s worth it for their community’s economy.

“It is nice to kind of get that shot in the arm when you can fill up all the restaurants and hotels for three, four days during an event,” Faust said. “Get some positive cash flow for some of the local businesses that are just trying to keep their doors open during the wintertime.”

The view from behind as a person on a horse pulls a skier over a snowy jump.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Skier Sean Boylan launches off a jump behind a horse and cowgirl at Pinedale’s skijoring.

No choice but to cancel

Other communities weren’t so lucky. Both Gillette and Sheridan had to cancel their skijoring events.

“By the time it came to make the call on skijoring and some of our other events, it was pretty simple,” said Shawn Parker, who’s the executive director of Sheridan County Travel and Tourism. “There was no snow, and it was 55, 60 degrees a week before the event.”

There wasn’t even snow to grab from the mountains.

Parker said Sheridan is known for having the largest skijoring event in the nation. So having to cancel is pretty hard on local businesses, which depend on the huge turnout. For example, in the first year they held skijoring in 2019, the town saw more people in one day than it did all month in February.

“It's a big deal. I mean, we go from nothing to something and any positive economic stimulus helps,” he said.

A woman rides a horse
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
A rider heads to the start of the Pinedale skijoring course.

Parker said millions are spent in the community during the event. He added that the skijoring is just one part of the Sheridan WYO Winter Rodeo, which is strategic.

“One of the things that we always try and hedge against, since we started this, was making sure that there are enough events to keep people engaged outside of skijoring,” Parker said. “So that when we're marketing the winter rodeo, we're not having to cancel everything at the last minute if skijoring doesn’t go.”

This year, they still held concerts and a hockey tournament, but it wasn’t the same.

“We need skijoring to see the really big positive impacts,” Parker said, adding that if there are more winters like this, they’d consider moving the skijoring to the mountains where there’s more snow.

A little mud never hurt 

Back at the Pinedale skijoring parking lot – horses tied at trailers whinny as they wait for their riders.

A man gets skijoring equipment out of the bed of a truck.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Skier Sean Boylan gets his skijoring supplies ready for the afternoon’s race.

Local skier Sean Boylan stood at his pickup in snow pants and cowboy boots, holding skis, “and a Modelo. It helps with the nerves because you do get nervous.”

But Boylan won this race last year. And this year, he was worried whether the race would even happen.

“You don't want to ski across a mud puddle,” Boyland said. “But at the end of the day, it's kind of just a rowdy time. So if you're skiing through mud, like, ‘Oh, well, it's all good fun.’”

So, he got his racing stuff ready to compete.

“Rubber gardening gloves to grip the 30-foot rope with a carabiner on it. That goes onto the rigging on your saddle,” Boylan showed. “And then it's just a set of GS skis.”

Boylan is skiing behind horse rider John Hyde. Hyde sported a handlebar mustache and perfectly circled sunglasses. He lives and breathes skijoring.

“You get old, you retire from rodeos. It’s just something to do in the winter besides snowmobile,” Hyde said, as he stood in front of several of his horses and a giant living quarters horse trailer. “You have horses, might as well use them. This now is our home on the road.”

He travels most weekends in the winter, spending thousands of dollars in Rocky Mountain communities between gas, food and entry fees. But it’s worth it for him. Hyde likes to win, which one can see from the shiny first place skijoring belt buckle hanging from his hips. Plus, there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to be won.

A man rides a horse.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
John Hyde rides his horse Perry to the start of the skijoring course.

He plopped his leather saddle on his big, bay horse named Perry, and cinched the saddle tight. Before Hyde and Perry headed to the course – Hyde’s hot tip for winning?

“I don't know. I guess just go like hell,” he said with almost a growl in his voice.

In fact, Hyde is planning the first skijoring at his ranch about 15 miles south of Pinedale, hoping to continue to bring money and people to the area. But, it’s all dependent on snow.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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