Skijoring - Not Your Average Winter Sport

Mar 1, 2019

What do you get when you put together a horse, a pair of skis, and two daredevils? It's an old sport that's being revived across our region.

It's not unusual to see horses on the prairie outside of Saratoga in southeastern Wyoming. But the ones I was looking at were not so usual. They were wearing a saddle-normal-with a rider on it-normal. But attached to the saddle was a long rope, and attached to that was someone on a pair of regular downhill skis. The horses were galloping parallel to an obstacle course with the skier getting dragged through it. Not all of the skiers made it to the end of the course, but the ones did that did ended up at a five-foot-tall jump that sent them flying through the air.

The course for the 2019 Saratoga Skijoring Races.
Credit Eric Krszjzanie

This is skijoring. It got started in Norway in the mid-1800s. It came from a Norwegian word that means ski-driving and it's based on Native American dog sledding traditions. Today, skijoring races take place in Europe and across the U.S. Saratoga hosts a race every year.

It was day two of the weekend tournament and contestants gathered at the finish line for a quick morning meeting. Will Faust has helped organize the event since races started here three years ago. He said this year the course is especially technical.

"So there were some really good wipeouts and crashes. I had one of them and I'm really hurting," he said, grimacing.

But that wouldn't keep him from getting back on his skis today.

Volunteer Joey Saverine said the first year, conditions were so warm and dry they had to bring in their own snow on both days of the tournament.

"We had to rebuild the track from scratch Sunday morning," he said. "We were all out here at about 5 o'clock in the morning."

But this year he said they got lucky since it's been snowy here.

"With the really cold snap that happened last week, the snow actually stayed," he explained.

As far as how the sport exactly works, each team has two people--one riding a horse and one on a pair of skis. It's a straight shot, but there are obstacles along the way. And several poles along the course with several large rings attached to them. The skier is supposed to hook one ring from each pole with the arm not being used to hold onto the rope.

There are gates, too. And like a traditional downhill ski race, you get seconds added to your time if you're on the wrong side of the gate. Same is true if you miss a ring, or drop it before the finish line. And it ends, of course, with a big jump that skiers must land.

The objective is simple: get to the end of the track as fast as you can. Competitor Gwen Parker said it's that easy and it's that hard.

"I grew up skiing but downhill, not dragging behind a horse at 30 miles per hour, if I'm lucky," she said.

Parker also grew up riding horses. So she does both parts of the sport.

The announcers wearing their finest furs at the 2019 Saratoga Skijoring Races.
Credit Eric Krszjzaniek

When you're on top of the horse, Parker said you want to stay as close to the track as you can, and keep your horse going at a consistent speed.

"So that when they're going off a jump, you don't pick up into another gear, and just jerk them out of the air with nothing beneath them," she explained.

When you're skiing, she said the strategy is pretty much just to hold on tight. When it was nearly her turn to go, she said, "I get a little nervous. But then as soon as that horse gets going, and you're holding onto the rope, you're like 'oh ok, I might be alright.' Until they pick up that third gear and then you're like, 'ok, I changed my mind.'"

Parker made it through the track without wiping out or letting go of the rope. It wasn't a good enough time to win a cash prize, but she was ok with that. That's not what keeps Parker coming back each year.

"[It's] the fact that you get to hang out with all of these different kinds of people, and you feel really good when you make it to the end of the track alive, and with a good time," she said.

That weekend there were some wipeouts and a few injuries, like a broken wrist, but everyone did make it out alive.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.