Words by Ashley Babcock | Photos by David Stubbs
Skijoring, derived and translated from Norweigian to “ski driving”, is a means of travel in which a skier is towed by either an animal or mechanized vehicle. Imagine living in Scandinavia or China hundreds of years ago--as early as the 13th century--and needing to get around in the midst of the snowy winter. The Sami People in Scandinavia strapped wooden boards to their feet and, towed by reindeer, transported themselves over vast distances; people in China used teams of dogs to do the same. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century, the activity became competitive, and skijoring was included in the Nordic games. Later, it was featured in the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland with horses as a demonstration sport, and shortly thereafter, folks in Jackson, WY were practicing their own interpretation of the sport (pictured below).
(Photo taken outside the Wort Hotel on Broadway in Jackson, Wyoming, circa 1930. Courtesy of Skijor International, LLC.)
Today, the sport has become a highly competitive activity with local flavors reflecting their regional culture. In Norway, Finland and Russia, reindeer-powered skijoring races are still held each year. In Switzerland, Kentucky Derby-style, long-distance track races feature skiers towed by riderless thoroughbred racehorses. In Alaska, snowmobiles tow downhill ski racers at speeds over 90 miles per hour at the Arctic Man competition. In the Western United States, cowboys and cowgirls tow skiers on horseback as they navigate obstacle courses.
(Photo taken near Aspen, CO and is courtesy of Skijor International, LLC.)
From Colorado to Montana, including Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, the sport has evolved from the mass start where all competitors leave the start line together and race each other into a timed sport where teams qualify themselves into tiered divisions based on results, similar to barrel racing at the summertime rodeo. Each track is unique to the hosting location, and local organizers can build it however they want to, choosing jump size, where to place gates for the skiers, and whether the horse runs a curve or straight track. The sport in this region reflects the best parts of cowboy and ski culture.
For one, it features a horse and rider who operate as one entity to navigate the track. Skijoring courses require the horse and rider team to run as fast a possible down a straightaway or curved track, pulling their skier. The skier’s contribution includes holding on to a rope attached to the horse’s saddle and managing the rope by holding on tightly then pulling oneself up and down the length of the rope, all the while skiing around gates, launching off jumps, and collecting rings that are hanging on the side of the course.
Second, not only does skijoring feature the grace and grit of rodeo riding and the agility and speed of ski racing, but it also requires a tight-knit, family community to make it happen. The number one value identified by the governing body is “strong community bonds.” As such, there are divisions for all ages to compete, local vendors sell tasty treats, and volunteers run the event. It takes a village to ensure everyone’s safety. The horses can sense the excitement of the race and often get worked up before starting, and folks work together to get the horses to the start line. The horses are the third member of a team, and finding a way to simultaneously get amped up and ready to race requires a deep empathy for the animal.
Living a dream come true, I started skijoring two winters ago, when one of my co-workers on Jackson Hole Ski Patrol, who is also a farrier, connected me with a couple of cowgirls whose horses she shoes in Alpine, Wyoming. It was my third winter in Jackson, and I had come here from the San Juan mountains in Colorado to immerse myself in the culture and outdoors of the Cowboy State. Skijoring had slowly made it onto my radar after I serendipitously happened to catch two events in the sport’s origin locations--Steamboat, Colorado (2008) and Leadville, Colorado (2012)--and then again while rafting the Grand Canyon in 2015 with a fellow competitive big mountain freeskier who also skijors competitively out of Whitefish, Montana. After seeing the sport in person and hearing my friend’s stories, I knew I needed to try it someday. I had grown up in Colorado as a “horse girl”, doodling horses all over my school notebooks, attending horse camp in the summers as a kid, helping shovel poop at any barn I could find, and riding with anyone who would let me join them. I even wrangled for a summer in Telluride, Colorado. With a background as a collegiate NCAA ski racer, skijoring had my name all over it.
Since showing up to my first skijoring event in Jackson in 2019, I have developed a deep bond with my cowgirl, Gracie, and her horse, Retro. Both Gracie and Retro love the sport as much as I do, and Retro gets an excited gleam in his eye and a bounce in his step when we hook the rope up to his saddle. The three of us practice using their long driveway in Star Valley and have competed together two years in a row. This past year at the Pinedale event, I also teamed up with another Star Valley pair, Candice and Doc, and now I am fortunate to be part of two competitive teams, with rockin’ cowgirls and fast horses. There’s something about the adrenaline and the camaraderie that keeps us coming back for more.
As the skier, when I skate into the start gate, sans ski poles and adrenaline building, I’ve got to be ready because the horse is the one who decides when it’s time to go. Once the rope is clipped to the saddle, the Starter hands me the coil. There’s no right way to hold the rope, but I never wrap it around my hand or my arm because the jolt of the start might rip my limb clean off. If I just hold on tightly, I risk it slipping through my hands, so at my last race, I wrapped a hip belay around my waist to make sure I take off as soon as the horse does. The problem with this method is that the repeated shock of multiple runs caused my back to be extremely sore after the event, but at least I didn’t lose the rope. I imagine this is what it’s like to feel like a real rodeo cowgirl.
Once my horse leaves the starting corral at a gallop, I am yanked to full speed in a nanosecond--zero to sixty, like I live most of my life. Before the race, I had walked the course and visualized my line, so I do my best to smoothly and quickly roll my edges so that I don’t resist the speed of the horse as I am pulled down the track. As I cross in and out of the wake of hoof debris flying at my face, I use my arm strength to pull my way up the rope, finding the balance between being as close as I can to the horse without getting kicked and having enough rope length to ski around the gates. I anticipate the coming jumps, which, when I’m having a fast run, sometimes launch me so far that I land on the flats beyond the transition that the Jackson and Pinedale course builders were thoughtful enough to add. All the while, I am doing my best to spear my arm through the shoulder-high rings hanging at the apex of the most difficult turns.
As we approach the finish line, I do whatever I can--fiercely pulling myself up the rope or skating aggressively--to break the beam of the timer as soon as possible. In this sport, champions are made by hundredths. The first thing I do after crossing is check how many rings I’ve collected. My biggest challenge so far has been to collect every ring; multiple times in my short career, my team has laid down some of the fastest times, only to be penalized by two seconds for each lost ring, putting us out of the running for the cash prize. In sport and life, there’s always opportunity for growth, and I know mine in this sport. Regardless of how the race goes though, I savor the final moments with my team as we slow back to a walk on the track runout before heading back to the start area to return our equipment. The foundation of the team is our horse, and my cowgirl and I shower gratitude on our strong, silent, four-legged partner who makes the magic possible.