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Skijoring: Skiing behind a horse down Harrison Avenue

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Leadville Crystal Carnival – March 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

You’re flying down Harrison Avenue on skis while clinging to a rope attached to a horse that’s racing through the snow. Having fun yet?

You are if you’re competing in skijoring, the fastest, weirdest, wildest and most exciting event of Leadville’s annual Crystal Carnival celebration.

“Skijoring is definitely a unique sport,” declares Ty Hall, who organizes the skijoring competition with fellow competitor Paul Copper and Joe Manly, the now-retired “dean” of local skijoring.

“From the skier’s standpoint, it’s really exciting,” says Hall, a skier who has competed in skijoring since 1993. “You’re hanging onto this huge animal, and it’s dragging you down the main street of town in front of hundreds of people. You’re challenging yourself to see if you can hold onto the rope and make it through the course successfully.”

The skier’s not the only one trying to hold on. Each horse galloping at top speed down the slippery track bears a rider whose job it is to keep the steed on course and upright, and spur it to the finish line — fast.

Skijorers prepare for their run by securing one end of a 30-foot-long rope to a horse’s saddle horn. The skier loops the rope’s opposite end around one hand and holds a thin stick in the other hand. Horse and rider then gallop along a snow-packed, three-block-long course, while the skier behind them weaves through a series of turns and gates, leaps off several jumps four to six feet high and wields the stick like the lance of a jousting knight to spear a group of dangling rings.

Skiers must keep a firm grip on rope and rings at all times, not the easiest thing to do while speeding through an obstacle course as a horse kicks snow in your face. Teams are judged on the speed and cleanness of their run; penalties are assessed even if a skier manages to spear all the rings, but drops one or more later along the way.

Skijoring originated in Scandinavia, where it remains popular today. Scandinavian competitors ski behind reindeer — which they must also steer and control — on oval-shaped courses devoid of jumps or other obstacles.

The American version of skijoring is a purely western event that combines cowboy customs with mountain sports. While skijoring maintains a few hard and fast rules — for instance, skiers have to take every turn gate, complete every jump and spear all the rings — it’s a loosely organized sport unhampered by official associations or reams of regulations.

In some ways, skijoring reinvents itself in response to circumstances. For example, horse, rider and skier once paired up on their own. That meant the best skiers joined with the best horses and riders, leaving other competitors literally out in the cold. With entrant numbers plunging, Leadville organizers made an important rule change two years ago: Skiers competing in Leadville’s skijoring races would not learn which horse they were teamed with until the day of the event. That morning, names of horses and skiers would go into a hat to be matched randomly. That meant no practicing together before the competition — and fewer advantages to the swiftest and the most experienced.

“There’s no challenge, no excitement if the horse is chosen by the skier,” Hall maintains. “Now it’s the luck of the draw. You may get a fast horse and you may not, so more people stand a better chance of placing.”

And that’s no small matter, given Leadville’s minimum guaranteed purse of $1,000, usually divided among the top three teams. That purse is augmented by $40-per-team entry fees, local donations and a pre-race Calcutta in which teams are “purchased.” Since about 30 skiers and half as many horses compete (one horse is often drawn by several different skiers), that adds up to a lot of money for a run that can be successfully completed in 20 seconds or less.

A word to the wise for spectators at skijoring events: Stay alert. Not all the action takes place on the course.

Onlookers lining the route can sometimes get a little too up close and personal. And that’s not the best idea when snow is swirling, hooves are pounding and skis — and sometimes skiers — can suddenly morph into flying projectiles.

It doesn’t happen often, but skiers have been known to careen into bystanders. Once in awhile a horse even plunges into the crowd.

Fortunately, there have been no serious injuries among spectators. The competitors’ record is slightly less exemplary, with broken ribs and collarbones, and knee and wrist injuries not uncommon.

But once skijoring gets into your blood, the risks are worth taking.

“It’s such a high action sport,” Hall says with a competitor’s penchant for understatement. “If we were just being pulled by a snowmobile, which is the way we practice, that would be interesting. But throw in the element of a horse galloping at full speed and a skier holding on for dear life, and that brings out the real adrenaline in both the competitors and the crowd.”

So let the games begin.

Lynda La Rocca enjoys skjoring, but only as a spectactor sport when she’s not writing in Leadville.