Horse Skijoring in Leadville, Colo.
As his side-stepping mount spun, dug into the snow and launched into a dead gallop, cowboy Jeff Dahl gave what could only be described as a blood-curdling Rebel yell. A skier, attached to the saddle horn by a 33-foot tow rope, went careening behind him, expertly dodging orange cones, snatching rubber rings with a metal baton, and clearing the gate markers and jumps which had been set up along their way. “Man! Those guys were smokin’!” one of many bystanders exclaimed as the team reached the finish line in the fastest time of the afternoon. “What a rush,” another added as the crowd roared with approval.
With its classic, Wild West appearance; rich and colorful mining history; and average snowfall of 200-inches per year, Leadville, Colo., is the perfect place to hold a major skijoring competition (the first weekend each March). “It all started in 1948 when a couple of my dad’s friends were sitting in a bar trying to come up with a new carnival event,” explained Paul Copper, a local who is one of the main organizers of the event, “and they ended up driving to Steamboat Springs for ideas. People there were skijoring behind draft horses and not going very fast, so after the two came back they built an 820-foot course and decided to speed things up a bit.” (It helped that one of the men was a Quarter horse racer and the other, a veteran skier). He continued, “Skiers go back and forth like they’re on the water, left to right, left to right. The horses’ hooves are flattened and rounded for a good edge so they can RUN, RUN, RUN!”
Joe Manly, 80-years-old, who started designing and building courses in 1955, told me that he “always looks out for the horse and rider, scoping the terrain for any trees, poles, ice, fireplugs, or other obstacles that could get in the way.” (He prefers a straight track as opposed to a round one because of the sun. It’s kept smooth by a snowmobile outfitted with a 12-foot blade.) “Lots of the current rules of Skijoring came from Leadville,” he added. “It’s progressed from Colorado to Idaho, Montana and Canada … even as far as New Hampshire. The sport has come a long way. Skis and skiers have improved and times are much, much better these days.”
How fast? Jerry Kissell, who grew up in Leadville and started skijoring in 1983, described it as a “17 or 18 second, high-intensity adrenalin rush” and he, too, has watched it grow. After taking 3rd place in his very first race – and winning 11 out of 13 race days during the winter of ’88 – Jerry started travelling to other towns as the competitions began getting more and more popular. (Now referred to as a Legend, he is a member of an elite group of age 40-plus skiers who compete at the highest levels … and still have at least 50 percent of their natural teeth, according to the official flyer.) Things really began taking off after both Parade magazine and The Rocky Mountain News featured stories about skijoring, and due in part to the media attention “even the Japanese started coming over to watch us,” he said.
How do you train a horse to participate? “Start off by dragging a 40 to 50 pound tire behind you, attached by a carabineer to the back of the saddle,” Jerry advised. Only the more experienced cowboys and cowgirls choose to dally a rope around the saddle horn, since “it’s trickier that way. Some people end up getting pulled to the ground from the swing of the skier behind them.”
As for keeping the animals from slipping, Scott Ping, board member of the North American Skijoring Association (NASJA) showed me a shoeing style referred to as “sharp shodding.” Lifting the leg of one gelding, he pointed to the special pad (which prevents snow from packing against the hoof wall); the welds on both heels and toes; and the two-headed “frost” nails, all of which help a horse get a really good grip. And mules can cover ground at lightning speed, to boot: just watch Dale Duff and his Tennessee Walker/Mammoth jack cross, “Psycho Sadie.” Dale ended up with Sadie eight years ago after “accidentally raising his hand at an auction.” Back then, “she was a real handful,” he admitted. These days, however, she pulls skiers in the Legends division: she’s stout, sure-footed AND fast … and quite the girlie-girl, too, complete with bright pink blinders on her bridle.
The only sister team in their division, Meghan Rivera and Tricia Schuman stopped to visit as they were riding towards the starting line. “This is my first year,” Meghan told me. “My teams finished 7th and 12th yesterday.”
“I got 6th place … and I fell off,” Tricia admitted with a shrug and a grin. It happens.
Teams are matched by a draw, so no one quite knows what to expect when a raring-to-go horse gets hooked to a waiting skier … and he or she had better be ready to move when the tug line goes taut. (“Jeff was pretty excited this morning,” his wife, Chris Dahl told me. “He drew both his boys, Greg and Jason!”) Occasionally skiers lose balance and take pretty spectacular falls that get buffered by the flexible orange barriers set up the length of the course. “Skier down!” the announcer good-naturedly called out in such circumstances, “no time!” And as each chagrined racer picked himself up from the snow, waving an arm to indicate he was okay, “Skier up!” would be added with equal enthusiasm. The truly unbelievable part was that most of the athletes went back to the beginning in order to try again later with yet another rider. All I could think was ya gotta be tough to live in the mountains – especially if you choose to join the sport of horse skijoring.