Michelle Hurni covered alternative sports for 20+ years for the X Games, and supported the announcers with research and stats at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. A lifelong rider, she currently partners with her two BLM Mustangs, Modoc and Deception, in the Rocky Mountains. Fast Horses and Crazy Skiers
By Michelle Hurni
Fast horses and crazy skiers combine for the speed, danger and intensity of skijoring, where the horses charge their course and the skiers barrel along behind, running gates and flying over jumps. It’s a must-see spectacle.
Skiers have been pulled by horses for hundreds of years, popularized in Scandinavian countries, and Switzerland and France. Skijoring came west around 1930, when mountain towns started running horses pulling skiers down their main streets in festivals.
There were over 100 teams of horses and riders in Red Lodge, Montana over the March 10-12, 2023 weekend, which has hosted the National Finals since 1980. The combination of western horsemanship and extreme skiing include multiple divisions, with competitors and spectators coming from across the west and Canada.
The most entertaining aspect of skijoring is the combination of horses and their riders. As 13-year-old rider Kimber Cook put it, it’s all about the heart thumping adrenaline rush. Approximately 20 seconds of it. Horses accelerate to over 40 mph, with a skier or snowboarder navigating a course, sometimes in full on yard sale style, behind them.
Kimber says her greatest inspiration, is “my balding uncle Richard Weber” (and 2-time national skijoring champion). They travel from Ridgway, Colorado around the country and into Canada every weekend from New Years Day through the finals in Red Lodge, putting between 10,000 and 18,000 miles on their trucks and trailers. She calls school “complicated,” missing multiple days a week, but Uncle Richard says “competing and hanging out with adults and other teenagers is a better education than the classroom.”
Some skiers cross the finish line on their face, others with 1 ski, but as long as they hold onto the rope, it counts. They say being pulled behind a cowboy on a horse has more in common with wakeboarding and waterskiing than downhill skiing, and some of the skiers have only been downhill a handful of times. It’s a give and take with the rope between the skier and the horse. Some connect with first time riding partners through Facebook, while others partner up for years, creating formidable teams.
One of the most popular groups at the events is the tight knit Southwest Montana crew, the wild and wooly Wild Bunch, who look out for each other above all else. Audrey Williams, from Great Falls, Montana, is connected to that group with the Outlaw Woman Camp, a group of around 10 women (and a few men) who travel and share cooking and chore duty in a red neck cabana style. When Audrey first competed 8 years ago, she didn’t even know what skijoring was. She couldn’t afford gas or hay to get to the event, but an outfitter helped, and she finished 4th, earning enough money to get back home again. The rope was set and she’s been riding with the Outlaw Woman Camp ever since.
The horses are the third point of the team triangle, pampered and treated like royalty, with the best hay and feed, comfy trailers, and plenty of space in their weekend accommodations. When they aren’t galloping the skijoring course in the winter, many are ranch and trail horses. The sport doesn’t lend itself to training, just conditioning, and Weber says you just show up and send it. Some horses are antsy getting into the gate, but once they know their job, they are in it to win it. Kimber riders her 14-year-old quarter horse, Badger, whom she calls her best friend and worst enemy. Audrey brings home money on her BLM appaloosa, Captain Jack.
Checkout out skijoring near Estes Park in Craig, Silverton, Leadville, Meeker, Ridgway and Pagosa Springs, CO, with others in nearby Wyoming and as far away as Banff and Calgary, Canada and Maine. Leadville is considered the granddaddy of skijoring, hosting a rousing event down their historic main drag for over 75 years (always the first full weekend in March).
Author: Michelle Hurni covered alternative sports for 20+ years for the X Games and supported the announcers with research and stats at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. A lifelong rider, she currently partners with her two BLM Mustangs, Modoc and Deception, in the Rocky Mountains.
Monica Plecker riding Z and Oliver Van Everen, 2nd place combined standings, Sport Division, courtesy of Mary Peters.