An interview with Kristy Pigeon
by E.M. Rutherford
Kristy Pigeon has a remarkable connection to Idaho’s Wood River Valley. After retiring from professional tennis, she migrated her sporting spirit to local mountains in 1975, tapping into her love of horses. At first Kristy worked in Sun Valley as a ski instructor, then established the Elkhorn Tennis School and became one of the few female deer and elk hunting guides to ride in the Sawtooth Mountains and Peekaboo Hills. These activities kept her occupied as a woman for all seasons.
Her devotion to horses began in the late ‘70s, influencing Kristy to retire from her tennis school. The main goal was to buy a horse and a place to put it. She had no knowledge of a horse’s influence on skijoring and how she would get roped into the sport! Kristy spent time with the local horse club and became a member of the Sun Valley/Hailey trail riding club. And she taught herself how to rope…first practicing alone at her home, then at the local facility where she got into team roping. As she got better, Kristy went to a couple of rodeos throughout Southern Idaho; “…rodeo circuit type of stuff…nothing serious, something for fun”. If fortune shined, she’d win the weekend jackpot!
Focused on horses and hills and experienced as a volunteer at The Equine Center for Facilitated Therapy in Woodside CA, Kristy decided, “This is what I want to do next.” She established the original Sagebrush Equine Training Center for the Handicapped (SETCH). Kristy and her group of instructors designed a saddle without a strap, allowing paraplegics to ride basically unaided, introducing ‘unbridled freedom’ in the back country of The Sawtooths around Sun Valley. Kristy’s riding program grew quickly, with SETCH becoming one of the nation’s premier horse-assisted therapy sites which then led to the Boise, Twin Falls and Blackfoot programs for pediatric cancer patients. In 2012, she retired as executive director and the program was moved to a new local facility.
What horsing-around activity could Kristy get involved in next? She reached her main goal when she bought land and bought Deke – the horse that would get her through her first and only skijoring event! She added up to 10 colts on her land, riding most of them each night. Whew!! Kristy kept several Corriente steers in her field; “…roping them became a big deal for a while.” Local team roping events were held at her place and weekends were all about the fun. Hosted events were held at the SETCH arena, offering up a hamburger & beer cabin where a person could ride up and place an order. It was an “all in the family type of thing.”
Those roping events led local skijoring enthusiasts to bring their club sport to Kristy’s acreage. But there was no real place to practice, which meant competitors only got a day or two to get ready before an event. Kristy’s neighbor owned a big field next to her place that was long and flat; in return for Kristy’s help to gain access to this stretch, the skijoring club would donate half of the event proceeds to her handicapped riding program. Win, win!! Once the field was lined up, Kristy was involved. And since she would rather participate than to watch sports, Kristy decided, “It sounded like a lot of fun, so why not?” In 2002, she got her skijoring experience; “…I can tell you that it was the wildest thing I’ve ever done!!”
For Deke, skijoring was a cross-over from roping; he seemed to know what to do and picked it up faster than Kristy. “The horse knew when the rope was handed that it had to run. Similar to the roping chute box. When the roping chute rattled, he knew it was time to take off.” The end result? Out of the gate, skier Erin Rheinschild and rider Kristy Pigeon received shiny gold-on-silver belt buckles for winning women’s division at Bellevue’s 2002 Annual Skijoring competition!!
And that was that. Kristy won her buckle and retired from horse skijoring. “I wasn’t crazy enough to do it another time. I know that there are people that go on the circuit during the winter season, and they’re crazier than I am.” For her, it was about going for the buckle. “Now it’s a much bigger venue…what’s interesting about skijoring, it is a fun spectator sport – there’s an element of excitement and danger.”
As a sport spectator eighteen years later, she commented on the 2020 Wood River Extreme Skijoring Association (WRESJA) event held in Bellevue, “They need to keep the jumps high. It’s hair-raising!! In skijoring, people assume that the skier is the one who can crash and get hurt, which is true. But the skier has the opportunity to let go of the rope. It’s relatively safe. Whereas the horseman, if the horse steps in a soft spot and goes down, you’re toast. I know that now they take extra precautions to make sure that the track is aligned properly, and horses are wearing the right shoes; but that’s the risk you take…”
During her 2002 winning experience, Kristy felt like she was out of control and that the horse had control. “When you’re dealing with a 1200-pound animal that wants to take off, they’re going to do it.” You can hear the love Kristy has for Deke as she reminisces; he died at the age of 32. Kristy still has a connection to skijoring and therapeutic riding, keeping relationships that make her “very happy”. She was honored by the Women’s Tennis Association on August 3, 2017 and inducted into the USTA Northern California Tennis Hall of Fame, yet you can feel her fondness of Wood River experiences and the people she’s helped through local sports. Something that just seems to be part of her makeup.
Today, Kristy’s focus is building wetlands and restoring habitat for wildlife. What about skijoring? “Once was enough! Winning was worth it – love the buckle!!” Horses? Now she spends part of her time working on other people’s Southern Idaho ranches. It’s obvious she loves Idaho. The Wood River Valley is fortunate to have Kristy Pigeon giving so much of herself to her community; and for some, most importantly, the advancement of local horse-drawn skijoring.