Bringing cultures together
Skijoring: A mix of skiers and horses
RIDGWAY — The cheers soared like falling dominoes, as competitors galloped and slid around the corner of the race track.
“Go Turbo!” A woman screamed.
And go Turbo did, like the wind on a frigid afternoon. Then there was Rocket, a big paint horse, picking up speed as he hit the straight stretch, kicking up snow as he blasted toward the finish line.
And behind the horses, skiers were showered with cheers as well.
Those cheers reached a thundering crescendo at the final jump with the largest group of spectators roaring with excitement.
As Turbo, Rocket, Rage, Serge, Ruger, Vader, Black Beauty and others displayed their powerful strides, skiers, clung to a 50-foot rope with desperation and determination, hoping to be the fastest.
This is skijoring.
It was the first-ever skijoring event in Ridgway.
In this fascinating and unique winter sport, horse and rider pull a skier over jumps and through slalom gates.
“It’s rednecks mixed with ski bums,” said Orion Willits, proud of his description. “This is the first time I’ve ever been pulled by a horse, and I have to say, it’s pretty dang fun.”
The Ridgway native, who now lives in Bozeman, Montana, is a big mountain skier. That means he gets his adrenaline fix by jumping off cliffs and skiing down terrifyingly steep slopes.
But skijoring is quite a thrill too, he said with a big grin.
“Here you have 15-20 seconds to go as fast as you can. It’s way different than anything I’ve ever done before,” he said with an almost giddy tone.
There’s a mutual respect for these competitors with contrasting backgrounds.
“The whole thing, the horses, the skiers, coming together, it’s just a great mix,” said skier Robbie Contay. “You have to explain (the sport) to most people, then they give you a funny face, trying to picture it.
“It’s groups of people that don’t typically hang out together, so that’s cool,” the 57-year-old Durangoan said.
It’s a thrill for both skier and horse rider.
“I rode this course five times today and every time it got more thrilling,” said Durango’s Jeff Dahl as he trotted Rocket back to the start line. “There’s nothing like it, especially for a couple of older kids. We’re out here riding race horses, this is just too much fun. You can’t have more fun than this.
Dahl, 62, in his cowboy hat, sheep-skin vest, boots and spurs looks more western than a John Wayne movie.
His wife, Carissa, 60, is the other older kid he referred to, and she was atop Rage waiting to pull another skier.
Jeff Dahl loves riding and loves his horses.
“There’s nothing more majestic than a horse and we’re running flat out as fast as we can,” he said. “The horse is putting it all out there, they’re stretching it out.”
The excitement in his voice rises like the cheers that were showered upon him and Rocket a few minutes before.
He admits skijoring can be a risky, sometimes dangerous sport, and last year in Leadville, a horse was injured and had to be put down. But that was a rare incident in the sport.
On the Ridgway track, the half curve created a higher degree of difficulty and riders took extra care until they hit the straight stretch.
For the skiers, they pull themselves up the rope the closer they get to the finish, saving precious seconds that could be the difference between first, second or worst.
Of course, many times, the horse emerges from the corner and the rope is skipping behind minus the skier.
Not only do the skiers have to go over jumps, they also had slalom sections where they had to negotiate gates. Missing a gate would add a five-second penalty to the run.
“The skiers, man, they’re working their butts off,” Dahl said. “Those gates are coming fast, ‘BOOM, BOOM, BOOM,’ then comes the jumps. So, yeah, it’s a very unique sport.”
Aaron Griffen, 26, is a rare breed: a skier with a rodeo background. The Bozeman man was a team roper and steer wrestler in his rodeo days, then did some ski racing.
“It brings two different cultures together, which is phenomenal,” he said. “It’s a blast, a great group of people.”
Montrose businessman Kent Wollert came to Ridgway to ride, looking like the quintessential old-time cowboy, dressed sharp in his Western attire and bushy gray mustache. Even with his wrap-around shades, he was all cowboy.
“It’s my first time I’ve ever done this but it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It really showcases the horses that have some speed. On this round course, you have to kinda control that speed. It’s a pretty good adrenaline rush.”
Then he smiled: “But I’d hate to be that skier, I think I’ll stay on the horse.”
A mix of contrasting backgrounds and cultures. The skill of a rider, the power of a horse, the polish of a skier, a snow-covered race track and a cheering crowd.
This is skijoring.