By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – How fast can you ski across 900 feet of horizontal snow?
What if you were towed behind a horse?
Professional skijoring athletes from around the country will come to Big Sky to put those questions to the test on Saturday, March 17, and Sunday, March 18, for the first nationally sanctioned skijoring event held in the area. Hooves and snow will fly in Town Center next to the PBR arena bleachers, from 12 to 5 p.m. both days.
From the Norwegian word “skijøring,” meaning ski driving, this is an intense winter sport where a horse and rider pair pulls a skier or snowboarder through a course of jumps and turns at breakneck speeds. With some of the top times in the range of 17 seconds, and winners walking way with potentially $2,000 for the team, skijoring is a powerful combination of two Montana favorites: horses and skis.
A last-minute addition to Skijoring America’s national circuit, Big Sky’s Best in the West Showdown will close the 2018 season as the unofficial new national finals competition. This event will be the last chance to earn winning points for cowboys and skiers who make good money traveling the circuit.
The event will be broken into several classes, including an open class for the most advanced competitors, a sport class for amateur teams, and a novice class for beginners.
In the days leading up to the event, representatives from Skijoring America will come to build the 900-foot track and Lone Mountain Ranch will provide the grooming. The course will run in a horseshoe shape, incorporating jumps, a tabletop and navigation around approximately 15 gates.
The clock begins counting when the skier crosses the start line and ends when he or she crosses the line on the other side. A sheer speed event, 5-second penalties will be added for each element of the course that is missed.
“When you watch those open pro guys, it’s incredible how fast they go. Open class guys rarely miss a gate. … It becomes a horse race at that point,” said Pete Jessen, a national competitor and co-organizer for Big Sky’s showdown. He added that the novice and sport classes are fun to watch as the team navigates and makes their turns and jumps.
“You’ve got a skier, a rider and a horse, and those three have to communicate with each other,” he said. “Any time you can combine two sports, it’s always twice as fun.”
Following the independently organized skijoring event at the 320 Guest Ranch on Feb. 3 and 4, Jessen and his wife and skijoring partner Anna got to talking with Justa Adams, who is also a competitor. With the Bozeman stop cancelled this year on the national circuit tour, the trio thought, “Why not bring the event to Big Sky?”
“Southwest Montana is the epicenter of skijoring,” Jessen said. “80 percent of riders [who compete in the national circuit] are within a short drive of Bozeman.”
Encouraged by representatives from Skijoring America, Adams and the Jessens set to work planning a course and gaining sponsorships from the community, with limited time to get things in place for a March competition.
Working closely with champion skijoring skier Tyler Smedsrud and champion skijoring horseman Richard Weber III—both board members of Skijoring America—Adams and the Jessens formed the Big Sky Skijoring Association, of which Pete is the director.
“The reason that we can pull this off is because of the community. The support from the community really fueled me,” Adams said. “We’re excited it’s going to be here, in Big Sky, in our town.”
Jessen said a portion of the proceeds from this event will be donated to Three Forks-based Heroes and Horses, a nonprofit that couples combat veterans with horses in the remote wilderness of Montana. A donation will also be made to the Big Sky-based Erika Pankow Scholarship Fund for outdoor education.
At EBS press time on Feb. 28, BSSA organizers had not yet disclosed whether the Best in the West Showdown will be a ticketed or free event. However, if ticketed, entrance fees would be in the $5 range.
Best in the West Showdown Schedule
Open registration for Skijoring America members as well as the public
Choppers Grub & Pub
Calcutta auction giving spectators a chance to bet on Sunday’s winning teams
Choppers Grub & Pub
Awards ceremony at Choppers following the close of the event