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Skijoring: Pro tips from someone who’s done it once

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Skijoring is a unique Western tradition that brings together cowboy and ski culture into a an entertaining spectacle that requires coordination between a horse, rider and skier. PHOTO BY MARK LAROWE

By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

We decided we wanted to represent Outlaw Partners in the second annual Best of the West Showdown skijoring event held in Big Sky Town Center Feb. 9-10. The Big Sky Skijoring Association organized the two-day competition, the fourth of eight races on the Skijoring America circuit which includes stops in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.  

The event garnered 91 teams competing in junior, women, novice, sport and open categories. Each team was allowed one run a day, though different combinations of horse, rider and skier allowed individuals more than one run per category.

I’d heard of skijoring before—the wedding of ski and cowboy cultures in which a horse and rider tow a downhill skier on a 33-foot rope through a course fraught with jumps, gates, banked turns and sometimes rings for skiers to collect on their arms. Although there are multiple origin stories for this now-Western sport, consensus holds that its roots are in Scandinavia where a mode of winter travel involved directing a horse via long reins from a set of skis behind the steed.

The Western variation added a rider and bets for whose team was fastest, likely aided by the influence of alcohol.

“I’m absolutely thrilled from the feedback from all the competitors, skiers and riders,” said Justa Adams, the Big Sky Skijoring association board member who organized the race. “It was a very fun and safe event. I could not be happier with how it turned out.”

I grew up skiing and had done so behind snowmobiles and boats on lakes: How different could it be skiing behind a horse?

There are certainly similarities, but I learned a thing or two about the wild sport of skijoring while competing for the first time. Ordered not by importance but by the chronology of when each met me, here are some insights into the sport that an audience member might not glean.

EBS contributor Jessianne Castle and her horse Mayple were surprisingly calm before their first
skijoring competition. PHOTO BY MARK LAROWE

Find a pull

Once we decided to have a team, my first move was to call RJ Klotz, the only skijoring pro I knew at that point. Klotz, who won the skijoring race in Ridgway, Colorado, and produced the Bozeman race the weekend prior to Big Sky’s, recommended first finding a pull.

“A pull just means a horse and rider,” Klotz clarified so I didn’t have to ask.

I immediately thought of my colleague Jessianne Castle, who has been a contributing writer for EBS for longer than I knew the paper existed. I knew she and her husband Ryan own several horses, and as individuals I enjoy, they’d be my first pick for team. I reached out.

After testing out their horse Mayple, a beige quarterhorse born in the month of May (hence the name), with Ryan skiing behind her, Jessianne said they were in.

Get rubber gloves

Klotz’ second pro tip was to buy gloves with a rubber coating from Ace Hardware for gripping the rope. Leather gloves were not the move, which I understood after my first run.

Rope management is essential for making gates, managing jumps, and getting across the finish
line the fastest. PHOTO BY MARK LAROWE

“Rope management”

I heard this phrase a hundred times, from my editor Joe O’Connor who’d skijored in 2013 when 320 Ranch used to host an event, and other competitors and spectators. Some YouTube videos the previous night showed me—while also striking fear into my already nervous mind—that the last thing a skier wants is for the rope to get ahold of them.

A friend from college told me to start with the rope taut to the horse, gripping halfway up so you have some slack to let out to dampen the transition from standing still to racing over the snowy course. A combination of observing more experienced racers and learning from my runs revealed that rope management consists of climbing the rope hand over hand when possible—on straightaways or the ramp of jumps—and conversely letting rope through your hands to spill speed and make a gate, while avoiding getting tangled at all costs.

Peter Jessens, a member of Big Sky Resort and the boards of the Big Sky Skijoring Association and Skijoring America, told me he rope-burns the rubber off four pairs of Ace Hardware work gloves in a weekend of racing. A key to keep in mind is that the less rope you have between you and the horse at the finish line, the faster the time.

Get course beta before your run

Seasoned skijorers are a wealth of knowledge and, despite their intimidating swaggers, will clue you into the cruxes of the course, optimal lines over jumps and through gates, etc. It’s worth asking for the inside track.

Look two gates ahead

Jessens, who was encouraging and welcoming even to a newbie such as myself, allowed Ryan Castle and I to walk the course with him and told us to keep eyes at least two gates down the course.

“Your body will just take care of the rest,” Jessens said. The advice aligned with reality and once team Outlaw hit full speed, I found myself automatically hitting gates, moving up and down the rope like I’d done it before. Jessianne, who grew up riding had a similar experience atop Mayple.

“When it came time to make the pull, my body just took over and it was like I was just along for the ride,” she told me after our run Sunday. “It might be one of the most out-of-body experiences I’ve had.”

Slow is fast

Another slice of wisdom Jessens lent was a variation of advice my editors have repeated to me that seemed particularly apt for skijoring: Go slow to go fast. Take your time inspecting the course and calm your mind, quell the butterflies just before your pull erupts in a gallop.

“Slow is fast,” he told a nervous me just before my day two run.

If you get serious about the sport, don’t wear Telemark skis

A detail I haven’t mentioned is that I raced in tele skis—which also have Scandinavian roots—and was told I was crazy. I was fortunate to have a gentle introduction to the sport because Jessianne and Mayple were as new to the sport as myself, so they weren’t pulling me anywhere near as fast as the other teams. I went for it on tele skis because they’re all I ski on, but if I continued to skijor, the wiser option is alpine bindings that will release your boot if you biff.

Some other highlights in closing from the Best in the West Showdown:

  • Lone Mountain Ranch contributed a massive draft horse as a pull on Feb. 9, but were unaware there were two days of races, so the behemoth did not compete Sunday as it was occupied pulling sleighs.
  • Community support came in clutch to sculpt the coarse: LMR’s Patrick McVey spent hours grooming the course after Colin Cook moved and piled excess snow thanks to a loader contributed by John Delzer and a track skid steer that Dick Anderson volunteered. Among many other sponsors and volunteers, Town Center allowed Big Sky Skijoring Association to use the land and East Slope Outdoors retail shop volunteered their water spicket to fill buckets for horses.
  • Never before have I had to worry about skiing plum through the middle of a pile of horse manure.

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