By Michael Somerby EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – A horse’s snorting cuts through the still, clouds of steam engulfing its muzzle as hot breath meets cold air. His rider holds the reins tightly, staying the animal’s nerves as it jerks against steel bit and leather tracing its face and throat.
It stamps its hooves into the hard-packed snow.
Flanking them, a skier adjusts her grip on a long nylon rope attached the saddle, eyeballing the series of jumps and slopes comprising Big Sky’s skijoring course.
The athletes get their signal: It’s almost time to thread the obstacles, at breakneck speeds, to a chorus of cheers and hollering. There’s money on the line, prestige to be had.
Such has been the scene the past two winters at the Big Sky Skijoring Association’s Best in the West Showdown, in which dozens of riders of all ages have taken to a custom course adjacent to Big Sky Town Center. The event will return to the community this March 7 and 8 for its third iteration.
A traditional Scandinavian competition melding horsemanship and skiing, skijoring as a novelty alone is worth carving out time for; for the seasoned viewer, the understood dangers involved contextualize the sheer skill necessary for this synthesis of sports and species.
Justa Adams, a Big Sky Skijoring Association board member who organizes the race, remembers her first time watching skijoring live, at 320 Guest Ranch in 2015. It was addictive.
“I didn’t think I could love Montana any more than I did then,” Adams said. A Florida native who moved to Big Sky with her husband nearly 6 years ago, she grew up breeding, breaking and training racehorses with her mother.
Plying her experience with nonprofit fundraising (she’s worked for an organization that tackles cancer treatment and another that cares for abused and neglected children), Adams was able to scrape together funds, with help from a few others, for the first skijoring event held in Big Sky Town Center in 2018, a now-permanent deviation from those held for years at 320 Guest Ranch.
Part of her motivation came from competitors urging the community to think about hosting something more visible, more accessible to the town’s foot traffic and nearby residents.
“I just started cold calling,” Adams said of her work to rally financial support, an announcer and a sound system, and a location. The Simkins family, who own the Town Center, loved the event, Adams said, and they gave the go ahead to move it to a prime spot.
This year’s Showdown is “going to be the best yet,” Adams said.
Located next to the South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River, the event site will have “snow bleachers” built atop a gentle slope, so the audience will be able to clearly see the competition.
“I’m over the moon about it,” Adams said, adding reference to the community’s generous donations—both financial sponsorships and donated equipment to build the site. “That would have been a huge financial burden.”
The design expertise of decorated skijoring racer Colin Cook and the technical horsemanship insights of Lone Mountain Ranch’s Horse Program and Grooming Manager Patrick McVey, have yielded a world class course worthy of Big Sky, Adams said. “Plus, previous years had us right next to Town Center construction, and this year you won’t be able to see any. It’s truly in the woods. The scene will be perfect.
Skis, horses, cowboys, racing, music, cheers, forests, snow bleachers, rivers, food and free-flowing beer. Does it get any better in a mountain town?
Or, in Adams’ words: “The event is genuinely the biggest and best in The West.”
For information on registration, Saturday’s Calcutta auction and event timing, visit facebook.com/bigskyskijoringassociation