Several centuries ago, indigenous people in the Arctic Circle put on skis, tied ropes to reindeer, and cajoled the animals to pull them across the ice and snow. Racing naturally followed, and skijoring — the Norwegian word for ski driving — took hold in ski communities around the world. Even in the United States, Dartmouth College had a skijoring team 100 years ago.
But the American West took skijoring to a whole new level. Although the sport started with a horse and rider pulling a skier through Colorado towns such as Aspen, Leadville, and Steamboat Springs, it evolved into timed competitions with jumps and obstacles.
“It’s a very intriguing, very exciting, very off-the-wall sport,” says Loren Zhimanskova, president of Skijor USA. She gives social media credit for its growing popularity and hopes to encourage its growth by offering spectators a chance to try the sport — without the jumps — at skijoring events and ski resorts next year.
Today, you can watch skijoring demonstrations at winter festivals throughout the United States and Canada, but the timed competitions are usually held at separate, rodeo-like events. As a first-time viewer, you should have no trouble following the sport, according to Zhimanskova.
Each team consists of a rider on a horse and a skier or snowboarder. As the horse and rider race ahead, the skier often navigates through plastic poles and tackles at least one jump. Sometimes, the skier will need to collect plastic rings, too. Time penalties are given for course violations, and the fastest time wins.
If you want to see skijoring firsthand, Zhimanskova recommends dressing like you’re going skiing. Wear a heavy jacket, gloves, hat, boots, and a scarf. If you drive, make sure you drive a 4-wheel-drive vehicle that can handle snow and parking in a muddy field. Above all, leave your dog and drone at home. Neither are allowed at skijoring events although some dogs pull their skijoring owners recreationally.
Christine Pitcher, the coordinator for the Skis and Saddles event in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, also wants people to know that “this sport is very Western and does have Western values.” Before skijoring begins, a prayer is usually said for the safety of all participants, including the horses, and everyone is expected to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
While you can attend any of the skijoring events listed at SkijorUSA.com, the larger, faster-paced events listed below are designed to keep the audience entertained.
In addition to pro and intermediate divisions, Utah Skijoring in Heber City has brackets for beginners, kids, women, seniors, and snowboarders. Teams also compete for the longest distance off a designated jump and fastest time in an event that has team members race once as the rider and once as the skier. Sign up early to secure a tailgate spot or VIP admission.
Extreme Horse Skijoring
Unlike other skijoring events that have one team run at a time, Extreme Horse Skijoring has enough space at Canterbury Park, a racetrack in Shakopee, Minnesota, for two teams to compete at once. There’s also a popular freestyle division where skijoring skiers and snowboarders perform tricks off a 15-foot jump. Weiner dog races, bonfires with s’mores, an ice bar, and a marketplace with over 20 vendors round out the fun.
Alpine and rodeo culture merge at Skijordue, a one-day event featuring skijoring, fondue, and an après ski party. Held at the Calgary Polo Club, it includes traditional skijoring divisions plus a relay race. There’s also a best-dressed contest and a lounge race where teams of horses pull competitors on couches. In the past, Alpine yodelers have entertained the crowds, and a local brewery has crafted a beer for the event.
The Grand Showdown
Skijoring has been popular in the Teton Valley for decades, so it’s no surprise that its skijoring association hosts one of the nation’s top events, The Grand Showdown in Driggs, Idaho. Teams face off in divisions for kids, novices, intermediate, and expert skijors as well as snowboarders. Don’t miss the Switch-a-Roo event where the team’s rider and skier on Saturday change places on Sunday.
Big Sky Skijoring
In Montana, Big Sky Skijoring has a packed weekend of skijoring events, ranging from junior and beginners to pro divisions. Teams can also go head-to-head in snowboarding and Switch-a-Roo events. After the races, you can listen to live music, check out the snowmobile expo, and watch a parade led by the Montana State University rodeo team.
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