Slide into Ski Jor­ing

Trail Rider - - CONTENTS - BY SHAWN HAMIL­TON

MMy fond­est child­hood mem­o­ries grow­ing up in Canada may be of those win­try week­day morn­ings when I awoke to a snow day. I’d jump out of bed, layer on my warm­est win­ter wear, and trudge down the road to my girl­friend’s farm for a day of unique, snowy fun.

When I got there, my friend’s pony would al­ready be tacked up. One of us would strap on our skis and grab the end of a long rope. The other would mount the pony’s back and hold the other end of the rope. We’d spend the en­tire day towing each other around the ap­ple or­chard.

The pony would gal­lop up and down the long drive, pulling the skier be­hind. The brisk, win­ter wind pulled tears from our eyes, while we laughed with ex­hil­a­ra­tion. We concentrated on keep­ing our skis straight and keep­ing a firm grip on the rope. We knew we were the luck­i­est kids in town.

‘Ski Driv­ing’

We didn’t know we were ac­tu­ally prac­tic­ing an old form of travel used by Scan­di­na­vians for hun­dreds of years. When deep win­ter snow pre­cluded other modes of trans­porta­tion, the hardy res­i­dents would strap on long wooden skis and use rein­deer power to pull them to their de­sired desti­na­tion. This form of travel was called ski jor­ing (“ski driv­ing”).

In 1928, ski jor­ing was in­tro­duced as a demon­stra­tion sport at the se­cond Win­ter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzer­land. Horses raced against each other while towing their driv­ers, who skied be­hind.

The mod­ern form of eques­trian ski jor­ing be­gan in the 1940s in Leadville, Colorado, when Quar­ter Horse owner Mugs Oss­man and avid skier Tom Schroeder met in a cof­fee shop to brain­storm events for Leadville’s win­ter fes­ti­val, known as the Crys­tal Car­ni­val. The duo had wit­nessed ski jor­ing at a win­ter fes­ti­val in Steamboat, Colorado, but won­dered why the com­peti­tors went “so slow.”

Oss­man, who bred Quar­ter Horses for speed, and Schroeder kicked it up a notch and de­buted ski jor­ing at the 1949 Leadville Crys­tal Car­ni­val. The sport has been held an­nu­ally dur­ing the car­ni­val ever since.

Eques­trian ski jor­ing has caught on in North Amer­ica, es­pe­cially in the Rocky Moun­tains and New Hamp­shire. It’s now an ex­cit­ing, pop­u­lar win­ter sport with or­ga­nized races, events, and clin­ics.

Since 2009, the World Ski Jor­ing Cham­pi­onships have been held in White­fish, Mon­tana, as a part of the an­nual White­fish Win­ter Car­ni­val.

A Day at the Races

A few win­ters ago, I ven­tured to the East­ern Town­ships of Que­bec to see this adult ver­sion of my child­hood sport with my own eyes. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing me were my friends Stephanie and Lau­rel, both avid rid­ers who live near me in Orono, On­tario.

We ar­rived in the tiny vil­lage of Notre Dame de la Merci, lo­cated 60 miles north of Mon­treal, to find the town packed with trucks and trail­ers, snow­mo­biles, skiers, and snow­shoers.

Not re­ally sure what to ex­pect, I made my way through the trail­ers and found Bert Caron, the founder and man­ager of Canada’s North East Ski Jor­ing As­so­ci­a­tion. Caron wel­comed us with open arms and guided us around the grounds, all the while giv­ing us a run­down on how the race works.

The ski jor­ing track can be any­where from 600 to 1,200 feet in length, de­pend­ing on the avail­abil­ity of flat ground. Air­ports are handy places for the straight-track

This win­ter, grab your skis and your horse for some rol­lick­ing fun the Scan­di­na­vian way. STORY AND PHO­TOS BY SHAWN HAMIL­TON

events! (In Mon­treal, the straight-track course was 1,000 feet long, with three four­foot-high jumps.)

Also in the sport are three sets of stands with rings at­tached by mag­nets. The rings are about shoul­der height and are large enough for a skier to put her hand through. Dur­ing the race, com­peti­tors at­tempt to gather rings and stack them on their arms.

Skiers hold onto a rope, which must be no longer than 33 feet for a straight course, 50 feet for a curved course. The rope is at­tached to the D-rings on the back of a sad­dle by a cara­biner and har­ness. Typ­i­cally, com­peti­tors use West­ern sad­dles.

The race is timed. The clock starts when the skier — rather than the horse and rider — passes the start line. The rider gal­lops the horse down the track at full speed while the skier — at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour — nav­i­gates the jumps, col­lects and keeps rings, and crosses the fin­ish line with at least one ski on and one hand on the rope. The rider must re­main mounted for the en­tire race.

Each missed ring costs a two-se­cond penalty, and each missed jump costs five sec­onds. The race is quick, but cer­tainly not easy!

When the Mon­treal races started, I watched with a pound­ing heart and an open mouth. I was hooked.

Af­ter­ward, we ven­tured to a tent to warm our toes by the fire and en­joy a few shots of Caribou, a mix­ture of red wine and al­co­hol pop­u­lar among the Québé­cois. Wait­ing for the re­sults and awards, we chat­ted with the com­peti­tors, some of whom were skiers and snow­board­ers who’d never rid­den horses, and were participating in the sport for the first time.

Michal Roberge was amazed by the horses’ strength. When asked if he en­joyed com­pet­ing, he re­sponded with a grin, “It’s awe­some! Ad­dic­tive! I want to do it again and again! It’s such a feel­ing of adrenaline.”

Ge­of­frey Smith, co-founder of the North East Ski Jor­ing As­so­ci­a­tion with his wife, Brooke, told us some of his horse-train­ing tips for ski jor­ing.

“Any fast horse works fine,” said Smith. “We have all types — Ara­bi­ans, Quar­ter Horses, Thor­ough­breds, Mor­gans. The key is find­ing a horse that’s not afraid of ropes and that likes to pull. Most horses will do it. A few won’t, but most of them love it, like my Quar­ter Horse, Stormy.”

Smith starts a horse in ski jor­ing by trail rid­ing with a long lead line to get the horse used to hav­ing the rope all over his body. In the sum­mer, the horse pulls Smith around on rollerblades, skis with tires, or on reg­u­lar snow skis on sand.

“All of these meth­ods can be used, but I pre­fer ski­ing on sand with snow skis to get both the skier and the horse in shape” Smith ex­plained.

This win­ter, I’m wish­ing for lots of snow days, so I can go ski jor­ing.

See you on the flats! TTR For more in­for­ma­tion on ski jor­ing, and for race calendars, con­tact the North Amer­i­can Ski Jor­ing As­so­ci­a­tion (www.nasja.com), the North East Ski Jor­ing As­so­ci­a­tion (www.nesja.com), White­fish Win­ter Car­ni­val World Ski Jor­ing Cham­pi­onships (www.white­fish­ski­jor­ing.com), and Leadville Ski Jor­ing (www.leadvilleski­jor­ing.us).

In eques­trian ski jor­ing, skiers hold on to a rope, which must be no longer than 33 feet for a straight course, 50 feet for a curved course. The ski jor­ing track can be any­where from 600 to 1,200 feet in length, de­pend­ing on the avail­abil­ity of flat ground.

Any fast horse can be used for ski jor­ing. The key is find­ing a horse that isn’t afraid of the ropes and likes to pull a skier. Typ­i­cally, com­peti­tors use West­ern sad­dles.

As the owner of Clix Photography (www.clixphoto. com), Shawn Hamil­ton trav­els world­wide to cover eques­trian events. Her im­ages regularly ap­pear in top mag­a­zines. She lives with her hus­band, four chil­dren, and five horses on a farm in On­tario, Canada.

Above: In ad­di­tion to a straight track, there are three sets of stands with rings at­tached by mag­nets. The rings are about shoul­der height and are large enough for a skier to put his or her hand through. Dur­ing the race, com­peti­tors at­tempt to gather rings and stack them on their arms. Left: The ski jor­ing rope is at­tached to the D-rings on the back of a sad­dle by a cara­biner.

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