Slide into Ski Joring
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.
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.