Skijoring, a mix of rodeo and skiing, is growing in popularity

SILVERTON, Colo. (AP) — On a freezing day in late February, a racer straps on his skis along Notorious Blair Street, ready to race. He grips a cotton rope tightly tied to a cowboy’s saddle, anticipating a strong jolt before the horse immediately launches into the snowy snow, hitting 40 miles an hour in a few gallops.

The Wild West spectacle called skijoring challenges even the most experienced skiers as they must manage the slack in the rope – tauten it then let go – as they zip past doors, wed their arms through dangling orange rings and soar over gaps nearly 13- feet wide.

Once a year, people come to see Silverton’s version of a mix of rodeo and ski racing, with cowboys and adrenaline-seeking skiers flying down the straight track laid along a once-lined street saloons and game rooms. The sport is rooted in the Northeast and in the mountain towns of Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Utah and attracts growing numbers of fans.

Longtime racer Duffy Counsell calls it the most exhilarating ski he’s ever done. Amid the need for speed, he must stay focused to pick up the plastic rings placed along the course before pulling the rope and building momentum to navigate the 870ft racecourse in under 20 seconds.

“So it’s a great mix: cowboys and skiers, aggressive and graceful, all in the same thing. And there’s a lot of adrenaline that comes with it,” Counsell said.

The skier-cowboy team with the fastest and most accurate run wins.

“I will never forget the first time the rope went tight. My favorite thing about it is letting go of that control. said Counsell. “You are at the mercy of this horse, and how fast he or she will go.”

Skijoring recently returned to Leadville, where the competitive event as it exists today made its Colorado debut in 1949, for two days of racing on the city’s historic Harrison Avenue.

— The origins of ski joëring

Skijoring – which literally means ski driving in Norwegian – began hundreds of years ago when indigenous peoples of the Arctic region harnessed reindeer and put on Nordic skis to traverse snowy expanses.

It became a sport in the American West in the 1930s, when skiers strapped to horses raced side by side through the streets of Aspen and Jackson, Wyoming, despite having no obstacles been involved, said Loren Zhimanskova, president of Skijor International and Skijor USA. During the Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival, skijoring races were held—and still are today—as a non-competitive event for children.

Skijoring was also used by soldiers transporting heavy equipment across Europe during World War II, said Zhimanskova who has researched the event for the past 10 years, collecting postcards and photographs documenting the sport dating back to 1901.

After the end of the war, the 10th Mountain Division, better known as the Ski Troopers, whose base was at Leadville, returned home.

“Maybe it became a more informal fun activity between people who had done this in a military environment,” she said.

When snow and temperatures permit, skijoring races also take place at Ridgway, Pagosa Springs and Meeker.

The event is madness, but there is a method: skijoring brings people to mountain towns, boosting the winter economy.

“I know this town in particular, it’s one of the biggest things that happens all winter,” said Rob Conaty, a longtime skijorer and event organizer from Silverton. “It is up to local people to get involved and do what they can to make the race a success. It’s just a shot in the arm for everyone.

Although he has yet to break into mainstream sports, Zhimanskova says social media is helping extreme sports grow. “And Colorado, I think, is the perfect state to showcase it.”

She plans to partner with the U.S. Olympic Committee to advocate for the inclusion of skijoring in the opening ceremonies of the 2030 and 2034 Winter Games.

As the sport has evolved, there have been innovations including new racing obstacles and allowing snowboarders to compete, she said. At some venues, there are freestyle events, where skiers let go of their rope before taking a turn over a 10-foot jump.

In an event called “switch-a-roo”, a cowboy will trade places with a skier for a race on the track.

“So talk about athletics,” she said. “And some people are really good at both.”

— Collision of two worlds

Skijoring in Colorado attracts thousands of spectators drawn to the rodeo-twist on Nordic tradition.

“It brings these two different groups of people together and creates friendships and amazing things together and that makes for a really cool event,” Conaty said.

At Silverton, the races are classified into three categories for the most skilled skiers and fastest horses, intermediate teams and novice teams. This year, for the first time, there was an event where skiers were pulled by a snowmobile.

It’s common for cowboys and skiers to go to skijoring races together, but sometimes they’re randomly paired up on race day, Zhimanskova said. Teams can walk the course to discuss strategy, but no one is allowed to practice before the actual event.

“These people are training in two completely different sports and then have to ask themselves, ‘How can we master this technical course at the highest possible speed?’ like a team. It doesn’t happen very often,” she said.

Along with the challenge and camaraderie, there’s money at stake. Zhimanskova said winners can take home more than $2,000.

Whether it’s cheering from the touchline or hurtling down the track at breakneck speed, a skijoring race is likely to provide a more breathtaking experience than other sporting events.

“It takes guts. It’s the only thing you need. You have to be a little crazy and it takes courage,” Counsell said. “A horse howling in front of you at 40 miles an hour with a skier in tow, a few yards from where you are. You can feel it, you can hear those hooves beating down the avenue. There’s nothing like.

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