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Extreme sports: Horsing around with the unusual sport of skijoring

Skiing behind a horse might sound bonkers, but skijoring is an ancient sport with a small but loyal following. The sport is gaining fresh momentum in some surprising ways. Kath Hudson reports

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management Jan Feb 2017 issue 129
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The skijoring racing circuit in North America attracts an unusual mixture of cowboys and skiiers / Skijoring America
The skijoring racing circuit in North America attracts an unusual mixture of cowboys and skiiers/ Skijoring America

“The sport of Skijoring is exhilarating and raw” says Loren Zhimanskova, the founder of representative body Skijoring International. “This applies whether you’re riding the horse, being pulled on skis, or simply standing alongside the racetrack feeling the thundering of the hooves on the snow as the competitors fly by.”

“The sport involves the unusual juxtaposition of two counter cultures” she says, “cowboys and skiers. You might describe it as rodeo meets the X Games.”

From its origins in 1950s Leadville, Colorado – home of extreme sports – a racing circuit has developed in North America.

Horses with ice shoes are ridden at top speed along a straight track, with skiers towed behind on a 30 foot rope at speeds of up to 40mph, negotiating slalom gates and jumps, and grabbing rings as they go.

“The events appeal to experienced skiers, looking for a different thrill, as well as rodeo riders and ranchers who want to do something with their horses in the winter,” says Zhimanskova. Race partnerships are often made at the pre-race party the night before, where the beer flows freely.

Growing the sport
Although the sport is practised in a number of other countries, including Poland, Latvia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Ukraine and Russia, there’s only one elite race in Europe. White Turf is held annually in St Moritz. Sponsored by Credit Suisse and BMW, it’s a prestigious affair, where the horses are controlled by the skiers who race side by side around a horseshoe shaped course. This differs from the straight US-style time trials where riders control the horses.

Zhimanskova dedicates her time to running events and working to get the sport to the Winter Olympics and X Games. She’s keen to generate more media interest to raise participation at both elite and entry level, and create a youth division to encourage the next generation of riders.

Skijoring America, formerly called the North American Skijoring Association, is also working to create a buzz about the sport by organising races and raising awareness. Spokesperson Matt Cosslett, who came across the sport when filming a documentary, thinks the secret to growth is getting a bigger fan base, so more people come to watch the races. This will attract sponsorship, which will make the prize pots bigger and attract more teams to compete.

“We’d like to see the sport expand and grow – the location doesn’t need to be limited to the mountains,” he says. “It’s a great sport and it involves a mix of extreme athletes and crazy guys. I love these people who are willing to put their lives on the line for the pure feeling of adrenaline.”

Recreational skijoring
Zhimanskova, however, believes that real growth and sustainability will be driven by recreational skijoring in ski resorts. “In North America, races are held in five Western states, but there are few places offering recreational skijoring,” she says. “It is a delightful and exhilarating experience to partner with a horse in a snowy, alpine setting. This doesn’t require nearly as much snow, since the horses are not running at a full gallop and the course can be built through the trees, where it might be easier to groom and retain the snow. I intend to put together a business plan and approach resorts in a more formal manner.”

Recreational skijoring, involving a meander through alpine forests towed by a pony, is gaining traction in Europe. Some French resorts are offering it, including Les Arcs, La Rosiere, Avoriaz and Chamonix, as well as Nax in Switzerland.

Jacques Fillietroz, who owns Le Centre équestre Ranch El Colorado, based in Bourg St Maurice, is the pioneer of the sport in France and has been offering it for 30 years.

“Skijoring appeals to people who come on skiing holidays and like horse riding and skiing. It’s not dangerous – it’s safer than skiing on the slopes – and you don’t need to be a great skier, you just need some experience,” he says. “It's becoming more popular and numbers are growing steadily.”

Requiring snow, horses, courage and skill, skijoring is unlikely to ever become mainstream, or very accessible. “Skijoring is not growing quickly now, never has and perhaps never will,” says Zhimanskova. “Global warming isn’t helping either, since a solid snow base is required for events. This can be a major safety factor, especially for the horses, and is a grave concern for those involved in the sport.”

However, the speed, excitement and novelty might be enough to give the sport the impetus it needs, and people will find ways around the barriers. This might mean swapping horses for dogs or motorised vehicles. Or swapping skis for a mountain board, as seen in a new British sport, known as horseboarding.

A British adaptation
Professional stunt rider and keen skater and surfer Daniel Fowler-Prime had the idea of towing a mountain board behind a horse some 12 years ago. It took a few years to perfect the technique, and veered into something like horse surfing (think kitesurfing, with a horse rather than a kite.)

The end result was an adrenalin-pumped sport, which is gathering a niche following among horse riders who are fed up with the dressage or show jumping circuit, and who have mountain boarder mates. Just as skijoring is typically Western, horseboarding is British at its wonderful, eccentric best.

There are two types of horseboarding competitions – a drag race along a 100m strip, with two teams going head to head in knock outs. Or arena horseboarding, which involves negotiating gates placed on a twisting course, against the clock.

Boarding sports and equestrian sports might be at opposite ends of the sporting spectrum, but Fowler-Prime says horseboarding brings the two disciplines together in a fun, unsnobby union. “We’ve been clear from the outset that it’s non-judgmental. It’s not about how pretty your horse is, or how well you can ride, it’s about how fast you can go.”

Currently all competitions are organised by Fowler-Prime and his brother, Tom Kilroy, under the auspices of Horseboarding UK. They are keeping a tight rein on the sport to ensure it grows safely.

“It was initially difficult to get insurance, but with a good safety record we have built up trust with our insurers,” says Fowler-Prime. “We’re very aware that we can’t afford to have any accidents, as that would reflect badly on us, so we’re growing the sport within a tight structure. To offer it more widely, we’ll need to create a qualification for riding instructors, so they can offer it safely at equestrian centres.”

At the moment, competitions tend to be run as spectacles at county shows, so the organisers pay Horseboarding UK a fee to run the event. There are currently around 70 teams on the circuit – up from six in 2013 – with around 20 teams at each event.

Even without the need for snow, the barriers to entering this sport are high. Your own horse is needed, which must be trained to drag (Fowler-Prime runs training days) and then teamed with an accomplished boarder. Again, it’s not likely to become mainstream, but as riders and boarders are always looking for the next thrill, it is starting to grow. Fowler-Prime says he is receiving enquiries from all over the world.

With skateboarding on the bill for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that these exciting, spectator-friendly sports could grace our TV screens and the Olympic Games in the future. In the meantime, it’s great to see different sporting cultures combined in an adrenaline-fuelled mash up.

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