A Skier’s Rodeo

Skijoring horse pulling skier

Skijoring Comes to the San Juans.

By Sarah Lavender Smith

On the second weekend in January, the scene at the Ouray County Fairgrounds in Ridgway looks like a bunch of skiers got tangled up in a wintertime rodeo.

They’re clipping into bindings and teaming up with Western riders on skittish horses to race on a snow-covered track covered with jumps and slalom gates for a wild sprint called skijoring, a team sport that pairs fast riding with ski racing.

Spectators fill a grandstand and lean over the track’s railing, country music blares, flags fly, and a Jumbotron projects a closeup of horse and rider getting ready for their run. A skier, not using poles, positions himself behind the horse in the starting gate and picks up a rope that attaches to the back of the rider’s saddle. Suddenly the horse lunges forward, the rope tightens, and the team sprints down the track. “It’s an adrenaline rush,” says Kevin Wilder, who works for the ski resort in Telluride and has been skijoring for about four years. “There’s so much going on, and it happens so fast. You’ve got snow hitting you in the face, the horse zipping back and forth, and gates and jumps. It’s a wild 17- to  20-second ride.”

Wilder used to ski race and ride wakeboards, so he had some idea of how it would feel to be pulled by a rope while gliding. But skijoring is totally different from other ski and board sports given the team aspect of pairing horse and rider, catching air over jumps that usually have a flat landing instead of sloped, and managing a rope that tightens and slackens during the run.

Plus, the blend of cowboys and ski bums makes for a distinctly Colorado-style revelry. “A lot of times you see people from very different backgrounds all coming together to race as a team, which makes it a unique sport on top of how Wild West it all is,” says Wilder.

Skijoring is a Norwegian term for “ski driving” and usually involves Nordic skiers being pulled by dogs. Leadville imported the horse-and-skier version in 1949 and has been running a race down Leadville’s main street on the first weekend in March ever since. Gradually, and in smaller numbers, snowboarders entered the mix to compete in a snowboarding division.

In Ridgway, two members of the Weber ranching family—Sarah Weber McConnell and her brother Richard Weber, along with her boyfriend Tyler Smedsrud—founded San Juan Skijoring and brought the sport to Ridgway in 2017. That first year attracted about sixty teams, and now the annual competition draws around 150. Last year, they upped the thrills for teams and spectators by parking a Toyota truck in a gap between jumps for skiers in the pro division to clear.

Ridgway’s competition, scheduled January 14–15 for 2023, also strives to be beginner friendly with its novice division. Novice riders and skiers can go around the track as cautiously and slowly as they need. Often, it’s the team’s first opportunity to try out the sport or to introduce a green horse to it. “It’s not like barrel racing where you can go to an arena to learn and practice it,” says McConnell. That’s because every skijoring track is different, and it’s not easy to build jumps at home. “There’s not a lot of practice.”

In other words, you learn by jumping into a competition and trying it, as most of the competitors did themselves. Then you get hooked. “It’s definitely a hoot,” says Noah Gregory, a horseman who owns Telluride Wranglers and has been skijoring competitively for the past three winters on a race circuit that covers Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

It takes the right kind of horse, he explains, to handle the sounds and sights of the crowd and to want to run down the track. “You have to have a horse that trusts the rider unconditionally and that enjoys it as much as anyone else, because he’s part of the team,” says Gregory.

He prepares for the skijoring season by getting his horse in top shape and pulling a person on a sled while riding. He and one of his partners, Josh Butson, also build practice jumps at Schmid Ranch on Wilson Mesa.

Butson, who owns San Juan Outdoor Adventures, says skijoring combines elements of two favorite sports—ski racing and water skiing—while also leveraging another of his skills, managing a rope while climbing. “Plus, I always loved being around horses.” He’s now introducing his 6- and 10-year-old sons to skijoring.

While a roughly equal number of men and women ride horses in skijoring, the skiers and snowboarders tend to be male. Kelly Schuler, a second-grade teacher at Telluride Elementary School, is one of the few women who get pulled behind the horses. She got involved after watching her husband Lang compete in skijoring. “I wanted to do something besides just cheer everyone on,” she says.

Kelly gave it a try by partnering with Richard Weber and his horse at the Ridgway competition. She had the added challenge of being a snowboarder, which most agree is less forgiving than skijoring on skis. A snowboarder’s goofy- or regular-footed stance might make it tricky to edge turns, depending on the direction of the track and the approaches to the jumps. “My first time around in Ridgway,” Kelly recalls, “I held onto the rope pretty tight and went over a jump, and suddenly I was getting pulled and landed straight on my face.”

As soon as she crossed the finish line, however, she thought, I want to do this again. “It’s almost like a roller coaster—you get done, and then you want to do it again and go faster.”

Says her husband Lang, “You’re super nervous, and then after the run, you’re panting and sweating. I don’t understand how you can work so hard in just fifteen seconds.”

Beyond anticipating the thrill of the run, they can’t wait to reconnect with what they call their “skijoring family.” Says Kelly, “What we love most is the community of all the racers and their horses.”

For more information, visit sanjuanskijoring.com.

Sarah Lavender Smith of Telluride writes about mountain adventure in midlife at sarahrunning.substack.com.