What is skijoring? How does skijoring work?

Patrick Smith pulls Bryan Coll during the 2024 Utah Skijoring competition at the Wasatch County Event Complex in Heber City on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Perhaps nothing epitomizes the American West today better than a fast and curious venture called skijoring. Never heard of it? Few have. It fuses two cultures this part of the country is known for — rodeo and skiing — into an action sport that is catching on more every year.

It’s a mashup of “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and “Life in the Fast Lane.”

The funny name is derived from the Norwegian word skikjøring, which means ski driving. The roots go back hundreds of years to Scandinavians harnessing reindeer and strapping on Nordic skis to cross vast expanses of frozen tundra.

In the modern version, cowboys and cowgirls on horseback tow skiers (and snowboarders) holding a 30-foot-long rope hooked to the saddle over a snow-covered obstacle course at breakneck speed. The skier must navigate slalom gates, hit jumps, grab rings and make sweeping turns.

Reaching speeds of nearly 40 mph, it’s over in under 20 seconds for the fastest teams depending on the track. Let go of the rope — or crash — and it’s over a lot quicker.

More than two dozen skijoring races are held each winter in mostly Western states including Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah as well as in Maine, Minnesota and Calgary, Canada. A competition in Heber City, Utah, this month drew record teams and crowds. It’s popular enough that there’s talk of it becoming at least an Olympic demonstration or exhibition sport, with some eyeing Salt Lake City, the International Olympic Committee’s preferred host for the 2034 Winter Games, as an ideal showcase.

For now, it’s a thrill sport with a little prize money and some hardware in the form of rodeo-style belt buckles for top teams.

A lot of things must go right in a skijoring race — and a lot of things can go wrong very quickly. Rope management is key. The best skiers work up and down the rope hand over hand, keeping it taut through the straightaways and allowing slack to make turns. It takes some cowboy grit and skiing flair to make a clean run.

Trevor Howard, on horseback, and skier Scott Hoover practice for an upcoming skijoring competition in Heber City on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“It’s just like, ‘Boom!’ you’re in it, and it happens so fast,” said Scott Hoover, a 38-year-old father of four young boys (all of whom have competed) who races in a red-and-blue-plaid flannel shirt that reads “I Could Do This All Day” on the back.

“You feel a jerk of rope and you’re flying down the track way faster than you think you’re going to go. Then you’ve got big chunks of ice flying off the horse’s feet, flying past your head, clobbering you in the face. … It’s just so exhilarating. It’s awesome.”

Utah buckles up for skijoring

Lifelong friends Brian Gardner and Joe Loveridge, who share a passion for horses and skiing, knew they had to organize a skijoring race in Utah after they came across the sport in Montana.

“Holy crap, this is really cool. We need to do this in Utah,” is how Loveridge recalled his first time seeing it. Says Gardner, “We thought, ‘Well, shoot. That’s skiing. That’s horses. Both things we love.’ We thought we should put one together in Utah because there had never been one.”

Skijoring Utah, which they founded, staged its first race in 2017 at Soldier Hollow, the cross-country skiing venue for the 2002 Olympics. The two former members of the Sundance ski patrol called up all their skiing friends. They told all their cowboy friends to trailer up their horses. They wrangled 100 competitors. They sold tickets and were thrilled when 500 people showed up. Gardner said he’s not sure they intended it to grow, but it has.

A competition Loveridge and Gardner put on last weekend in Heber City drew the largest number of participants and spectators in its seven-year history. About 345 teams competed in divisions from novice to pro, with the top teams vying for $25,000 in cash along with the coveted belt buckle and other prizes, drawing 7,775 spectators over two days. There’s even a lil buckaroo division for kids and a century division in which the combined age of the rider and skier must total at least 100. The Cowboy Channel, a network in over 42 million cable and satellite homes that carries Western and rodeo sports, streamed the race start to finish. 

Spectators watch the 2024 Utah Skijoring competition at the Wasatch County Event Complex in Heber City on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The event was sold out for the weekend.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Fans flock to races

A Skijoring Utah competition has become a can’t-miss event for fans.

On the cold but sunny Saturday, spectators in Stetsons and beanies filled the bleachers at the Wasatch Event Center in Heber City, against a backdrop of majestic, snow-covered Mount Timpanogos. Country and rock music blared from speakers next to a giant video screen. A drone followed each team through the course.

Track-side tailgating with portable wood-burning fire pits, burgers on the grill, beer on ice and spirits in plastic cups rivaled any college football game. Women (and some men) in fur coats, glittery Western hats and fancy boots mingled in the crowd. Concession stands and food trucks did a brisk business. Vendors hawked everything from fine leather saddles to cool ski goggles along with Skijoring Utah merch.

Cole Barton, 28, and his friends have snagged a tailgating tent for the past four years. “You get more of an experience for this event,” he said. “It just sets the vibes. … You’re getting sprayed with snow, you’re seeing the horses run right past you.”

Race day is one Katie Frickel, who bought a now 23-year-old retired thoroughbred in Kentucky a few years ago, looks forward to all year.

She came across skijoring on social media four years ago. The first time she raced, she rode so fast that she ripped the rope from her skier’s hands. For the Heber City event, she pulled a ski racing friend. “I called him and said, ‘Hey, I just heard of this sport. … I got a race horse. You’re a ski racer. Can I drag you?’”

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And now millions of people are watching her on social media.

Frickel posts some of her skijoring exploits on TikTok, where she has more than 44,300 followers. One video has 2 million views, 264,000 likes and nearly 18,000 bookmarks. Another has 1.2 million views and 161,700 likes. Wrote one follower among the more than 2,100 combined comments, “Please post more of these I’m BEGGING you.”

Urban skijoring

Salt Lake City got its first glimpse of skijoring earlier this month. Visit Salt Lake featured skiers and horses at its first winter sports, arts and culture festival downtown. Skijoring Utah put on an exhibition on a course on West Temple with snow trucked in from Big Cottonwood Canyon. At least a thousand people lined the street between Abravanel Hall and Nordstrom to catch the action.

Kaitlin Eskelson, Visit Salt Lake president and CEO, said event organizers wanted to bring in something “iconic that would shock and awe people.” They landed on skijoring and believe Salt Lake City is the biggest city to ever host the sport.

Among those on hand at the invitation of Visit Salt Lake was Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street. She has tried skijoring with friends in Idaho but has not competed.

Skiers use the same skills flying down a slalom or downhill course as they do being dragged behind a horse.

“You definitely have to be paying attention. You’ve got to know where you’re going. You’ve got to know the course. The biggest difference is the horse and its pace because usually you have gravity pulling on you and that’s a little more predictable. That’s another element that changes it a bunch. But pretty much everything you know as a skier comes over and applies,” she said.

Everyone has a story about how they got into skijoring.

Take Holland Howe, a petite 24-year-old Salt Lake City pediatric nurse who discovered the sport in her home state of Montana. She and her friends decided to give it a go at the National Finals Skijoring Races in Red Lodge. They had never skied behind a horse.

“I knew no one was going to come up to me and be like, ‘Yeah, you look like a fast kid,’ so I went up to the tallest cowboy I could find and I go, ‘Hey, will you pull me? I’m a really good skier, do this all the time. He goes, ‘Oh, boy.’ That’s how we started.”

At the start line, the then-17-year-old Howe held the rope as the horse bucked in front of her.

“I almost peed my pants,” she said.

But Howe is all in, so much so that she skied in the Salt Lake City exhibition with a broken humerus, dislocated shoulder and torn labrum on her left arm and a broken scaphoid in her right hand, a bone that’s important for wrist motion and stability. She crashed skiing off a cliff at Snowbird. The public address announcer at the skijoring event joked that Howe’s parents didn’t know she was there. “Neither does my surgeon,” Howe added.

Two humans, one horse

Riders are decked out in cowboy hats, chaps and spurs, skiers in helmets, goggles and anything from skin suits (for the serious competitors) to jeans. But the stars of the show might be the horses.

“I think the horse is probably the most important teammate of the entire thing,” said Trevor Howard, a horseman who hasn’t spent much time on skis.

Gardner said the horses enjoy the race.

“You can feel it underneath you. They feel the energy of the crowd, they feel the music and they light up. I believe they’re competitors,” said Gardner, who pulled Loveridge through the Heber City course last weekend.

Luke Combs (and Tracy Chapman) might have a fast car but Marquise Young, 28, has a fast horse, several of them actually. She has never been on skis but started pulling skiers a couple of years ago. Not just pulling them, but pulling them to victory. Seems like every top skier wants to get behind her black appendix quarter horse Slim Shady.

“I like the environment,” Young said, referring to the mix of “crazy” horse people and skiers. “And obviously riding horses fast. … It’s better than rodeo.”

Interestingly, many of the skiers and riders meet for the first time on the day of the race. A quick strategy session — something like go fast here, slow down there — might occur before they’re off and running.

Eighteen-year-old Karl Verhaaren admits he’s a little scared of horses. But he had no problem getting behind Slim Shady when he and Young met up on race day. “It’s notorious for being fast,” he said.

He grew up ski racing and freestyle skiing but gave skijoring a try four years ago and already sports a championship buckle under his hoodie.

“It’s definitely a learning curve at first just because it’s a weird mix of skiers, Western culture,” Verhaaren said. “It’s definitely a little weird to get used to.”

Gardner said it has been interesting to watch cowboys and skiers bond, though their backgrounds might be completely different.

“I think they share a common zest for life and a common enjoyment of getting outside and pushing the limits a little bit,” he said. “Even though they may not have been friends before, they end up leaving as friends. It’s kind of an unlikely place to team up.”

A skier rounds a turn past a gate during the 2024 Utah Skijoring competition compete in skijoring at the Wasatch County Event Complex in Heber City on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. Skiers are expected to clear gates on the course or be penalized three seconds on their time.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Ski driving’s Nordic roots

Skijoring wasn’t contemplated as a recreation or a sport. It had more practical purposes. Arctic natives used dogs and reindeer to travel over the snow. In Norway, it provided a means for communication between villages. It was also used by the Norwegian military as a quick way to move soldiers and supplies. It spread to Europe with horses replacing reindeer in Switzerland and France. The sport found its way to North America in the early 1900s.

Equine skijoring appeared as a recreational activity in Lake Placid, New York, and a regular pastime at the Dartmouth Winter Carnival in Hanover, New Hampshire, according to Skijor International. As early as 1930, mountain towns like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, took up the sport, often running in pairs down main streets. 

In 1928, skijoring was featured as an exhibition sport at the Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Riderless horses pulled skiers with ropes around an oval track. The Swiss swept the podium. But results were not included in the official Games report and the medals were not tallied in the overall count.

Westward ho

In the U.S., the sport has migrated west, with weekend races in mostly small towns in Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming from late December through early March.

Leadville, Colorado, has held skijoring races on its historic main drag, Harrison Avenue, since 1949. In Montana, the Red Lodge Ski-Joring Association has been hosting what it bills as tFhe national finals for skijoring races since 1980.

Even though there’s no organized race circuit, some skiers and riders travel from town to town each weekend to compete.

Bryan Coll recovers after losing his balance off a jump during the 2024 Utah Skijoring competition at the Wasatch County Event Complex in Heber City on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. Coll and his rider secured first place in the sport division.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

New York transplant Bryan Coll, now living in Park City, tried skijoring for the first time last winter in Leadville. A former college wrestler, he has dedicated the winter to weekend races, having competed in three events in Colorado and Wyoming before signing up for the Heber City race.

“After I finished my collegiate wrestling career, I decided I’m going to stick on the mountains and I’m pretty obsessed with it. Once I found out about this, it’s a real thrill and I haven’t looked back since,” said Coll, sporting snow rash above his lip from a crash.

Let’s get organized

While several states put on skijoring events, the sport is all over the map when it comes to courses and rules. Tracks vary from 600 feet to 1,000 feet long. They can be straight, U-shaped or L-shaped. Skiers may be allowed to team up with different riders in the same division. Event organizers don’t even agree on how to spell its odd-sounding name: It’s skijoring or ski-joring or ski joring depending on the locale.

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Loren Zhimanskova, a Yale graduate who worked in sales and marketing for Ralph Lauren, was introduced to skijoring in McCoy, Colorado, a dozen years ago when a friend invited her to a local watering hole on a Friday night where skiers and riders teamed up over beers in what she called a “crazy dating game.”

“It was just fascinating to me,” she said.

Zhimanskova was “absolutely hooked” after seeing her first race. “The adrenaline rush, the beauty of seeing the horses run in snow, the rush of seeing a skier get launched right before your eyes, screaming past you.”

Since then, she has devoted herself to raising skijoring out of obscurity, both nationally and internationally. She chairs a New York-based alliance, Skijor USA, that is attempting to bring uniformity to the sport. It’s tough sledding among fiercely independent race organizers who don’t want to be governed or told how to run their events. She also launched Skijor International.

“It’s just an extraordinarily delicate subject and unfortunately a complicated process to get all of these races under one umbrella,” said Zhimanskova, who splits her time between New York and Colorado.

Gardner and Loveridge in Utah aren’t big fans of having a sanctioning body govern the sport, though Gardner allows it’s a great question to ponder.

“I think that we are indifferent to that. We are fine operating our own independent event and having the rules be our rules and the way we want it to be. I could see the value if somebody were to start that. But I could also see some problems with that down the road,” he said.

Skier Scott Hoover wears his championship skijoring belt buckle in Heber City on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Future Olympic sport?

Zhimanskova said she has national sponsors who want to invest in the sport but prefer to see it organized under one umbrella.

“I’ve been approached personally by quite a few companies that love the whole image of skijoring. They think that it’s perfect for their demographic. They’re up-and-coming companies that are looking to distinguish themselves against their more well-known competition. So they’re a little edgy, they’re kind of outlaws and renegades but they’ve got money,” she said.

Zhimanskova believes there has to be a federation or coalition for skijoring to have any shot at the Olympics, even as an exhibition demonstration sport. She doubts it will ever be a medal sport. More realistic, she said, would be for it to be part of a torch relay or festival surrounding a Winter Games, especially in a place like Salt Lake City.

“I’m trying to use my experience to grow skijoring without it losing its integrity,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m doing my best kind of being a politician of sorts to say to people you need to start thinking outside the box.”

Regardless, she sees skijoring as an evolution.

“I think it’s a really fun journey to be on,” Zhimanskova said. “Every year I never know where it’s going to go.”

Tommy Flitton lays on his back after crashing over a jump during the 2024 Utah Skijoring competition at the Wasatch County Event Complex in Heber City on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

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