Guide to Skijoring with Dogs and Horses, Winter's Wildest Sport
(Bloomberg) -- For those propelled through life in pursuit of adrenaline, in wintertime finding ever-newer forms of entertainment can be a challenge if you’ve already conquered downhill skiing, uphill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, heli-skiing, snowboarding, race car driving on an ice field, and even gone so far as to rent out a whole mountain and buy a Ferrari-red Sno-Cat to partake in all of the above.
What’s a humble snow sports enthusiast to do when seemingly all icy avenues have been raced down?
Consider skijoring, the art of skiing while towed by rope at breakneck speed by horse or dog. Or as we like to think of it: the best winter pastime you never knew existed. It may not an Olympic sport—the closest it got was a demonstration at the 1928 St. Moritz games—but with popularity growing and several major skijoring competitions just around the corner, now is the time to get into this underrated sport. Here’s how.
The origins of skijoring can be traced to 1850s Scandinavia, when residents drawn to the various gold rushes in the western United States returned home and introduced Native American dog sledding traditions they had witnessed to local conditions. In Winter Adventure: A Complete Guide to Winter Sports, authors Peter Stark and Steven M. Krauzer contend that raising large packs of dogs didn’t make sense in densely populated areas, so the number of animals was downgraded and the sled was used only for cargo. They also made a key, distinctly Scandinavian adjustment: “The driver, instead of riding, held on and skied behind,” more actively propelling themselves instead of being pulled, while controlling the pack through a mix of reins and voice commands. Nordic-style mushing, as it came to be known, remains a popular pastime in Norway.
Fast forward to the late 19th century in America, when Scandinavian immigrants brought the tradition that would become skijoring back stateside. They nixed the sled and doubled down on the skiing—the name is derived from the Norwegian word skikjøring which means “ski driving”—and became a way for trappers to check snare lines, miners to go between claim sites, and backcountry mail deliverers to speed up their routes. These days, it’s generally a leisure activity here and abroad.
Who’s Skijoring For?
Skijoring with horses versus dogs is similar but distinct, the difference comparable to the variation between downhill and cross-country skiing. When skijoring with horses, the forward propulsion comes exclusively from, you guessed it, the horse. (Think of it as an icier version of water skiing.) With dogs, skijorers are responsible for propelling themselves forward, albeit with a little help from the pups.
For both, you’ll need to be in reasonably good shape. Those who’ve never been on skis might want to sit this sport out entirely. But experienced downhill skiers will be more than up for the challenge—they’ll be adept in navigating the punishing turns of a horse-swung rope. So will cross-country skiers, who, used to propelling themselves on flat terrain, will have well-developed stomach and lower-back muscles. Wakeboarders and water-skiers, too, will have the core strength and balance required to stay upright and not be pulled forward into a face plant.
If you’re hoping to bring your pup skijoring, make sure he’s game: Your dog needs to be healthy and weigh at least 35 pounds. Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes are good breeds for the sport, but Labrador retrievers, Rhodesian ridgebacks, Great Danes, greyhounds, border collies, and yes, even standard poodles can get in on the action.
Anthony Taylor, the adventures director for Minnesota’sLoppet Foundation, said he’s even seen shih tzus excel at skijoring. “Many dogs want to pull, it’s their instinct,” he said. Skijoring is “not just the people who have the working dogs.”
Taylor also noted that the popularity of skijoring has ballooned at the Loppet Foundation, with the number of skijoring clinics it offers quadrupling. He sees it as indicative of a larger trend.
Where Can You Skijor?
There are plenty places to take skijoring lessons around the U.S. and Europe. Of the horse-pulled variety, Montana’s Resort at Paws Up offers hour-long sessions for $200 a person on a groomed course. Also in Montana, Triple Creek Ranch offers skijoring for guests of the resort of all skill levels, equipment included. In the French Alps, the Ranch El Colorado offers skijoring lessons with pricing options ranging from 27 to 145 euros ($33 to $175). In the case of all three resorts, they provide the horses.
If your own canine companion is up for the challenge, Colorado’s High Country Dogs offers group clinics for dog-pulled skijoring at the Devil’s Thumb Ranch three times a season; $45 if you bring your own equipment and $85 if you rent. (The first of this year’s has passed, but the next clinics are Feb. 4 and March 4.) In Minnesota, the Loppet Foundation offers severalgroup clinics each winter season in Theodore Wirth Park; the price is $40 per human/pet pair, which includes harness gear but not ski rental.
Those with a little experience under their belt might want to consider a race. The City of Lakes Loppet Festival, which this year is spread over two weekends in late Jan. and early Feb. in Minneapolis, hosts one- and two-dog races for skijorers of all skill levels. For horses, there’s the Skijoring Utah competition coming up Feb. 2 and 3 and the Jackson Hole Skijoring races on Feb. 10 and 11.
If you’re interested in foregoing lessons and going straight into skijoring yourself, Taylor suggests going the dog route. The barrier to entry is much lower—dogs don’t need as much specialized equipment as horses—and if there’s enough snow on the ground to cross-country ski on and Fido is game, you can skijor practically anywhere. (Generally, parks that allow dogs in summer will allow skijoring in winter.)
If you’re being pulled by a horse, skijoring often requires full downhill skis, boots, and bindings. “You need the edges for the turns,” said Jackie Kecskes, the horse manager at the Resort at Paws Up. “People are surprised by that, but you really need to be strapped in.” If you’re being pulled by a dog, classic cross-country, touring, or backcountry skis can be used.
In addition to ski gear, you’ll also need harnesses and a towline; they’re slightly different depending on whether you’re skijoring with a dog or a horse. With dogs, you’re usually strapped into a belt connected to the animal, but not so with a horse; instead skijorers hold on to specialized harnesses or ropes attached to the horse’s saddle.
Other than that, you’ll require heat-insulating clothing, your wits, and a good sense of humor if—or rather, when—you fall down.
Skijoring Tips for Beginners
Horse skijorers should be comfortable sitting in a squat for two to three minutes at a time, which Kecskes said the sport often requires. Practice beforehand to gauge your ability. Also, you’ll want to pay attention to your rope work: “Watch the slack in your rope, you always want it to be taut,” she said. Although the distance between horse and skijorer can be great, there needs to be tension in the rope, otherwise when the horse moves forward suddenly you’ll be jerked violently along with it.
She also warned prospective skijorers to resist thinking about the sport purely in terms of photo-op potential. “When you strap into those skis and hold on that rope, your first thought is ‘How do I stay upright?’ and not ‘How do I look on these skis.’”
For those skijoring with dogs, Taylor said that the most important thing is to make sure your pup is adept in following commands.
“If you’ve got that down, you can skijor as a team,” he said. Dogs might be an easier way into skijoring than horses, which require more planning, he continued. “Skijoring with a dog is really an opportunity that exists for anyone, anywhere—you can skijor with your dog in the middle of Minneapolis tonight.”
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