Combining horseback riding and skiing, skijoring is an unusual event that is drawing crowds from all over to mountain towns in the West

A skier, a cowboy and a horse line up at the start of a race…

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? But this is actually the story of an unexpected trio. It’s called skijoring, and it’s unlike any other winter sport you’ve witnessed.

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Jasmine Johnson races down Blair Street in downtown Silverton, Colorado, for the Silverton Skijoring race.Hank Blum

“I think the sport’s really cool and unique because you have two totally different groups of people that come together to participate in the sport,” said Jasmine Johnson, who has been competing in skijoring events as a horseback rider for the past five years. “I mean, you’ve got a cowboy, a giant animal and a skier all on the same team working together, and everyone’s part matters.”

With more and more skijoring races popping up across the West, the sport is seeing a rise in popularity. You’ll want to keep skijoring on your radar this winter, as the event offers a fun and unique perspective for participants and spectators alike. 

From the Past to Present

Skijoring competitions across the West got their start more than 70 years ago, with areas such as Leadville, Colorado, hosting a skijoring event down its main street starting in 1949. But the origin of the sport dates back much further. 

“The origins actually go back to Europe,” said Adam Rys-Sikora, President of Skijoring America. “It’s been around for quite some time.”

The name itself is derived from the Norwegian word “skikjøring,” which translates to “ski driving.”

Today, skijoring in the western United States requires a horseback rider to navigate a course that includes jumps, gates and other obstacles while pulling a skier on a rope. The skier then collects rings dispersed throughout the course. The team that collects the most rings in the fastest time wins. Let’s break it down to better understand the roles of each member of a skijoring team.

The Skier
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A skier heads into a turn at Skijoring America’s Nationals Finals in Red Lodge, Montana.Elora Akins

Want to try skijoring, but don’t have much experience? That’s okay. When it comes to the skier, all levels and abilities are encouraged to come out and try it for themselves.

“The coolest thing about skijoring is you don’t have to be an expert to do it,” said Tyler Smedsrud, one of the race organizers for the San Juan Skijoring race in Ridgway, Colorado, as well as a competitive skier in the sport.

“You can be someone who has only skied five times in your entire life and get behind somebody who knows how to ride a horse and enter the novice and they’ll pull you around the track,” Smedsrud said.

Smedsrud got his start in the sport in 2007 when a friend convinced him to enter a race in Red Lodge, Montana. Since then, he has traveled across Montana, Wyoming and Colorado to compete in at least one event every year, with some years reaching up to 12 events in a season.

As both a skier and co-founder of San Juan Skijoring, Smedsrud is working to make the Ridgway event more skier-friendly.

“With our course, the idea is for it to flow and for the jumps to have landings,” Smedsrud said. “Whereas on the traditional skijoring track, the skiers are just landing on the flats and there was very little other terrain besides the jump to a flat landing.”

Skiers may use their traditional downhill skiing setup. Smedsrud suggests avoiding big fat skis, as the goal is to go as fast as possible. Helmets, goggles and a good pair of gloves are a must for skiers.

And if you prefer to snowboard, then you’re in luck. Snowboarding is making a name for itself in skijoring with several events offering a snowboard category, including San Juan Skijoring.

“The snowboarding classes have been getting really popular,” Rys-Sikora said.

The Cowboy
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Skiers encounter a variety of obstacles during a skijoring race, including ski jumps.Hank Blum

Skijoring gives the cowboys (and cowgirls) something to do in the winter.

“I think that a lot of people that own horses in the wintertime get frustrated because there’s lack of dry ground to do normal horse training on” Rys-Sikora said. “And so having another activity, you have this opportunity to get out there and keep your horse in shape and compete, win money, have fun. It gives them something to do in the wintertime.” 

Skijoring makes it easy for riders to continue working with their horses while training for an event, as well as having something to look forward to.

“If you love to rodeo, then you’re going to love skijoring,” Smedsrud said. “It’s basically winter rodeo.”

A skier can enter this sport without any ties, meet a horseback rider and give skijoring a shot. But when it comes to the rider, they must learn to work with their horse and get them prepared for the event. 

The Horse

Out of the three participants involved, nobody has more fun skijoring than the horse.

“Some people get the wrong impression,” Johnson said.

Onlookers may feel that the horses experience constant stress and agony while participating in skijoring events — but it’s quite the contrary.

“These horses really do enjoy their job,” Johnson said. “When my horse sees a set of skis, his eyes light up and he starts jumping up and down. He’s really excited to go. He loves to run.”

“The horse loves it as much as we do, and the precautions we take as far as how we set up our track is as safe as the horse running in sand as far as I’m concerned,” Smedsrud said. 

And while it may not appear this way to bystanders that do not have experience looking after a horse, it’s important to understand that these riders work closely with their horse to make sure that they are well cared for before, during and after these events.

“Sometimes you see people going crazy on their horses — kicking, screaming, whatever — and it’s just a transfer of energy,” Johnson said. “The horses feed off of it.” 

Skijoring continues to grow across Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. This winter, check out a skijoring event near you and experience this thrilling, up-and-coming sport for yourself.

Sidebar: Local Events

Want to see what skijoring is all about? Check it out at one of these nearby events.

TIONA EVERSOLE is an outdoor enthusiast based in Durango, Colorado. Look for her on the slopes or exploring the local trails with her pup, Sgt. Pepper.