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April 2-8, 2009

• Upcoming Events
• Saving lives in the mountains
• Outdoor Library
• Gear Guide

The joy (and pain) of skijoring
Quirky sport has gained recent recognition
after 60 years in Leadville
by R. Scott Rappold

Darin Anderson figured he was ready. This year, he had a mouth guard and a cup.

Then he saw what they had done to Harrison Avenue.

“I got up here and saw the course, and I said, ‘Oh my God,’” said Anderson, a skier from Vail, Colo.

This is skijoring, where horse racing and skiing collide to form one of the most dangerous sports this side of bull riding. For 60 years, skiers have been testing their abilities against powerful horses and jumps the size of small houses in Leadville, Colo.

Thanks to last year’s Warren Miller film, Children of Winter, which included a segment on Leadville’s Ski Joring, the event has evolved from a local curiosity to a national spectacle. An estimated 2,000 people came here in March to watch dozens of skiers risk life and limb to grab shares of about $5,000 in prize money, which, organizers said, would hardly cover their medical bills if things went wrong.

Promised the announcer: “The horsemen are going to make it work, and the skiers are going to die.”

In 1949, Leadville’s glory days as a mining boomtown were long over, and locals were looking for a way to attract more visitors during the sleepy winter months. Skijoring was nothing new — Scandinavians had been getting around that way with dogs and horses for centuries, and there was an exhibition at the 1928 Olympics. “Skijoring” is Norwegian for “ski driving.”

Tom Schroeder and “Mugs” Ossman, after witnessing a competition in Steamboat Springs in which skiers were pulled languidly around a course with 18-inch jumps, decided to spice it up. They added massive ramps and made the horses run faster, and the Leadville tradition began.

Skiers, riding on groomed snow hauled onto the street, must collect rings suspended from posts, and their time is penalized for missing rings or jumps.

The event attracts a mix of professional and amateur skiers looking for a challenge they can’t find on the slopes.

“When you’re skiing on your own, you determine when you need to turn,” said organizer Paul Copper. “When you’re being pulled by a horse running 30, 35 mph... the timing is different, and the horse determines when you have to turn.”

On the event’s opening day, a couple of hours before start time, it was easy to tell the horse riders from the skiers. The riders were laughing and joking, and the skiers were nervous and quiet, some starting their day with a little liquid courage from the bar. Since most skiers didn’t have their own horses, those who weren’t already part of a team took part in a drawing to match up with a horse and rider.

Sean Hubbard of Denver was among the many first-time competitors who came up after seeing skijoring in the movie.

Was he nervous?

“Not yet, but I’m sure I will be when I get behind that horse,” Hubbard said. “I’ve only even been on a horse once.”

“It doesn’t look too bad. I hit bigger stuff at Copper Mountain,” said Leadville’s Thomas Rodriquez of the course’s jumps.

Such confidence belies the real risks in skijoring.

Horse hoofs can crush a fallen skier. Ice chunks, and sometimes manure chunks, can hit a skier — the reason, in Miller’s movie, locals told a first-time competitor: “The first rule of skijoring is to keep your mouth closed.”

Skiers can break bones falling on the snow, and some have even been known to veer off course onto much less forgiving sidewalks
or into lampposts.

Still, nobody was hurt enough at 2009’s Ski Joring to require an ambulance ride, and Copper said the most common type of injury is “hurt pride.”

“I can’t even remember the last time somebody had anything broken,” Copper said. “Of course, there’s a risk of injury. If not, nobody would come.”

In fact, people come for a lot of reasons: to let their kids get pulled down the street by snowmobiles or for the parties afterwards or just the spectacle.

Janese Gifford has been coming to skijoring events for 40 years.

“It runs in your blood,” said Gifford, a former Leadville resident who lives in Montrose. “It’s huge. Leadville has the best in the world. It’s one of those things that the whole town loves.”

After nearly collapsing in the mid-1980s, skijoring is experiencing a renaissance, thanks to the movie. This year, the highest number ever of first-time skiers showed up, and organizers had to turn dozens away, for lack of horses. This year, 57 skiers signed for the sport run, for skiers new to skijoring, but there were horses for only 18.

“My sponsors will be upset,” one skier, who didn’t get matched up with a horse in the drawing and couldn’t compete, told the announcer.

His sponsors?

“Duct tape and ibuprofen.”
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