Skijoing - Taking off faster than horses can race
It’s a cold but crisp December day up Rapid Lightning Creek just off Sugar Mountain Road. In a field near his driveway, Matt Smart is driving his 4-wheeler, pulling a harrow behind. He’s smoothing out snow for a race track where he’s already prepared two jumps.
Two retired trail horses munch on hay in a small corral while the rest of the herd quietly mingles behind the barn. Jody Kirby and Julee Reeves stand near the rustic fence, watching Matt work. Jody also reviews a set of rules for a new sport coming to Sandpoint, where she’ll be serving as a judge.
These observations tell me that I’ve come to the right place: Matt and Chrissy Smart’s Mountain Horse Adventures.
On this day, the Smart’s ranch serves as venue for the first-ever public practice for Sandpoint-area skijoring, a brand-new feature for this month’s Winter Carnival.
The event, with a purse of $2,000 and financially supported by several area sponsors, is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, January 15 and 16 at the Bonner County Fairgrounds.
In short, skijoring involves a race against the clock over a designed course with a horse and rider, using a rope to pull a skier or snowboarder behind.
The course includes jumps and gates. Competition includes divisions for experienced skijorers and novices as well as a freestyle category where contestants can show off their acrobatic talents.
On this day at the Smart’s, practice begins as soon as skiers, snow boarders and some horse folks show up. Matt provides them a few quick guidelines.
A handful of skijoring novices take their first runs around the course, behind what Matt describes as a “very mellow” horse. Within minutes, it’s clearly evident that chances of the age-old winter European sport generating some keen wintertime excitement in North Idaho are more than promising.
“That was fun,” said local ski instructor and Ivanos waiter Nolan Smith after his first round. “Now, get me a faster horse.” Nolan’s enthusiasm was echoed throughout the afternoon as faster horses came from the barn, towing the skiers and boarders over the jumps and through gates.
In actual competition, a team of skijoring judges watch closely to see that contestants stay on course and that horses don’t go over jumps.
Even a month after Matt’s initial gathering and having watched several levels of practice on makeshift courses popping up around the area, I’m still trying to figure out the correct pronunciation for “skijoring.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be sure if it’s spelled as one word, two words or hyphenated.
What I do know for certain, however, is that skijoring has been taken off in Sandpoint as fast as horses can race across snow pulling daredevils behind them.
I’m also betting that when the inaugural event ends at the Bonner County Fairgrounds during this year’s Winter Carnival, spectators and participants will be looking forward to next year and the year after.
Better yet, whether it’s competing at a sanctioned event or just enjoying some backyard skijoring, the activity in all its varieties (even dog teams are used in some forms) provides an exhilarating new dimension to winter time fun.
Since the initial poster for the Winter Carnival event began appearing around town and after posting several photos on Facebook, I’ve witnessed, firsthand, an explosion of enthusiasm among numerous locals who’ve experienced their individual skijoring discoveries.
Even before Matt’s public practice, Selle’s Laura Gillet had rounded up her friend and local horse professional, Carrie Kedish, to ride her 5-year-old AQHA mare Sara. Laura, an avid horsewoman and skier, opted for skiing behind Sara.
She continued practicing as often as weather would permit in various Selle fields and on Matt’s course. Laura also had a farrier put special studded shoes on Sara. The shoes allow for safe travel on ice and prevent snow from balling up on her mare’s hooves.
After watching Matt’s practice, Janice Schoonover and her daughter Danielle Otis of Western Pleasure Guest Ranch went home and told Janice’s husband Roley what they’d witnessed. A few days later, Roley prepared a course in a large field below the family’s Gold Creek-area lodge.
On Christmas Eve, approximately 20 skiers, boarders and spectators, eight dogs and four horses gathered at the scenic field surrounded by forests that serves as summer pasture for Western Pleasure’s livestock.
For several hours, excitement was palpable as first-timers took off behind horses and got a feel for the sport, only to ask for more. At this gathering, boarders far outnumbered skiers.
Boarders encounter a more difficult challenge in maneuvering the course.
“Skiers sit back, and that’s not too difficult,” Matt Smart explains. “Boarders have to maintain a centered stance to hold on, and that throws them back, messing up their natural stance.”
Still, Boise transplant and new Schweitzer instructor Justin Pickford eased around Matt’s course as did those practicing at Gold Creek. Matt says the freestyle event lends itself to the “eye candy” of boarders and their tricks.
One aspect of the skijoring, which requires close monitoring, is the endurance-level of horses, accustomed to just standing around in their barnyards without much exercise during the winter.
It doesn’t take long for a horse with winter hair to work up a sweat, so caution was observed at the Western Pleasure gathering. A fresh set of horses came from the stable midway through the practice.
At the actual competition, a veterinarian will monitor the animals.
Contestants must also wear safety helmets. Gloves that don’t slip are encouraged. The three-quarter-inch tow rope should be about 50 feet long.
If Montana’s Red Lodge and Whitefish or Colorado’s Leadville and Steamboat Springs serve as any examples, future skijoring events in Sandpoint should draw the masses. Many of these communities with established events, like Leadville, hold the competition on the town’s main drag.
Throughout the winter, diehard competitors follow a circuit in these communities and others around the West, appearing at sanctioned events and aiming toward the National Finals at Red Lodge in early March.
According to Tammy Stevens, a “semi-retired skijoring champ” and local organizer, skijoring came to Red Lodge in the early 1960s as a “wacky addition to the town’s annual winter carnival.”
At first, the sport served as an intermission of sorts to cutter and snowshoe races.
“Skiers from Red Lodge Mountain had been talked into letting a couple of cowboys from the Roping and Riding Club pull them behind horses in straight-pull heats,” Stevens explained. “... meaning just that: a guy on a horse pulling a guy on skis as fast as possible straight down the middle of the main drag. The grand prize... a bottle of whiskey.”
As years went by, the event became more fined-tuned and modified. A horse-shoe shaped course, “designed to be both technically challenging and highly entertaining for spectators with at least four jumps ... and two dozen or more gates to slalom through in roughly 16 seconds... ” evolved. Crowds grew to the hundreds, and Red Lodge became home to the National Finals.
Ironically, while getting introduced to skijoring to write this column, I met Allison Evertz, now a substitute teacher for Lake Pend Oreille School District and formerly a participant in the Red Lodge National Finals. She was ecstatic when she heard skijoring was coming to Sandpoint.
In 2003, while living in Bozeman, Allison returned to Red Lodge where she had taught high school Spanish and English.
It was National Finals week for skijoring. Allison decided to get involved. As a skiing competitor, she needed a rider. So, she put a sign on her back at registration night, reading “Need a Rider.”
One of her former students showed up and teamed up with her.
“We didn’t know what were doing at all, but we were enthralled with the idea,” she recalls. “We ended up placing third out of six in our category. We were in the state of shock since our rope was too short and we really bungled the jumps.
“It was one of those classic events that makes for a great story and had a great impact on my life,” she adds.
Credit for the sport’s introduction to Sandpoint this year goes to Matt Smart who has worked tirelessly to generate interest among sponsors, volunteers and participants. Both Matt and Chrissy plan to compete also.
“I do want to thank the sponsors that have already helped us,” Matt says, “And I hope to see them there.”
Matt also called upon organizers and seasoned competitors from Whitefish and Red Lodge to help get Sandpoint skijoring off to a good start. Pros will compete in this year’s event, which is one of several on the regional circuit leading to the Red Lodge finals in early March.
Since moving to Sandpoint from New Orleans just days before Katrina, Matt, an elephant trainer for 14 years at Audubon Zoo, has made a name for himself locally with his two loves: skiing and horses.
He operates Mountain Horse Adventures at Schweitzer and from their home during summer and fall. As a ski instructor at Schweitzer, Matt wanted to combine his two passions.
“I wanted something to do with my horses in the wintertime,” he told me. “It puts two of my favorite sports into one. I was looking for something unique for horses in the wintertime ... I got into it last year, and I’m hooked.”
From my vantage point as a photographer and chronicler, I’m confident that in a few years, Matt and scores of others who have tried the sport will serve as pioneers for a growing local tradition.
According to Allison Evertz, skijoring’s blending of cultures and interests should foster positive outcomes for a community already recognized nationally for its wintertime fun.
“I see this event really taking off in this area,” she says. “It’s the best blend of two passions, and I see Sandpoint as a place ready to embrace the experience.”
For more information about registration, rules, sponsorship or team match-ups, call Matt Smart at 208-263-8768 or the Chamber office at 208-263-2163. Online information is available here.
Photo skijoring organizer Matt Smart riding the horse, pulling Laura Gillet. It was the first run of the first practice at Matt’s Mountain Horse Adventures off Rapid Lightning Creek Road.
Editor’s note: Pronounced “ski-jore-in” with the emphasis on the first syllable, the word comes from the Norwegian skikjøring, which means ski driving.