Friday, March 11, 2011

Keep Ski Joring Alive!

Since the first days of harnessing all types of animals, from dogs to caribou to horses to pull a skier many years ago in Scandinavia, the activity made its way across to America. The sport of Ski joring, like any sport, has had its share of ups and downs, and the only way any sport keeps going is if people participate. Participation supports the life of the sport. If you are like this student, you may have wondered what it takes to start ski joring or how to go about getting an event started.

Snow and Course

One important basic requirement for ski joring is snow. While a ton makes it that much better, a mere six inches of snow is all that is necessary. That is not a lot. However, it needs to be packed firm and level. As Vernon Kiser from Whitefish Montana says that at the Whitefish Winter Carnival they use a groomer, but a tractor will do, to pack the snow. "The main thing is to have solid footing for the horses. Even if you just scrape the snow away so that it is about 4-6 inches deep that will work," describes Kiser. And Geoffrey Smith, president of the North American Ski Joring Association agrees, "A foot of snow is plenty." However, Smith goes on to strongly caution, "We are very particular about the foot of the horse." He says that the footing needs to be firm. "We use a Snow Cat from a ski area to pack the course. You don't want the hoof sinking or anything to cause tripping. You can do this even if you only have six inches, as long as it is firm pack."Matt Smart, organizer of Sandpoint's sanctioned race in January, adds to what Kiser and Smith say, " You only need about 4in to 6in of packed snow. The harder the snow, the faster the horses can run."

As an individual enjoying the sport, no course is needed, but in competing, a good level course is a must. Courses across America vary in shape, length, as well as the number and size of jumps and other features. A course can be many shapes from a horseshoe shape to J-hook to straight, and the length can very from 600 feet to 1,200 feet. "There are a lot of different ways to set up course," explains Kiser. Smith says, "Each venue has its unique spin and has the ability to be unique. That's the fun about the sport." Kiser describes,"[In Whitefish] we do a U shape course with 3 jumps, skier goes in and out of gates. Our course is about 800 feet long." In Wisdom, Montana according to Denise, member of the Big Hole Valley Tourism Group, "We use a straight track 900 feet long. We have 3 jumps and 7 or 8 gates, Slalom style; two on right, one on left. The jumps are 30-36 inches high. We keep them low because we have beginners involved."

No matter the length, a couple hundred feet of a straight slow down stretch is necessary. Denise explains, "On the straight course we have a run out of about 500 feet beyond the track to slow down." He explains that you don't want to be asking the horse to slam to a stop. The horses full out gallop achieving speeds as fast as 40mph. Jumps tend to be slalom style and the height and width depend on how much air, how high, the designer wants the skier projected. Other features include rings the skier is to gather or obstacles for the skier to navigate.


Prepared horses, riders, and skiers are obviously required participants. For an event, judges and farriers are needed as well. And at events you will have spectators.

Horses need to be comfortable with ropes around them and with pulling something, or in this case someone, behind them. According to Smith, most horses are fine with such a set up, once they realize they are never going to out run the skier. Smith encourages people to start training before the winter, to get the horse used to the idea.

While the rider controls the horse, the skier being pulled behind needs to be prepared. The skiers need to be ready to sink their weight low, shins against the boots, taking in and letting out on the tow rope as necessary to keep in contact with the horse and clear the obstacles. "[The] skier moves up and down rope to make gates, [which] are set up like a slalom course," describes Kiser. For this type of event ski gloves are best left at home. Smart recommends that skiers should use work gloves due to the rope burning good ski gloves. Skiers also need to be prepared with a good helmet and sturdy goggles. "Flying ice balls and horse shoes coming off the horse come flying at the skier. The helmet is more for the flying debris from the horse. Being close to the horse you never know what will happen," explains Smith who does not see ski joring nearly as dangerous as eventing.

Judges are needed at the starting line, end, and at any jumps or other features of a course. When seriously competing, farriers are needed for applying traction to the shoes, like borium or studs. As Smith strongly advises, "When racing competitively, traction shoes and studs are a must. We use borium, but other people use the screw-ins." Smart strongly feels, when racing, "Most importantly for the horse, use studded shoes!" Alone, ski joring for pleasure, bare hooves can be fine as long the horse is not working hard, impacting the hooves on the frozen ground. Smith says, "With soft snow, when you're starting out, no shoes are fine." To clarify, no shoes are fine for the horse who is pulling a skier around at a slow pace in soft snow, not racing on packed snow.

While watching is encouraged, to maintain safety the track needs clearance. "Just warn spectators to stand back. Keep them back from the track a bit," advises Denise.


  • Something to create and pack a level course, like a tractor or SnowCat or groomer.
  • Tack for the horses. Smith recommends Western tack with a breast collar and D-ring. "You want the weight being pulled off the chest, not the saddle," Smith explains. Smart recommends bell and splint boots as well as a breast collar for the horse.
  • Ski equipment for the skier.
  • Hand-timer. In Wisdom they're using hand-timers and flaggers, but other places use electronic timers.
  • A good cotton rope. 33feet long for a straight track and 50 feet for a curving one are standard lengths. "Use about a 5/8" cotton rope, like in a lead line; its friendlier on gloves. Don't use ski rope or plastic rope – that will burn gloves," advises Smith. "You can use up to a 1" line. We'll knot ours with a splice, so the skier can grip." However, as Smart advices, "Do not use a tow rope with a handle. These can be very dangerous if they wrap around the skier or horse at the start."
  • If an event is to be held, other details that need to be considered include the same as "a rodeo" as Denise put it. Sponsorship, insurance, concessions, and maybe an ambulance should be considered.

By joining in participation, participants join a group of fun loving people all across America and become a part of keeping the sport alive.

Last piece of advice: As Smith, President of NASJA, will tell you, "People doing ski joring are friendly and fun loving people. So just get people together and try it. Take baby steps." If you, like myself, take Smith's advice, we will have questions. But as I have found, ski joring people are really helpful and willing to answer those questions.

Good luck and welcome to ski joring!