The ride lasts 18 seconds. Around the turn, over the jump, through the gate and grab the ring to complete the ski joring track. Also, as the skier, avoid tangling the 40-foot rope and crashing out during the race.
The name of the game is ski joring. It joins a horseback rider and a skier in a team — something that University of Montana law students Zane Aukee and Wade Fellin took part in this year.
“It’s a hilarious scene,” Fellin said. “You got the rodeo crowd from Montana and then the ski bums, which are found everywhere throughout the West.”
According to the North American Ski Joring Association website, the sport began in Scandinavian countries several hundred years ago as a way of travel. They used reindeer, but in the1950s ski joring found its way to North America, where ranchers attached ropes to saddle horns. These enthusiasts met April 24, 1999 in Wyoming to create the North American Ski Joring Association.
The law students were hooked when their friend Jack Connors invited them to participate in a race in Whitefish. They had no training or preparation before their first race. They jumped in the gate, grabbed the rope, let the horse go and were off.
Both compared the sport to water skiing — just replace the boat with a horse. The same muscles are used. Out of the gate, the sudden tug by the horse is like the one experienced when boats start towing water skiers.
In a race, the judges time the skier, not the rider. So with a long rope the skiers pull themselves as close to the horse as possible. But to make a jump or gate, they need to let slack out or incur a five-second penalty if they don’t make the gate.
Traditional ski joring courses are in a horseshoe shape, usually in an arena or a field. Some can be straight-shot courses, and cities have even shut down roads to accommodate such races. A rider is on the left while the skier navigates over jumps on the right side. The whole run lasts 17-22 seconds. Aukee said they joke that there is a lot of prep work for three days of competition which, ultimately, only amounts to 40-45 seconds.
There are four class options at ski joring races: open, sport, novice and sometimes women. During the Whitefish competition, Fellin skied in a race that had mules because it was cheaper. Once he saw the speed of the horse races he knew next time he had to find a horse. Usually competitors join in with a rodeo friend or get paired with a rider looking for a skier.
At the end of the day, an 18-second ride equals cash for the fastest. Winnings can be as much as $3,000 for individuals.
“I wanted to win not so much for the money,” Aukee said. “I wanted to win the championship engraved buckle that has a skier being pulled by a horse; that’s something money can’t buy.”
They both agreed that their unique sport is a break from the stresses of law school and allows them a chance to venture out of Missoula. The camaraderie of the sport has connected them to others with whom they can share their love of ski joring.
“As a skier I’m not meeting as many rodeo people and they don’t hang out with mid-20-year-old skiers,” Fellin said. “It’s backcountry and outdoorsmen, so putting those two groups together and sharing the love for the outdoors, that’s pretty neat.”