There has long been, in many Rocky Mountain communities, a subtle tension between the old and new, between tradition and innovation. In some areas, it manifests itself between the Western horse culture upon which many towns were built, and the later arrival of the skiers drawn to the mountains who filled those same towns.
Every so often an event encompasses both, and in Whitefish it is the annual skijoring competition, where a horse and rider tow a skier around gates and over jumps: uniting horseman and skier through a shared love of going really, really fast and flying through the air at high speeds.
According to Scott Ping, one of the lead organizers of the World Skijoring Championships, part of the Whitefish Winter Carnival celebration, the horses gallop at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, yanking skiers around corners at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, who catch as much as 60 feet of air off the jumps.
“I guarantee, you come and watch it and it’ll be something you won’t forget,” Ping said. “It’s pretty darn competitive.”
Ping helped reintroduce skijoring to Whitefish in 2002, following a 20-year hiatus prompted by difficulty on the part of Winter Carnival organizers in obtaining insurance for the races, which saw their fair share of injuries in the 1970s. But skijoring’s roots, in Whitefish and beyond, reach much further back.
According to the website of the North American Skijoring Association (NASJA), of which Ping is a regional representative, hundreds of years ago farmers in Scandinavian countries invented it as a means of traveling over snow between communities, using a horse to tow the skier. Laplanders on Nordic skis held reins attached to reindeer. Today, several European countries hold large races on frozen lakes employing that style of skijoring, where a rider-less horse tows a skier.
Leadville, Colo., hosts the oldest skijoring competition in the U.S., dating back to 1949, which was roughly the time when the sport began to grow here. Ranchers tied long ropes to the saddle horns of horses ridden at high speed down straight courses. In the American West, the sport has remained roughly the same, though features like gates, turns and jumps have been added to the course. In the northeastern U.S., Ping said, race courses follow rolling terrain, forcing riders and skiers to contend with more climbs and descents.
Variations on the sport, where skiers are towed by dogs, snowmobiles or motorcycles, also exist and, in the case of dog joring, are growing in popularity.
According to local legend, as related by Ping, skijoring in Whitefish began in the 1960s when Norm Kurtz, founding father of the Carnival, was arguing with several friends over who among them was the best skier, horseman and drinker.
“Finally, after trying to figure it out they decided to combine it all and skijoring was born,” Ping said.
Races were originally held on Central Avenue, that is until Russell Street nearly crashed through the window of the Toggery and several runaway horses ran into a crowd. From there it was moved to the Mountain Trails Saddle Club on Wisconsin Avenue, where the Stumptown Ice Den now stands.
In 1999 directors of various skijoring events throughout the country met in Jackson Hole, Wyo., to establish a circuit so competitors could earn points toward becoming a national champion. While Leadville remains the oldest running skijoring event in the U.S., Whitefish has its own distinction.
“We’re the biggest equestrian skijoring event in North America,” Ping said. “We have the most competitors and the biggest payouts.”
Organizers aim to have 100 teams sign up this year, and first place in the “Open” class wins $8,250 (or 55 percent of all added money). “Amateur” and “Novice” divisions are also open for those who might be skiing and riding at a slightly slower pace, and contestants are needed.
“The reason that the sport is growing so much is people are realizing that anybody can do this,” Ping said. “Once you see it, and you kind of get involved in it, you get hooked.”
Those looking to participate can sign up at the Great Northern Brewery, Friday, Jan. 28. This is also an excellent place for skiers looking for riders to form a team, Ping said. The following morning, racers can warm up and begin inspecting the course before competition begins at noon. That evening, at the Great Northern Bar, Calcutta allows for betting on the next day’s best times after witnessing the competitors race. Sunday, the competition begins at noon at the Whitefish City Airport.
As a rider, Ping has his own goal for him and Kona, his horse, to complete the 900-foot course.
“I’m hoping that Kona and I will make it around there in 13 seconds,” he said. “That’s moving.”
For more info, visit www.whitefishskijoring.com or call Ping at 406-261-7464 or Vernon Kiser at 406-261-7087.
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