Cowboys on Skis

Whitefish World Invitational Ski Joring event kicks off Jan. 30

By Clare Menzel
Scott Ping pulls Will MacDonald on his horse, Kona, during practice. Beacon File Photo

All you need is a fast horse with a strong horseman, a decent skier, and a pair of gloves that won’t shred. It’s Winter Carnival season in Whitefish, and that means it’s time for the return of the signature event that combines the valley’s skiing and cowboy heritages.

“Ski Joring is perfect for Whitefish,” said Ron Behrendt, an event volunteer who got his first taste of ski joring a decade ago when he stepped in for a skier who didn’t show up to the competition. “It brings our cultures together, and it’s a great spectator sport. It exemplifies the original spirit of Winter Carnival, which is about having a good time.”

Behrendt is in charge of building the Whitefish World Invitational Ski Joring tracks at the Whitefish Airport, which will be horseshoe-shaped on Saturday and straight on Sunday. And while the horse’s main job is to run without looking back, Behrendt sets gates and builds 5- to 6-foot tall jumps along the track to complicate things for the skiers.

“My theory on jumps is to make them really big, really scary, and really safe,” he said. “You want it to look nasty but ski great.”

Behrendt does this by shaping the jump like a tabletop, so that when the skier is pulled off, they launch forward, not upward. This makes it easier – relatively speaking – to land upright while still hanging onto the rope attached to the horse plowing through the course at some 40 miles per hour.

“It takes three heartbeats. The skier, the rider, and the horse,” said Scott Ping, the event’s organizer and a ski joring rider. “It takes three individuals to make a good run, and if you make a good run, you’re going to win.”

And though “the skier doesn’t know how to ride, and the rider doesn’t know how to ski,” as rider Steve Armstrong said, “you still have common ground. You’ve got to click.”

Riders and skiers have been practicing together every Sunday in January at Ping’s ranch in Whitefish. With the horse pounding ice and snow rather than dirt or grass, the ski joring setting exacerbates every danger of a usual competition. Even if a horse is in excellent shape, they can easily go down on the slippery turns. Many wear shoes with traction, as well as special boots to protect their ankles if they slip or overstep.

But, as Behrendt said, “this is an addictive sport. You do it once and you’re very likely to want to do it for the rest of your life.”

Once you’re hooked, you just do what you can to make the race as safe as possible for the rider and the skier.

“I don’t pull people I don’t know,” said Molly Fisher, a rider from Kalispell. “It’s a dangerous thing … You have to have confidence. You can’t be wondering what your skier is doing.”

So Fisher, who has competed for three years, often pulls Tim O’Brien, a skier she knows particularly well because he first invited her to try the sport out when his friend, who is Fisher’s horseshoer, told him about her speed. The pair placed 12th last year in the sport division, though Fisher also took home a silver with skier Emily Lewis.

Sport is the second-most competitive division at the event, after the open, which is the division that rider and skier teams travel the country to professionally compete in. A third category, novice, is for entry-level teams. Last year, 150 competitors formed 78 competing teams across all divisions, and Ping expects the number to grow.

“We really pride ourselves on being an invitational. We invite those people from Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, even as far away as Florida,” said Ping. “If you come from more than 500 miles away, we give you a place to stay and put your horses up for free.”

Ski joring has been a Whitefish Winter Carnival tradition since the event’s early days, but organizers decided to opt out of the competition for insurance reasons in the 1980’s. Just under a decade ago, Ping and Dale Duff were hanging out drinking beer in Ping’s basement when they decided that the carnival wasn’t complete without ski joring.

Since restoring the event in 2003, Ping said “we’ve build up the sport a lot… it’s going better than it ever has.”

The event kicks off Jan. 30 with an opening ceremony at 11:30 a.m., followed by the competition at noon. Spectators can bid on teams at the Calcutta, which starts at 7 p.m., Jan. 30,  at Casey’s Bar and Grill. The Sunday competition schedule is the same as Saturday’s. There is a $5 entry (no charge for children 12 and under). Parking at Whitefish High School is serviced by free shuttles. Enjoy food and drinks while watching the race and the long jump, which is sponsored by Murdoch’s. To volunteer, call Scott Ping at (406) 261-7674.

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