An old cowboy saying has it that the only good reason to ride a bull is to meet a nurse. Mike Kohlnhofer and Ted Slathar may or may not have been thinking that when they were high school rodeo cowboys years ago living in Lakeville and Chaska, respectively.
Regardless, for thrills and chills, they rode bulls.
“When I was a kid, I showed horses,” said Kohlnhofer, 56. “But I got bored with that, and when I watched an older friend ride bulls, I tried it and got hooked.”
A few years younger than Kohlnhofer, Slathar as a teenager also loved the adrenaline rush he felt when climbing into a bucking chute to straddle a ton of bad bovine.
“Bull riding is unlike anything else,” Slathar said.
After high school, Kohlnhofer and Slathar rodeoed for the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where Kohlnhofer starred atop broncs, bareback and saddle, as well as bulls — until the last ride of his senior year.
“It was 1985. I was going to graduate two weeks later,” Kohlnhofer said. “I made it to the buzzer, eight seconds, on my last ride at a rodeo in Michigan. Then, just before I got off, the bull gave me a pretty good buck and I landed on my neck.”
Confined to a wheelchair ever since, Kohlnhofer remains good friends with Slathar, and the two, arguably, still are cowboys.
Together, they own a bucking bull named Killebrew that tours the country launching young cowboys like they once were into the air. Also, each has a daughter who rodeos. And they’re the brains behind the second annual Extreme Horse Skijoring competition to be held Feb. 23 at Canterbury Park.
“We were looking for something to do in winter, outside, that involved horses,” Slathar said. “Skijoring fit the bill.”
Dating back centuries, skijoring (the translation in Norwegian means “ski driving”) in different eras has involved reindeer pulling Laplanders for transportation, dogs pulling cross-country skiers for recreation, and horses pulling skiers (and now snowboarders) in competition.
Modern U.S. competitive equine skijoring is rooted in the mountain West, where races were held as early as the 1930s in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Staring one winter’s day a few years back at the half-dozen horses he keeps in his barn, Slathar thought competitive equine skijoring might work in Minnesota.
He already owned a company called Extreme Events Minnesota that organized the popular Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo each August in Waconia. Perhaps, he thought, equine skijoring might be another promotional opportunity.
He called his old rodeo buddy, Kohlnhofer, and ran the idea by him.
“I sit on the Goodhue County Fair board,” Kohlnhofer said, “and I thought, sure, let’s try it at our fairgrounds. This was in 2017. We didn’t advertise it or anything, just word of mouth. It didn’t take long and we had 50 teams entered, and 400 people came to watch.”
Slathar subsequently suggested moving the event to a larger venue, and Canterbury Park president and chief executive Randy Sampson agreed it might be a good fit for the Shakopee facility.
The inaugural Extreme Horse Skijoring event at Canterbury last year featured 100 teams and drew a crowd of almost 4,000.
“Teams” in this case means one horse, one rider, and one skier or snowboarder. The horse and rider run a straight line of about 700 feet while pulling the skier or snowboarder, who weaves through a course that has gates, jumps and rings that must be picked up.
The rope connecting horse and rider is 35-feet long, with no knot on the end.
Most competing horses, Slathar said, will be American quarter horses that in less snowy conditions are entered in rodeo roping events. They’ll run courses covered with between 6 inches and a foot of snow, and most will be shoeless to prevent snow from balling up on their feet.
Kids age 17 and younger will have their own class. Snowboarders, novices and “open” competitors, or those who have previously won money skijoring, also will compete.
A total of 140 teams are entered, with competitors coming from as far away as Utah, Colorado, and even Finland.
“The open class will be very competitive,” Slathar said. “In addition to the rings the skiers have to pick up and the gates they have to go around, there will be three jumps.”
Winning times generally will be under 10 seconds, with points deducted for various miscues.
Skijoring isn’t bull riding, Kohlnhofer and Slathar acknowledge. But it’s exciting nonetheless.