An old, extreme and not-ready-for-the-Winter Olympics sport that involves four hoofs, two skis and one rope is making a comeback in the Midwest.
No, they’re not putting horses on skis. Instead, horses are towing skiers at top speed along a snow-covered racecourse with jumps and obstacles set up on the Canterbury Park horse track in Shakopee.
The event, called “Extreme Horse Skijoring,” is an adrenaline-fueled version of dog skijoring, recently seen recently at the City of Lakes Loppet ski festival in Minneapolis.
But instead of family pets pulling cross-country skiers around a city lake, the equine version is more of a drag race: an all-out, galloping sprint for the horse — and the skier.
Given the horsepower towing them, the skiers and snowboarders will hit speeds of 20 to 30 miles per hour and get some pretty good air under their boards when they hit the jumps.
“The horse starts rearing at the start and your heart starts pumping,” said Mike Fries, a 42-year-old Hopkins resident who started skijoring in Colorado 17 years ago. “You’ve got to be a pretty good skier and a little crazy.”
“It’s kind of like bringing the rodeo to snowboarding,” said Missy McAlpin, a 26-year-old snowboarding coach from Hastings who will be competing in skijoring for the first time this weekend.
“I haven’t done anything like this behind a horse,” she said. “I will be wearing a helmet.”
The event is being organized by Ted Slathar, owner of a Norwood Young America company called Extreme Events MN, which normally produces professional rodeo events. Last winter at the Goodhue County fairgrounds, Slathar put on what he thinks might have been the first modern horse skijoring race in Minnesota.
“It’s combining the horse industry and the ski and snowboard people,” Slathar said.
West meets Midwest
Horse skijoring was a popular pastime in Minnesota in the early part of the 20th century. More recently it has developed into an extreme sport in ski towns in the West. Now that style of competition is making its way back to the state.
Shane Jorgenson, a carpenter and rodeo clown from Cameron, Wis., has been competing in horse skijoring for eight or nine years in the West, including a fifth-place finish at the world championship in Whitefish, Mont.
“It is adrenaline to the highest level,” Jorgenson said. “I’ve always wanted to bring it to the Midwest.”
Slathar found a willing partner in Canterbury Park for his second skijoring competition in Minnesota. What else was the track going to do with the piles of man-made snow leftover from a snocross snowmobile race the track hosted in January?
Slathar has been using that snow to groom a 700-foot-long course that will allow two teams of horses and skiers to race side by side in front of the grandstand. The skiers have to negotiate a set of slalom gates, snatch a series of hanging rings and fly over three jumps before getting to the finish.
It takes a team of three — good rider, a fast horse and a daring skier — to get a winning time.
“The big question: Is it a horse race or a skier’s race?” Jorgenson said.
McAlpin will be competing with Dianne Offtermatt, who will be riding a world championship barrel racing horse named Twister. Twister, also known as Mr. T, will be wearing special horseshoes to give him traction in the snow.
“I’m really comfortable with Mr. T. He speeds up every time I head for a jump,” McAlpin said. “He looks back every time I fall.”
It’s a little different from just water skiing on snow.
Jorgenson said knowing where to grab and how to move on the rope is a key task for the rider.
“You’re feeling the rhythm of the horse while you’re feeling the rhythm of the snow,” McAlpin said.
“A horse can hit full speed in three strides,” said Fries, who goes to Leadville, Colo., every year to compete at a skijoring competition there. “There’s some crashes. They’ve hauled some people out on backboards before.”
Slathar is offering more than $1,500 in prize money plus belt buckles for the winners. With racing categories including novices, youth, snowboarding and an open division, he expects about 100 teams from Minnesota and nearby states to compete.
“People really come from a long ways away to try it,” Jorgenson said.