Cowboys and ski bums
The best kind of culture clash
There’s something decidedly romantic about skijoring – where the Wild West meets modern ski technology and skilled skiers. Single digit temperatures didn’t keep spectators away from Big Sky Skijoring Association’s Second Annual Best in the West Showdown February 9 and 10. Fires were created on the snow so the hardy and the brave could garner some warmth.
“When ski bums, cowboys and horses mix you get one hell of a party,” skijorer Chris Plank said while taking a pull from a bottle of Hornitos at a skijoring after party.
Skijorer Glenn Hutchinson who won the 2018 National Championship for the Sports Division with rider Melissa “Mo” Ostander said he didn’t know many cowboys before starting the sport, but now counts many as his friends.
“Everybody is awesome,” Hutchinson said. “What blew my mind about skijoring was the clash of cultures between cowboys and skiers, but everyone gets along.”
Cal Douglas is a cowboy born and raised in Gallatin Gateway. He’s been skijoring for five or six years, taking it up after seeing the sport at the fairgrounds in Bozeman. He owns horses and grew up with them, so he decided the give skijoring a proper chance by building his own practice courses.
“It turned into a really good time every weekend. It seems the more we do it, the more people we meet and become closer – like family. The exciting part of it for us is that every weekend is like a family reunion someplace different,” he said.
Six-foot jumps and breakneck speeds sometimes lead to broken skiers and horses. Hutchinson said that one skier in Butte had such a nasty spill that he broke his back. He has a long route to recovery but is supposed to eventually be okay.
An incident in Whitefish also reiterated the reality of danger.
“It’s hard on the horses. It was heartbreaking seeing that horse go down in Whitefish. They had to drag Flyboy to a tarp and created a kind of screen so nobody could see. They dragged him to a trailer to give him an injection. The whole place was silent – there were 2,000 spectators. Everyone was crying,” Hutchison said.
Still, Douglas said the horses love the sport as much as the humans.
“The horses love it. They’re amped. They know when they’re going to race,” he said.
Skiers are often going about 40-45 miles an hour when they’re getting “whipped around some of those turns.”
Douglas said everyone involved does their best to create a safe event in light of the element of danger.
“It is a winter sport and it is an equine sport. It comes with the inherent risk that comes with equines. For the most part, everyone runs with care in mind for the horses,” he said. “As riders, our goal is to help manage the risk for our horses: Going as fast as we can or need to, while still maintaining control of the situation.”
The course in Big Sky’s Town Center proved more difficult the second day. There were tumbles – one skijorer was dragged after getting the rope wrapped around his arm. One particular rough patch early on the course spelled trouble for many skiers who had trouble holding onto the rope.
“I just want to tell them to hold on and if they can get past here,” spectator Ashleigh Deal said while gesturing to a section of the course. “They’ll probably make it.”
Hutchinson got his start with skijoring through a work friend named Rick Farnsworth. His friend had a horse and wanted to know if anyone could ski.
“I took my power skis down to Bozeman and immediately knew I needed racing skis. Racing skis are short and stiff with a huge side cut so you can carve a 12.5-meter radius as opposed to my power skis which are a 30-meter turn. You have to have racing skis or you’re f–ed going that fast,” he said.
Douglas said the tools of the sport for equines are specific as well. He is a ferrier to many of the horses competing and said the shoes are inherently different from summer riding and competing.
“I try to get a hardened grip like ice cleats on the shoe and get those horses to know that they really have traction,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s not the course that’s icy – it’s the parking lot. Everyone is trying to run a horse with some form of aggressive traction. A horse will try harder if he knows he can maintain traction.”
Hutchinson has become extremely passionate about the sport and said he’d also like to dispel a misconception.
“People think skijoring is dangerous, but the sh–t we do on the mountain is way more dangerous. Putting your skis on at Three Forks in Big Sky is more dangerous than skijoring,” he said.
To further add to the appeal, theirs is a culture of supportive competitiveness. Douglas said sportsmanship is at a very high level and something they strive to maintain. Case in point is Richard Weber III, who is highly competitive, but will take the “time to help anyone and give advice whenever it’s asked of him. He’ll help anyone at any level.”
“It’s a good time with fun people and good horses,” Douglas said. “It’ a good way to make winter fly by.”
Skijoring National Finals take place in Red Lodge on March 9-10.