Edges and hooves

The colliding worlds of skijoring at Best in the West Showdown

Circled up on a hillside, bundled up onlookers watched folks fling themselves behind horses on skis and snowboards over jumps, bumps, and gates over the weekend for Outlaw Partner's Best in the West Showdown. Over 140 teams composed of riders, skiers, and horses descended on Big Sky Town Center on Saturday and Sunday to wage their luck in a two day competition.

For those who don’t know, skijoring is a snow sport where a person is towed on skis behind a caribou, horse, or dog through an obstacle course, endurance race, or in an all-out sprint. In Big Sky this weekend, horses towed amateurs and experts traveling from Belgrade to Calgary in seven different categories including novice, junior, sport, women, and open. The most elite teams signed up for the open division.

Ice carving, Nordic skiing, a silent disco and retro movie night with ski legends Dan Egan and Scot Schimdt led up to the two days of skijoring. Justa Adams, a Big Sky local, orchestrated the event as part of the WinterFest weekend, with the help of accomplished skijor Collin Cook.

At the starting line, rows of horses and patient riders lined up to wait their turn. The skiers and snowboarders, dressed in American flag onesies, belt buckles, and cowboy hats, leaned against the fence to watch the takeoffs.

Local skier Chris Plank, who bartends at the Broken Spoke and Scissorbills, showed up to ski in the novice division. “I raced yesterday. One turn my horse [Elsa] got spooked. She went AWOL and ran off course,” said Plank, who explained you let go when something like that happens. Cailin Ross of Lone Mountain Ranch pulled plank and rode Elsa.

All participants start to get the jitters when it is their turn to ride. Some horses pawed the ground in anticipation, participants sucked in a few deep breaths, and a few riders whooped on takeoff.

Leaning against a fence post, Mark Silverthorn of The Wild Bunch, explained strategy.

“You need good horsemanship. You gotta check your horses on corners, pay attention to your skier to find out where they are at. If you watch, good riders will hug the sides based on which side the skier is on,” said Silverthorn. Mark joined The Wild Bunch three years ago and they gave him the nickname “The Hitching Post.”

Skijoring, although on snow, sees more injuries than rodeo sometimes. The Big Sky Search and Rescue team had their hands full over the weekend. They stretchered off three racers on Saturday and two more on Sunday. A few needed serious attention. One skier got lucky and walked away after crashing into a tree.

Despite the hazards to body, many contestants enjoy the adrenaline buzz. A gal who works for Bozeman’s Deaconess Hospital as a nurse broke her ulna on Saturday when she caught air and landed awkwardly on her left arm. My boyfriend introduced me to skijoring, she explained. This weekend was her first time competing.

“Yesterday, we had a girl right here, her horse went up and over the back, right over the back,” said Silverthorn, who pointed out the rider a few seconds later. “The horse landed on her left leg, bruised pretty good. She was lying there and she was like, ‘Don’t scratch me. I want to finish my run,’” said Silverthorn.

Silverthorn explained folks train with their horses to figure out who would be a good fit, but it’s hard to peg down a certain kind of animal. “Cal and Mo’s horses are mountain horses. They use them for cattle and everything else,” said Silverthorn.

Nick Becker, a skier from the Flathead Valley, explained: “It [skijoring] reminded me of wake boarding or any rope sport. It's fun because you can like dig into the horse pulling you and set your edge. But you don’t want to be pulling the horse too much and make them not effective,” said Becker.


In the junior division, Dayne Free pulled by Trashy Rooster received first place, Trippe Tubbs pulled by Trashy Rooster received second place, and Carolme Putnam pulled by Mighty Meatball caught third.

For the women’s division, Tara Hines won first and second with two different horses, The War Pony and Three. Third place was awarded to Phoebe Alverson and Raven.

In the open division, Tyler Smedsrud, who skied for Montana State, took first place with the horse Hardened. Second went to Colin Cook pulled by McLeod and third went to Lang Schuler also pulled by McLeod.

Eight year old Anna Putnam and her six year old sister, Carolme, finished in third for the junior division on Sunday. Big sister Anna rode their horse Mighty Meatball and Carolme skied behind. It was pretty simple to figure out, Anna explained. “I wanted to be the rider and my little sister wanted to be the skier,” said Putnam. The girls’ dad, Greg Putnam, got the two of them into skijoring at an early age. He also competed over the weekend.

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