"Dashing through the snow, behind one horse pulling skis, o’er the ice we go, just as fast as you please!"
That’s a good description of skijoring, a little-known equestrian sport that could be likened to water-skiing on ice while being pulled by a galloping horse. Now that’s extreme!
The word “skijoring” is the English equivalent to the Norwegian “skikjöring,” which comes from the Scandinavian word, “snörekjöring”—translated as “driving with ropes.” In English, you may encounter the term spelled as one or two words, or even hyphenated.
Skijoring's origins trace back 2,500 years B.C. when the Laplanders—inhabitants of the northern parts of Scandinavian countries like Finland, Norway, Sweden and western Russia—skied behind reindeer as a mode of transportation during the long winter months. However, its modern origins go back a century to the luxurious ski resort of St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps.
Since 1907, St. Moritz has been home to White Turf, an annual event of three races that include skijoring, flat (gallop) races, and trotting races, where aluminum blades replace sulky tires. During the first three Sundays in February, the top Thoroughbreds from all over Europe gather on the lake at St. Moritz that sits 5,800 feet above sea level. The flattest course in the world, the 1.7-mile track is prepared on ice that’s nearly two feet thick. It’s enough to support not only the race track but also the grandstands and parking lot! While temperatures hover around 10 degrees Fahrenheit, high society turns out for champagne receptions, wagering and the thrill and action of horse racing on ice.
The driver holds the reins in one hand and the singletree in the other.
St. Moritz harnesses are quite basic, consisting of a headstall with snaffle bit, a breastcollar with traces, and a surcingle. The traces are made of flexible heavy cord attached to a singletree—a pivoted or swinging bar—which the driver holds in one hand while holding the reins in the other. At other venues, traces may be rigid with a plastic frame and two handles for the skier. Sleigh-length reins are used to keep the skier at a safe distance. Each horse wears a numbered saddlecloth that is attached to the harness with strings to keep it visible.
As you might imagine, drivers on skis have a difficult task in controlling their spirited racehorses. Skijoring is a fairly risky activity; bruises from flying ice kicked up by the horses’ hooves are the most common injury. To minimize this risk, a flag-shaped piece of heavy fabric is attached to the traces between the horse and skier.
For safety, skiers wear a helmet with a visor or goggles, elbow and knee pads, thick gloves and padded ski clothing. Bright colors help officials locate a downed skier. The horses wear special shoes equipped with sharp studs to reduce the chance of slipping on the icy track. Rubber sole pads may also be used to avoid snow build-up in the hooves. To reduce the chance of a horse stepping on a ski, skis should not exceed five feet in length and should be bright in color.
During the 1928 Winter Olympics at St. Moritz, skijoring was presented as a demonstration sport but didn’t take hold elsewhere. However, in recent years it has gained popularity in other parts of Europe. At riding centers in the French Alps, people can learn to skijor just for fun. One center starts beginners with a donkey, while more fearless souls may try it with a horse or mule.
The Fédération Française d’Equitation recognizes skijoring (“ski-joëring” in French) on snow and on “other terrain” as an official sport. Competitions include giant slalom, where both horse and driver go through 8-12 gates; slalom, where only the driver goes through 12-15 gates while the horse gallops parallel to the course; and speed competition on an enclosed oval track.
Skijoring in the U.S. is different from that of the White Turf race in St. Moritz.
Skijoring made its way to North America in the 1950s, and equestrian skijoring became a recognized sport with the inception of the North American Ski Joring Association in 1999. In 2015, it merged with another group to become Skijoring America. Instead of the skier driving the horse, she/he holds a towrope attached to the saddle horn or behind the saddle while being piloted by a horse and rider. The towrope cannot exceed 33 feet in length for straight tracks, or 50 feet for oval tracks.
Usually stock-type horses are used, but any suitable mount can compete. Horses are outfitted in Western tack and the attire of rider and skier is warm and practical. Skiers must wear helmets. Competitions may include jumps, gates, and rings for the skier to spear. Each team of a horse, rider and skier performs individually against timers. Time penalties are incurred for errors such as missing a ring, missing a gate, or the horse breaking the plane of a jump.
A harness consists of a breastcollar, traces and a surcingle, along with a bridle and long reins.
Breyer Secretariat (Smarty Jones mold), American Pharoah (Ruffian mold), California Chrome (Cigar mold), and Phar Lap molds are all ideal choices to depict skijoring.
When photographing your setup, you can use artificial snowflakes, a sheet of quilt batting, powdered sugar (effective, but a bit messy) or real snow if it’s available! Use a background of a white sheet or wall to replicate a flurry of snow kicked up by thundering hooves, as this is how some pictures of the real races look. Another option might be a crowd scene, mountain, forest or village behind your horse. You could achieve this by painting it, enlarging a photograph or purchasing a poster. At St. Moritz, a simple rail fence is used to line the track, while US tracks often have nylon mesh fence.
Even if you don’t have the chance – or the daring – to try this extreme sport for real, you can certainly experience it with a creative model setup!