HEBER CITY, Utah — Skijoring seems to be the athletic embodiment of the West: a skier or snowboarder being pulled through a track by a cowboy or cowgirl on horseback. SkiJoring Utah hosts its annual competition on January 27-28, 2023, at the Wasatch County Events Complex. Tickets are on sale Friday, December 16.
Friday’s events begin at 2 p.m. and will continue under the lights for evening competitions. Saturday’s festivities start at 9 a.m.
The inherently western sport hailed from the Nordic region and raced across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, reaching America in the early 1900s. Although the sport has been active in the Rockies for over 70 years, in recent years, the sport has snowballed, particularly in Utah.
“In 2017, [Joe Loveridge and I] started the SkiJoring Utah event,” said Brian Gardner, co-founder of SkiJoring Utah. “It truly started as a labor of love. Honestly, we’ve been really flattered and humbled at how well it’s been received here, and the events have grown exponentially since 2017.”
The Utah events have three main divisions. The Pro division is “fast and furious…and a lot of fun to watch,” said Gardner. Riders and skiers are very experienced and can reach speeds up to 80 miles an hour. The Sport division is below Pro; riders and skiers are experienced but not to the same caliber as Pros. Once a team wins in the Sport division, they are graduated to Pro. The final division is Novice. Novice riders and skiers are beginners getting used to the sport or just giving it a whirl and having fun. All main division racers compete for cash prizes, buckles, and prizes from sponsors.
Just because these are named secondary divisions doesn’t make them any less competitive, but Gardner said these were added for extra fun. “The women’s only division is very competitive. You get some awesome skiers in the women’s division,” he said.
Skijoring doesn’t exclude the boarders; they have their own secondary division.
“Snowboarding division is for all levels, but we have found that skis are just faster through this course than snowboards… it has more to do with the nature of the board, not with the ability level of the person on the snowboard.”
The All-Around division features competitors that can do both; each teammate takes a turn skiing through the course and driving the horse through. The final secondary division is the Century, where the combined age of the skier/boarder and rider must be 100 years or more.
“[The Century] can still be competitive because you can get a heck of a cowboy that’s 60 years old, and a heck of a skier that’s 40 years old, and still pretty fast and furious.”
Spectators can choose from General Admission, VIP, and two-day tailgating tickets, which include up to six tickets per car and “court side” views of races.
“Part of the fun is, it’s an extremely social sport,” said Skijor USA founder Loren Zhimanskova, “because there really isn’t any other sport where those two groups are going to spontaneously come together, having fun and competing all weekend.”
“I think SkiJoring Utah has it dialed in from both the competitor and the spectator perspective because they’re providing plenty of opportunity for people to enjoy a full day of activity,” said Zhimanskova.
Zhimanskova created Skijor USA to grow the sport. The website lists all approved races in the U.S. each year. An advisory committee must approve new courses and enforces safety regulations to ensure the safety of racers, spectators, and horses.
“People want high standards; they don’t want to get hurt themselves; they don’t want their horses to get hurt,” she said. “The organizers wanted the spectators safe; it’s just common sense. But by working together with event organizers, my role is not just trying to put these people in touch with each other, but to encourage these higher standards and help people raise money for important elements.”
A collective goal for the sport is to provide more practice facilities to break down the barrier to entry into the sport and increase participation. Zhimanskova dreams of creating year-round skijoring programs and getting the sport recognized in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
“I’m hoping that our scheduling can grow in popularity to the point that someone like me can make an argument to the Olympic Committee to include [skijoring], not as a competitive sport, but just as a tradition, that’s truly American,” she said. “This would be a great way to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the sport and see how far we’ve come.”
Couch spectators can find the events broadcasted through The Cowboy Channel.