There haven't been any gnarly accidents this afternoon, Jan. 29. One guy lost a ski after the second jump, a few others lost the rope near the finish line, but that's about it. Then a horse loses its rider and gallops out of the arena, disappearing into the parking lot. Wranglers scramble to round it up. From his seat in the cab of a white Ford Super Duty, event organizer Scott Ping looks on with a smile.
Welcome to the World Skijoring Championships in Whitefish. Try not to get horse crap on your ski boots.
"Pretty much it was just a joke," Ping says of the name. "Red Lodge has the national championships. But this is a bigger race, so we thought we'd show 'em up."
Equestrian skijoringthe act of towing a skier behind a horse through a maze of gates and jumpsembedded itself in the culture of Whitefish back in the 1960s. As part of the Whitefish Winter Carnival, skiers and horses used to speed down Central Avenue. After businessman Russ Street nearly went through the window of a clothing store in the mid '70s, the sport briefly relocated before taking a three-decade hiatus.
Ping and Dale Duff, both avid skiers and horsemen, revived skijoring in Whitefish in 2003. The sport is now a mainstay of the Winter Carnival, drawing crowds from as far as Lethbridge and Calgary, Alberta. Spectators can wager on horse-and-skier teams. Organizers added a long jump competition last year. For board member Vernon Kiser, the whole thing's "an adrenaline rush."
"Every year the crowd's getting bigger," he says. "And it's getting more well known."
The sport brings together the Flathead Valley's two most prominent cultures: skiing and horseback riding. Teams often consist of "some crusty old cowboy with some young punk skier," Kiser says. It's not always a happy marriage. Ping broke his neck skijoring in 2011. He recovered, but broke nine ribs last week while training. He remembers once when a rider fell off her horse and landed on her spurs. "At the awards ceremony, she bared her ass to prove it," he says.
There are close calls, too. Kiser watched a horse run up and over a jump this year. "Stuck the landing," he says.
Chris Wambeke's ski pants are covered in hay and manure. He's been skijoring nine years and had a good run this weekend. It definitely gets hairy out there, he says. He's had the rope wrap around his neck. It got stuck between his legs once and nutted him through the whole course. So why do it?
"You can let go of the rope whenever," Wambeke says. "It's more dangerous skiing on the mountain."