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“On course!” A race official shouts.
A buzzer sounds.
Far up the street, hooves thunder through the snow on Harrison Avenue, kicking up chunks of ice. The horse comes into view first, galloping past an enormous jump. A moment later, the skier soars over the snow pile in tow.
He’s hardly on the ground for an instant before zigzagging across the street to collect 3 neon-orange rings, dangling at eye-level.
From there — only one jump stands between him and the finish line.
He takes off, lands hard, and cuts a tight turn to make the narrow gate. It’s too tight!
He skids out of his deep carve and plows into a race official just feet away from me.
The crowd lets out a collective gasp as the skier comes to a stop near a lamppost.
The official clambers to his feet, wiping at a bloody lip.
The skier stands as well, and the crowd cheers.
The 74th Running of Leadville Ski Joring is a Beautifully Chaotic Place to Be…
…but my start to the day was much quieter. Afraid of getting stuck in the unspeakable I-70 weekend resort traffic, I arrived hours before the competition began.
After a pancake breakfast at the local Elks Lodge — cash only — I wandered the course with my camera, unsure of what I would find.
Snow fell in heavy flakes, muffling what little noise there was. The silence was occasionally punctuated by the loud whinny of an unseen animal.
Horse trailers lined the side streets, where riders sat in lawn chairs, waiting for things to kick off.
“Does your horse get bothered by the crowd, the jumps, pulling the skier, any of that?” I asked rider Steve Eytel.
“Nah,” He said. “Look at him; Henry’s falling asleep right now.”
The horse stood with his eyes closed, collecting flecks of white on his back as he snoozed. Eytel is a long-time watcher, first time rider; putting a team together with a skier friend.
The festivities begin with The Calcutta: an auction-style affair where spectators bid on rider/skier teams. If the team you bought wins, you take home a share of the purse.
Just before high noon: the crowd falls silent for the national anthem. Riders trot down the street waiving the American and Colorado flags, before galloping back to the starting line.
Then it’s off to the races.
A Legend is Born
Ski Joring legendarily started as a form of Scandinavian transportation; a skier pulled along by dogs or horses. Its transformation into a high-speed race came in 1949.
According to event organizers, the story goes something like this:
Two friends — Tom Schroeder and “Mugs” Ossman — were trying to come up with something fresh and exciting to add to the year’s Crystal Carnival. They decided to take a trip to Steamboat Springs for its winter carnival, looking for ideas.
There, the two watched a horse-and-rider pulling a skier.
Schroeder and Ossman liked what they saw, but decided they needed to make things faster. Ossman raised Quarter Horses for speed, and Schroeder was confident there wasn’t a horse alive that could lose him on a pair of skis.
The two went out to a pasture north of Leadville to try it out in the deep snow — and the sport of Ski Joring was born.
Scoring Ski Joring
The rules for the competition are straightforward. The horse gallops down the center of the avenue, while the skier maneuvers over jumps, through gates, and collects rings.
Time penalties are assessed for each feature skipped, and each ring missed or dropped.
Missed jump — 5 seconds
Missed gate — 5 seconds
Missed or dropped ring - 2 seconds per ring
Dropped baton (lance) - 2 seconds
Rings knocked off by rider - 2 seconds per ring
When competitive times come in near the 15 second mark, missing an obstacle, or finishing without all six rings can quickly knock you far down in the rankings.
The first run took me completely by surprise, with the team blowing by me before I could take a single picture.
As skier Craig Kopase puts it: “This is Leadville. You can’t slow down. If you slow down, you’re not gonna win.”
I took somewhere close to 700 pictures while I was there — way too many to show here, but still somehow not enough to capture the essence of being there; feeling the weird mix of snow and sunshine; hearing the galloping horses; and watching skilled skiers land monstrous jumps.
I can’t recommend the event enthusiastically enough, and I’m thrilled to see what Leadville Ski Joring’s 75th anniversary has to offer.