Backyard racers chomp the bit

Jordan P. Ingram

There are few sports that can bring cowboys and hippy ski-bums together.

Welcome to the world of skijoring, a winter sport growing in popularity around Montana that involves horses or dogs pulling skiers through an obstacle course.

Local and national skijoring competitions have become commonplace at Red Lodge, Jackson Hole, Bozeman, Whitefish and Driggs. 

But for 33-year old Alex Estes, skijoring is just something fun to do on the weekend with friends.

“We just fart around in the backyard,” Estes said. “We build jumps with a tractor, fly around cones and basically, just goof off.”

Estes is a caretaker for a ranch in Bozeman and the large hayfields are perfect for setting up moguls, jumps and a variety of obstacles for backyard skijoring. And Estes also cares for several quarter horses with quick bursts of speed that are willing to tow people behind them.

“They were originally bred to run a quarter mile and are good for short-distance racing,” Estes said.  

The courses that she constructs with her friends are typically 800 feet long or roughly the length of a football field.

This year everything came together for Estes and her friends who just started regularly skijoring this winter. She grew up in Telluride, Colorado and spent nearly every day on a pair of skis. 

When she first heard about the sport, she was instantly attracted to it. 

“It’s fun, fast-paced and a I’m a skier at heart,” Estes said. “I thought it was the perfect combination of the two best sports in the world.”

Estes said that for competition, people typically use slalom racing skis but regular old downhill mountain skis work just fine.

It sounds pretty straightforward: just hold onto the rope, pay attention to the course in front of you and enjoy the ride.

However, it gets more complicated when it comes to competition skijoring.

One day, Estes hopes to see where she stands among the professionals. But she doesn’t seem too worried about it.

“I guess I would just show up at the competition and see how it goes,” Estes said. 

The rules for competition include remaining upright on at least one ski with the rope in hand while crossing the finish line and that both ski boots must go around the gates on the course. 

To protect the horses, the ground cannot have more than six inches of “punch,” or the depth in which a horse hoof “punches” into the snow on impact. 

After the safety measures are in place, the horse and rider bound around gates, clear jumps and spear rings with batons on a galloping quadruped around 600 to 900 feet of track. 

Sounds fun, huh?

Here is a list of upcoming non-member regional skijoring events:

Feb. 4 & 5, 320 Ranch, Montana

Feb. 11 & 12, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Feb. 18, Pinedale, Wyoming  

Feb. 17 & 18,  Soldier Hollow, Utah

Feb. 18 & 19, Sundance, Wyoming

Feb. 25 & 26, Wisdom, Montana

March 4 & 5, Leadville, Colorado