What Happens When You Combine Skis And Horses? Teenage Badassery
Ski joring is fast and dangerous—and is being dominated by a 16-year-old girl
It’s an unusually warm day in March in Leadville, Colorado, North America’s highest incorporated city. At 10 degrees above normal, spring has sprung early and the snowpack is beginning to loosen, making the thin upper layer crackle underfoot. But that doesn’t matter to Savannah McCarthy and her partner Moose as they wait at the starting line of winter’s most unusual sport.
Leadville’s snow-covered main street looms ahead, packed with jumps, obstacles, and rings for the team’s third member—a skier—to navigate.
Moose, a five-year-old quarter horse, dances beneath her as they both approach the starting line. Behind McCarthy, her skiing partner, Greg Dahl, takes hold of the 33-foot rope attached to Moose’s saddle.
Dahl pulls the rope taut, cueing McCarthy that it's time. McCarthy signals to Moose. Within mere strides, the team reaches a full gallop. Moose pounds down the slalom-like course at 40 mph, pulling the skier, who maneuvers the ramps and gates.
This is ski joring. And at 16, McCarthy, America’s 2016 Open Division Southern National Champion, is one of the best in the world.
In the United States, ski joring (which translates to ski driving in Norwegian) teams charge down the course one at a time, racing the clock down snow-packed, spectator-lined courses built on cordoned-off streets or arena tracks. Riders keep their mounts as straight and as fast as possible; horses gallop their hearts out; and skiers navigate obstacles while hanging on for dear life to the rope.
Competitors typically participate in several runs on a given weekend, though horses are limited to one division and two runs per day. In one run, riders choose their skier, while the second run’s pairings usually are determined by draw. So, if a rider wants to win a championship, he or she needs to be able to work well with different skiers.
For skier Bruce Stott, who frequently pairs with McCarthy, that partnership adds to the excitement.
“It’s less predictable than other extreme skiing,” he says. “(You’ve got) three minds. Most skiing sports, it’s just you. You mess up, you mess up. (But in ski joring), the best skier might not always win. The fastest horse might not always win. You never know.”
McCarthy has pulled Stott for three years, but she also partners with family friends and has towed plenty of skiers she just met.
The one partner McCarthy always gets to choose is her horse, and she’s got two favorites: Tank, the 2016 Southern National Equine Champion, used to race on match and bush tracks in southern Colorado, and Moose, who she was riding in Leadville when she broke her nose and became the Southern National Champion.
“I’ve only been able to run (Moose) once,” she says. “We just got him last year and he was new, but now we’ve bonded.”
Leadville, one of the sport’s premier events, marked McCarthy’s last race of the season. Her run, the first of the weekend and her first on a new horse, gave her some bruises and even a broken nose. It also clinched the championship for her.
Each winter, mountain towns throughout the Western United States celebrate an unlikely coming together of two iconic sports: rodeo and extreme skiing. Equine ski joring—skiing behind a horse—first made its way to Colorado and Wyoming when military men returned from World War II, missed Europe’s downhill resorts, and asked their cowboy friends to tow them around. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, held the region’s earliest ski joring events in the 1940s.
Within the decade, skier Tommy Schroeder and horseman “Mugs” Ossman brought the sport to Leadville, which held its first race in 1949. They took what they’d seen in Steamboat—big horses pulling little kids over small jumps—and injected the adventure that now dominates most races.
Each January through March, registered competitors earn points at sanctioned and unsanctioned races (yes, there are drag races for ski joring) throughout the region. In 2016, McCarthy beat nearly 50 competitors—most of whom were men and all of whom were her senior—for the championship.
Though McCarthy is aware that her demographic is fairly unusual in her sport of choice, she doesn’t think too much about age or gender. In fact, she wasn’t even thinking about championship possibilities until one day, after besting an unlikely competitor, she found herself about to walk away with the prize .
“I didn’t really even know about (the championship) until before the last race when my dad told me, ‘Oh, you’re beating us in points.’ But after I found out that I was leading it and could earn a title, I figured that’s cool,” she says. “We found out right before Leadville, crashed on the first run, but (put up a) pretty fast time.”
That time—right around 15 seconds—sealed her position just one spot above her father, from whom she has learned everything she knows.
Despite McCarthy’s nonchalance about it all, her skill and gutsiness earn her accolades from men who’ve been riding longer than she’s been alive. Paul Copper has been organizing the Leadville race since 1986. One of the few who both skis and rides, he knows what it’s like to team up with the likes of McCarthy and to compete with her.
“I’ve skied behind a gal who was 12 years old,” he says. “And hello, Savannah McCarthy! I’m riding the same kind of horse she’s riding, and she’s 100 pounds lighter. Those little girls, the horse doesn’t even know they’re up there and they stick to the horse like a tick.”
Whether riding or skiing, competitors in this unusual extreme sport have to be brave, and they have to be tough. In the Open Division, the jumps stand as high as eight feet on Leadville’s course, and the horses regularly reach 40 mph, which can make them difficult and dangerous to stop when the snow track ends. It’s a sport that attracts daring types.
“I think I just like the speed and adrenaline,” says McCarthy, who has ridden horses nearly all her life and started her competition career running barrels. “Barrel racing was always our main interest when I was younger, but it never clicked. Then, when I was old enough to compete in (ski joring), I did, and it just clicked naturally. And that’s just been the most successful thing for my horse and I.”
Simply put, you can’t just be a daredevil on horseback to be a great ski jorer. There’s the relationship between horse, rider, and skier, which sets the sport apart from many competitive endeavors and even other equestrian events.
As McCarthy readies for another winter with family, horses, and a motley group of adrenaline junkies, she doesn’t let her win go to her head. “I try to be humble, and I end up getting embarrassed,” she says. “But I don’t know why, because it’s pretty cool.”
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