In early February, on the snow-plastered main street of Tromsø, Norway, two people on skis line up to race. Decked in ski gear, full-face helmets, and flamboyant skin suits, each person holds onto a tethered reindeer. When the start gates open, the animals erupt like thoroughbreds, and the human-and-beast teams hurtle the 650-foot length of main street in a furious blur of thundering hooves, glinting Lycra, and snow spray.
This is skijoring, literally “ski driving” in Norwegian.
It’s a popular spectator sport not only in the frigid regions hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, but also in the United States, where a growing number of fans include cowboys adding their own heart-pumping twists.
Skijoring started hundreds of years ago when the Arctic region’s indigenous people harnessed their animals to cross frozen expanses in a race against time for food. The activity has long since outgrown its basic transportation roots, but places like Tromsø pay tribute with events such as the town’s Norwegian Championship in Reindeer Racing.
The race is part of Sámi Week, an annual festival that showcases the culture and traditions of the Nordic reindeer-herding native communities. It features exhibitions of reindeer-skin teepees, local handicrafts including traditional wool caps and fur boots, reindeer meat snacks, and even a lasso-throwing competition.
“Reindeer racing has been common for generations, so continuing these traditions is important for preserving the Sámi culture and language,” says Nils I Haetta, the director of the Norwegian Championship. “But also, the Sámi come for the prestige of having the fastest reindeer.”
In other words, traditions aside, it’s all about the bragging rights.
Skiers hitched to cowboys
The adrenaline rush of being pulled by an animal at full gallop is also behind the annual skijoring event in the high-altitude town of Leadville, Colorado. Leadville Ski Joring draws thousands of spectators who cheer on a cowboy twist on the Nordic tradition—riders on horseback pulling the skiers.
This version also adds challenges for the skiers: They must negotiate jumps and gates and collect rings on their arms, all while being dragged along at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.
That might sound dangerous for the horses, but race organizers till courses and add salt and fertilizer to ensure a hard, grippy surface, and riders might cover horseshoes with bohrium, a hard substance similar to tungsten, that they say is akin to putting snow tires on the animals.
“Skijoring is an extreme sport. But organizers and racers alike do everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of our equine athletes, right down to canceling events if the conditions aren’t right,” says Richard Weber, co-founder of San Juan Skijoring in Ridgway, Colorado. “The horses don’t have a say whether or not they get to run, so it’s our top priority to keep them safe.”
“You can’t overstate the spectacle. You can feel the horses shaking the street, and the crowd gets so fired up,” says Duffy Counsell, the race director for Leadville Ski Joring. “It’s definitely one of the wildest things you’re ever going to see.”
Skijoring’s American evolution
That spectacle is actually driving something of a skijoring resurgence in the U.S., where the cold-weather activity made its first reported appearance in 1914 in Lake Placid, New York. Today, there are more sanctioned races than there are weekends in winter, with contests in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, among others.
“It’s really taken off over the past five years,” says Tyler Smedsrud, who competed as a skier on the skijoring circuit for more than a decade. In recent years, he’s teamed up with Weber to launch San Juan Skijoring.
The two are pushing boundaries with their race, incorporating gap jumps (leaping over trenches), rollers (undulations like waves), and even aerial maneuvers over obstacles including pickup trucks. They see the evolution of skijoring as inevitable and necessary to continue growing the audience. “It’s the ultimate spectator sport,” says Weber, a cowboy who rides the horse that pulls the skiers. “If we can spice it up, I mean, you could even see it on TV eventually.”
That might sound like grandiose talk for a sport with humble, Arctic roots. But in these days of made-for-TV events like the X Games, it’s easy to imagine producers out canvassing for the next adrenaline-soaked big thing.
“We feel that [skijoring’s] time has come,” says Loren Zhimanskova, president of Skijor USA. “This is the original extreme winter sport.”
Where to watch skijoring
Sámi Week, Feb. 2-9, Tromsø, Norway
Oslo Airport has several daily flights to Tromsø
Leadville Ski Joring; March 7-8; Leadville, Colorado
Leadville is about a two-hour drive from Denver International Airport
San Juan Skijoring; Jan. 9-10, 2021; Ridgway, Colorado
Several regional airports service Ridgway, but the closest—and largest—is Montrose Regional Airport. Denver International Airport offers several daily flights to Montrose.
Aaron Gulley is a Santa Fe, New Mexico–based journalist who has written for two decades on traveling, cycling, and sports and fitness. Find Aaron on Instagram.