Skier + Horse + Speed = Leadville Ski Joring
What do you get when you put a skier, a horse (with rider) and speed together? Leadville Ski Joring! Marking its 62nd year in 2013, this annual event breaks the mold on the average “Winter Carnival” on so many levels.
Leadville Ski Joring, is happening in Leadville today and tomorrow (March 2 & 3), transforming Harrison Avenue into a first rate obstacle course for brave souls to navigate on skis while being pulled behind a horse at alarmingly high speeds, getting some significant vertical and, inevitably, finding some ‘close calls’ along the way.
This one-of-a-kind winter event echoes Leadville’s rough and tumble heritage with a “watch-this” attitude that many western towns have shied away from over the years. Skiers! Horses! Building a snowy race course on streets that have been plowed all season!
It leads you to wonder what CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) might say when it receives Leadville’s request that some of the snow that gets so diligently removed off Highway 24 (Harrison Ave.), is now being placed back on those same streets, right downtown.
With the hard work of the Leadville Ski Joring Committee, Lake County Public Works, City of Leadville employees, and yes, help from (CDOT), nearly 200 truckloads of snow from snow storage locations around the county, are redesigned on Harrison Ave.
But to say that a world-class race course just “happens” on Leadville’s main drag might be a bit of an understatement. It takes about 200 loads of snow-and about five and a half hours-to cover Harrison Avenue from 3rd Street to 8th Street. The work really begins at 4 a.m. on the Friday as members of the Leadville Street Department and Lake County Road & Bridge start loading snow from the Community Park and the rodeo grounds into dump trucks. As far as the type of snow, fresh snow is the best. If the snow has too many chunks, the horses can cut themselves on the ice. Not too much concern for “old snow” this year; they’re lucky to find enough to build the course with the lack of snowfall. However, recent storms have brought that stock pile up.
There’s usually a whole herd of volunteers out there pushing the snow around, but it’s the one and only Jody Manly who designs the course, he’s the guy who maps it out, who says how high, who says how far.
It’s important, from a safety perspective that the jumps be properly shaped: if they’re not, skiers have a greater risk of injury. They have to have be smooth, sloped to the right side, and have the right length-to-height ratio.
But before the jumps can be built, Jody Manly has to stake out the course. It’s here that the horses’ safety is taken into account. In fact, if you’ve ever seen Jo, a third generation Leadville guy, walk out the course with those special measurements of stride and handmade depth-measuring tools you’d know that at this point in building the course, he’s calculating safety with the horse – not the skier or rider – in mind.
Manly has designed the course for so many years that he has a list of possibilities he keeps in his time-worn notebook. Each year, he opens up the notebook and picks one. Actually, he picks two courses-since the committee always sets up a sport course and an open course.
And if Manly represents the honored tradition of Leadville Ski Joring, it’s worth noting that there has been a slight change for this year’s event. Earlier this year, longtime organizers Paul and Dee Dee Copper announced they are stepping down from their roles in the event.
“Dee and I are resigning our positions, but just like I’ve said before,” explained Paul Copper whose been a key Leadville Ski Joring organizer for years (and years!) “Before you can quit a position you have to have someone trained, ready and in place to fill your spot first.”
Enter Jason Dahl, a Leadville native who has been a ski joring competitor since he was 15-years-old. The Dahls are certainly a family tradition when it comes to Leadville Ski Joring, so it only seemed right that the baton be passed not just to someone younger (with more energy), but also someone who’s been around, who understands what it takes to put it on.
“Jason’s a competitor; has been since he was a kid, so he loves the sport,” says Copper. “But he’s also an organizer and everybody in the community knows Jason and loves him.”
Dahl should have no problem sitting tall in the saddle.
“I will never be able to fill Dee Dee and Paul’s shoes. They have done an outstanding job with this event for years! I only hope to do my part to keep it going,” stated Dahl via the Leadville Ski Joring Facebook page. “There is nothing “magical” about this event coming together every year. It takes a bunch of great, hardworking people, who have a passion for this sport. All of whom I am proud to know and to call my friends!”
The Q and A of Leadville Ski Joring
Finally, for visitors, be advised that not every event in Leadville adheres to a stick schedule. For locals this is somewhat par for the course, but for visitors, well, it drives them crazy: When is the race going to start?! How does this all work? How can I find out who won?
The following is a Q and A of the usual inquiries:
So when will the races actually start?
Generally speaking, the actual racing begins just after 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. In the morning, entertainment is by way of the Calcutta Auction. See the Ski Joring Poster HERE.
Why do both days start with people taking bets on the horses?
What you’re watching is called the Calcutta Auction: it’s where bets are placed on the horse-skier teams. Every horse-skier team is auctioned to the highest bidder, creating a pool of money. (Skiers are randomly matched up with different horses for each run, so there are far more horse-skier teams than there are skiers.) The bettors who wager on the top three teams win 50 percent, 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively. (That is, after the Leadville Ski Joring Committee takes a modest cut to pay next year’s expenses.)
How many teams are there?
Anywhere from 30 to 65 teams will register for the competition, with three divisions: kids class (using snowmobiles to pull them), sport class and open class. First time competitors get a chance to prove themselves in the sport class, and if they qualify they can go on to the rowdy open class, with the big dogs (er, horses). But the sport class is more than enough for many.
What is the Legends Division?
In recent years, organizers have opened up a fourth class of ski jorers, called the “Legends” division. This one is for the former Ski Joring champions who’ve decided to tone it down in later years but still have what it takes. They compete on the sport course, but since they’d likely beat everyone else in it, they compete among themselves. This is a great way to see some true legends like Jason Dahl and Chris Anthony making things look easy.
What’s the rider’s job?
Well, besides keeping the horse under control, riders have some obstacles of their own, navigating the course smoothly for the skier in tow. Skiers try spearing rings that hang down by magnets over the course – while staying in control. It requires some teamwork from both parties to get the skier to the right spot.
Is the winner the fastest skier or the skier who takes the most rings?
The winner is the fastest skier. But mistakes such as dropping a ring, dropping a baton, missing a gate or missing a jump will all result in 2 seconds being taken off a skier’s time. In a race where the winner might ski the course in under 16 seconds, a dropped ring can be a big deal.
Is Leadville Ski Joring sanctioned by North American Ski Joring Association?
It isn’t. According to event organizers, North American Ski Joring Association requirements are virtually impossible to comply with as long as the event is held on Harrison Ave. However, not being sanctioned hasn’t seemed to affect the event’s popularity.
Can I ski in the event?
Sure. Anyone with a set of alpine skis can enter the sport class. (Only people with a qualifying time from another race or the Leadville practice course can enter the open class.) The sport class has smaller jumps and slower horses than the open class.
How do I find a horse to ski with?
All skiers and horses are put into a pool and randomly matched up. (There is one exception: horses and skiers who want to race with each other are guaranteed one race together.)
How do the skiers practice for ski joring?
In Leadville, a practice course is set up about a month before Ski Joring, behind the Stop’n Save. Skiers usually practice behind snowmobiles.
Why are dogs prohibited from the event?
Loose dogs used to cut across Harrison Avenue in front of the horses, creating a hazard for the riders, skiers, horses-and the dogs themselves. Therefore, Leadville Ski Joring is a DOG-FREE Event – owners who bring their dogs downtown will be ticketed.
Why aren’t there any snowboarders or telemark skiers?
According to event organizers, the course isn’t set up for snow enthusiasts with any equipment other than alpine skis. More importantly, the rules prohibit anything but alpine skis.
How can I find out who won?
During the race, times will be announced over the intercom system. After the race, competitors and spectators head down to the Elks Lodge, where the official printout is compiled and handed out to everybody. The Elks Lodge is at 123 W 5th Street. But, Leadville Ski Joring has a Facebook page which will be reporting and posting results, photos and video live as they happen. this is also a GREAT PLACE for folks top share their pictures and experience. They don’t call it social media for nothing!
So be sure to enjoy your time in Leadville. Ski Joring doesn’t happen anywhere else in Colorado on an annual basis, only in Leadville! There’s not another place in the country that closes off their main street (a state highway, no less!), either. So if you’re looking for a sporting adventure that takes skiers, pulled behind horses (with riders) barreling down the streets of a true “Old West” town to take on majestic jumps, then you’ve come to the right place. It’s sure to make you say, “that’s crazy!”