Colorado is known around the world for its outdoor winter recreation: skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice skating, hockey, ice fishing. But when it comes to the boisterous sport of ski joring, Leadville sits tall in the saddle at 10,200 feet with a racecourse that is surrounded by some of the state’s most notable historic buildings, not to mention Colorado’s two highest peaks.
Started in 1949, Leadville Ski Joring combines horses and riders, with skiers in an action-packed competition that takes place on historic Harrison Avenue. Held this year, March 7 & 8, 2020 for those who have never witnessed this sport in person, there’ s nothing quite like seeing skiers hurtle 8-foot jumps and spear rings as they’re towed behind speeding horses with adrenaline-fueled riders at the reins.
The sport of Ski Joring continues to grow across the country with encouragement from organizations like the North American Ski Joring Association, SkijorInternational and Skijor America. But it’s Leadville Ski Joring that stands out among the other competitions, mainly due to the course, both its build and its location. And because it’s the Granddaddy of ‘Em All!
The annual event went to four classes in 2018 – Open, Sport, Legends, and recently added Snowmobile Division. These winter athletes compete for the cheers from the crowds, the bragging rights that come from a good run/time, and of course, some hard cold cash! Teams are randomly matched: horse, rider and skier. The Open Division is for any and all skiers and you don’t have to have a horse, they will match you up during registration. The Sport division is what the BIG jumps are for. These are the real showmen and women to watch! The Legend Division was created for those older skiers who maybe weren’t willing to take on the big jumps, but still knew how to put on a show! Last year, organizers added the Snowmobile Division, offering newbies a chance to take on the course behind a snowmobile, before adding the more unpredictable horsepower. This gives skiers an opportunity to see how difficult it is to scoop up those rings and hit those gates. In other words, prove yourself. Then come back and do it behind a horse. For COMPLETE RULES, check the LeadvilleSkiJoring.us website.
Once the teams are selected, the bidding begins through a Calcutta which takes place at the Announcer’s Stand on Harrison Avenue. This is where the money for daily purses and seed funds for next year’s competition is generated. That combined with a bit of smack talk from long-time competitors and local folks knowing which team combinations have the best chance for victory. Once the Calcutta is finished, the Leadville Ski Joring spectacular begins entertaining the hordes of spectators on historic Harrison Avenue.
But to say that a world-class Ski Joring 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 8th Street to 3rd Street. Yep, that’s right after months of plowing the snow off the highway – Harrison Avenue is also Highway 24 and regularly plowed by the Colorado Department of Transportation – the local street department dumps the snow back ONTO Harrison Avenue. But it’s this unique setting that makes the course not only fun for the crowds but also for the competitors.
There’s usually a whole herd of volunteers out there pushing the snow around and helping to set-up the course on Friday, including students from the local Colorado Mountain College Ski Area Operations class.
One last thing: Leadville Ski Joring organizers are committed to streamlining the schedule and keeping the crowds better informed of what’s happening on the course and around town. So be patient, do a little shopping, grab a bite to eat, take a load off and have a cold (or hot) drink. After all, the whole reason this event is put on, is to bring folks up to Leadville and put on a Wild West show they’re not likely to forget. Yee-Haw!
© Leadville Today
By Kathy Bedell, Leadville Today
There’s a Code of the West that cowboys used to live by in the pioneer days. This list established an unwritten, socially agreed-upon set of informal laws shaping the cowboy culture of the Old West. For some, this code still lives on in Leadville Today.
This story was assembled through a series of interviews conducted by Leadville Today with Leadville Ski Joring (LSJ) organizers, their appointed medical providers and volunteers, a LSJ competitor, the Lake County Sheriff, the Leadville Police Chief, the Leadville Mayor and the Director of Lake County Public Works, as well as numerous eyewitnesses to the events described in the account that follows.
It was the very first run of the day on Saturday, March 2. It was The Legends Division for the 71st year of Leadville Ski Joring (LSJ), an annual event that began in 1949. The first team out of the chute, the first ones down the avenue would be Legend skier Mario Giaratanno pulled behind horse BB with owner Callie Bradley in the saddle. Giaratanno was a legend for a reason having competed in the LSJ event for many years, earning his share of accolades along the way. Bradley, an experienced horsewoman, has been racing Leadville since 2011 and has a Sports Division win notch on her cowgirl belt. But for BB, it would be her first run at the Granddaddy of ‘Em All. It was a solid way to kick off a weekend of racing. The matched team would eventually win the Legends Division for Saturday’s race with a time of 19.69. But the victory would be bittersweet, ending in a mile+ run-out with the horse finally collapsing on the highway at Stringtown.
Dr. Dennis Linemeyer owner of the Leadville Veterinary Clinic and the on-site veterinarian for the LSJ event picks up the story from here:
Doc: “While I didn’t see any of the accidents, I heard second-hand that the horse and rider didn’t stop at the finish line and continued on down Highway 24 into Stringtown, where the horse slipped on the road and fell on its side with the lady on it.”
It didn’t take long for the news of the accident to reach Harrison Avenue and that’s where Leadville Today first caught wind of it. An eye witness report from the Stringtown scene described a truck suddenly turning into the middle of Highway 24 to block traffic so that the horse and rider wouldn’t get hit. A point of reference for readers, Stringtown is located just on the other side of the city’s southern boundary at McWethy Drive, maybe a mile and a half from the downtown race course.
Dr. Linemeyer continues: “Somebody called me and said that there was a horse down in the middle of the road in Stringtown. I went down and looked at it. I didn’t even know that it was a racehorse from the event. So when I got down there, it was on the side of the road and had kind of butted up its right front leg. I helped the owner get it into the trailer and asked her if she had anything for pain; she said yes. And that she would watch her and if she needed me she could call me. The rider was okay. She said that the horse fell on her leg but that she was okay.”
Leadville Today checked in with Lake County Sheriff Amy Reyes concerning the incident, inquiring if an official report was filed through her office regarding the accident that eventually contributed to the animal’s death. Sheriff Reyes confirmed that Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Ortega did respond to the scene.
LT asked if she could provide the name of the rider and the horse involved in the accident, something Dr. Linemeyer was unable to do.
“No that won’t be done until tomorrow,” the Sheriff stated, explaining that anything that is not a critical incident allows an officer the opportunity to write the report the following day, so that’s why it would not be available until Monday.” LT followed up on Monday with an email to the Sheriff requesting a copy of the incident report or at least an update on its status. As of the date of this post, no formal report has been filed by Officer Ortega, and Sheriff Reyes has not responded to additional inquiries for information.
After the Stringtown incident, it was reported that Bradley headed back – with BB in tow – to the Lake County Rodeo Grounds at 6th and McWethy. After securing her horse, Bradley returned to the competition where she did two more runs in the Sports Division, riding her other horse, Little Blackie. While Bradley would not take a podium spot in that division, she did finish both runs placing 19th and 25th out of 40 teams.
By late Saturday afternoon, Dr. Linemeyer reported he was hearing from a number of LSJ riders saying that BB-the-horse was still down on its side and that they thought the doctor “oughtta come out and look at it.”
Doc: “The lady never called me, but I went out and looked at it there. The horse was pretty shocky and that front leg looked like it might have had some nerve damage; she was not moving that leg at all. She looked pretty bad. I didn’t think that the horse would make it through the night.”
Horse people can be known to keep to themselves, living in wide-open spaces, with most neighbors a friendly distance away. Most horse owners aren’t likely to speak directly, much less on the record, about how another person handles their animals. And even though Dr. Linemeyer is a horse person himself, he understood what needed to be reported:
“She wasn’t able to control that horse,” he said of the rider whose name he could not provide, nor remember. “It was my understanding that she didn’t have it for very long. Most people should be able to stop their horse at the end of the race. So I don’t know what happened on her end.”
“We didn’t want the animal to remain overnight in that condition, that wasn’t humane,” explained the vet. “We really had to work with her to show her what the humane choice was going to be.”
“It was tough,” said LSJ organizer and competitor Jason Dahl, who had gathered out at the rodeo grounds along with the horse’s owner and some other members of the LSJ family on that cold, snowy Saturday night.
But, the hope was that BB’s life wouldn’t be in vain. And it’s in times like this, that Leadville leads.
“One of the things that came out of this is reviewing what our vetting process is for equestrians,” explained Dahl. “It’s going to make us re-evaluate equine competitors, to assess competitors’ capabilities, create a pre-vetting process to make sure that they’re competent to compete in this race.”
In full disclosure, this was the second time LT reached out to race organizers to comment on the horse incident(s) from Saturday. The first media inquiry at 11:30 a.m. Sunday morning was met with a “no comment,” and a promise to “get with you after the event.” By Tuesday morning, several other interviews had been conducted and LT wanted to provide Dahl with another opportunity to go on the record. As many know, the Dahl name has a family legacy with skijoring dating back decades and one that’s sure to play out again at the National Championships this Saturday in Red Lodge, Montana. Out of honor for that reputation, Dahl had a second opportunity to address the concerns that were now intensifying both in local coffee circles, as well as on social media. After all, a horse that was competing in LSJ was dead.
“It was a great weekend with some tough conditions with the snow, but we were able to manage that,” Dahl started off, being given a clean slate to report how the weekend went. “Saw good crowds on Saturday, and not so much on Sunday.” It was turning out to be another run-of-the-mill LSJ report when Dahl finally addressed the issue.
“To my knowledge, there was a horse incident beyond the track; a rider lost control of her horse. And this is all that I know and I don’t even have all the facts,” Dahl explained during the phone interview conducted at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, March 5. By now, BB-the-Horse had been in the ground for almost 24 hours.
“I understand that there was an incident far south of town, way beyond our skijoring track and I hope that that is indicated in your report. It wasn’t snow related, it wasn’t course related. I understand that Dr. Linemeyer went on site. I understand that they got the horse into the trailer and took it to the rodeo grounds. I believe that Dr. Linemeyer said that things were fine at that time and then the way that I understand it, was that when they got to the rodeo grounds, the owner of the horse left the side door to the trailer open where the horse then jumped out of, further injuring itself, I believe, because the doctor was called again, and things were in a much worse situation. The horse didn’t have feeling in its right front shoulder.”
There’s another pause in the conversation, with Dahl asking that the rest of the conversation be off the record, which Leadville Today honored. The conversation continued for another several minute and although Dahl didn’t want to get into any details from there, he was willing to state on the record that the situation was “one of the tougher things I’ve ever had to deal with.”
But Jason Dahl was not alone in that experience.
It’s here that LT’s interview with BB’s owner and LSJ competitor Callie Bradley comes into focus. The following is her account of her wild 1.5 miles ride down Highway 24, as well as what she thinks may have caused the animal’s behavior and what happened from there.
Callie Bradley is not new to horses, and she’s certainly not new to Leadville Ski Joring.
“I’ve been racing in Leadville since 2011, I used to live in Leadville,” Bradley explained in a telephone interview with Leadville Today on the Tuesday afternoon after the races. For most LSJ fans, Bradley is the tiny woman who can be seen flying down Harrison Avenue on the back of her beloved horse, Little Blackie. And in what many still consider to be a male-dominated sport, she’s also had her turn on the LSJ podium, winning the Sport Division her first year as a competitor in 2011 after years as an event volunteer. She has returned to Leadville every year since except one.
Clearly, Bradley is an experienced horsewoman, so why wasn’t she able to gain control of her horse BB?
“She was new to our pack,” said Bradley speaking about her horse BB who lived with her in Oak Creek, Colo. “A friend of a friend was trying to find a home for her because she kept out-running the cows instead of actually doing the sorting, and that kind of work. They said that she needed a more suitable home where she could do what she liked best, which was to run.”
As is the case with many rescue horses, the paperwork can be spotty, if there’s any at all. As far as Bradley and others she had consulted with could tell, the horse was about 14 years old. But there was another telltale brand which revealed a more important part of BB’s story. It was the tattoo of a thoroughbred racehorse.
Most breeds of horses racing in North America are required to have a lip tattoo for identification purposes prior to their first race. This tattoo is inside the upper lip and is linked to the registration papers to identify the horse and owner. So . . . BB was a retired thoroughbred racehorse!
“Everyone who took a look at her (Saturday) said ‘this horse has to be 30 years old’, but she never showed her age during training, staying step by step with Little Blackie. She always seemed eager to do it, so I had no reason to believe that she was that old. But if she was, it explains a lot.”
Regardless, officials let BB race, kicking off the 71st Annual running of Leadville Ski Joring. But in the long run, it wasn’t BB’s age that caused her to behave so strangely. You see, BB’s identifying lip tattoo said that she was accustomed to running full-on at high rates of speed for exactly – you guessed it – 1.5 miles which is the length of the average thoroughbred horse race track.
“I was flying down Harrison Avenue,” Bradley recalled of BB’s one-and-done championship run. But after the team crossed the finish line, BB didn’t stop. Even in animals, memory is strong, and so the best that Bradley can guess is that BB’s racehorse imprint kicked in and she just didn’t stop.
“That training just came back to her. She just leaned into the bit. She wouldn’t turn, she wouldn’t stop,” Bradley recalls of her harrowing wild ride down Highway 24. “I think that she just remembered that ‘this is what we do, we run for a mile and a half,’ because we never trained that distance.”
“Boy, if I could just take it back, and let her live out the rest of her days in the pasture, I would.” Bradley’s voice is shaky. But time heals the ‘what-if’ wounds of regret, and maybe for BB she knew that this might just be her last run at a blaze of glory, streaking down Harrison Avenue with LSJ Legend Mario in tow. It’s a run that would earn her top place in the Legends Division along with a story that’s likely to be told a few times. So maybe BB-the-horse didn’t really want that pasture after all.
Bradley continues with her story: “She wouldn’t even slow down. I mean if a horse is barefoot on pavement, that’s one thing, but with those special studded shoes, those are custom made for snow, not concrete. So it would have been very dangerous for me to try to turn her one way or another on the highway for fear she would slip and fall in front of a car. Or if I turned onto a side street she would slip and fall on me. The safest thing to do was let her run out. I was hoping that she would just slow down. I pulled back on those reins the entire time and yelled ‘whoa’.”
And then, she finally stopped just after the old Stringtown Steakhouse, exactly 1.5 miles from the start line.
“She stopped, slumped her head and fell over on me,” recanted Bradley. “I wasn’t injured but I couldn’t get out from under her. It took a couple of people to lift her up. We got her on her feet and I went to get my trailer. I got her in the trailer and she laid down. Linemeyer and I checked her out and thought that she had a pulled tendon but she didn’t appear to have any life-threatening injuries at that point.”
But at the end of her runs in the Sport Division, when Bradley returned to the rodeo grounds, she found that BB was still laying down.
“She still didn’t want to get up. I had opened the side door of the trailer to get her some air and I was about to throw some hay in there, and in the ten seconds that I turned around to get hay out of the back of the truck, she jumped out of the side door of the trailer.”
The situation was getting worse. The night sky was getting darker The temperatures were dropping, and fast.
“There’s no friendly way of putting this; I did not want to do it,” Bradley states firmly. “But I’m also not a veterinarian and there were a lot of people there saying, ‘it looks like she’s going into shock, it’s not fair for a horse to freeze to death.’ I was desperate. I had every blanket in the car on her. I would have laid there in the snow and died myself, rather than see that horse be put down unnecessarily, but it got to a point where I didn’t want to be selfish by trying to keep her alive.”
“There were people who stayed with me, while I was there. It was cold, and they could have gone back to the Elks Lodge and had cocktails, but they didn’t.” Bradley concluded, expressing her gratitude and speaking to people’s compassion.
At approximately 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, the horse named BB was euthanized by Dr. Linemeyer in one of the corrals out at the rodeo grounds. On Monday, March 5, BB was loaded up in a backhoe and brought up to the landfill by Lake County Public Works crew where she was buried alongside countless other pets that make their final resting place at the Leadville dump.
After the 2016 on-course accident that ultimately led to JJ Swirka having to put down her beloved horse Logan, LSJ organizers made a promise to fans and the citizens of Leadville. Animal safety and accident preparedness and reporting needed to improve if the event would sustain its long-standing local support.
And while notable improvements have been made, most specifically to the start line pens for the horses and racecourse monitoring, it was clear that the reporting component was lacking. Some of that is the systemic “that’s Leadville” issue. Some of it is the cowboy culture of independent free-thinkers, with nobody wanting to talk about somebody else’s business or tell them how they should be handling their horses.
But for the sake of keeping that promise, Leadville Today also reports the following horse incidents that happened at 2019 Leadville Ski Joring.
It was Leadville Chief of Police Saige Bertolas who informed Leadville Today of the horse injured inside a trailer which required stitches from Dr. Linemeyer.
“The only other injury that I’m aware of was that a truck, while trying to get out of the Community Park parking lot, got stuck in the deep snow which brought the trailer to a quick halt, forcing the horses forward in the trailer resulting in a laceration to one of the horse’s heads.” Dr. Linemeyer confirmed that he did suture that horse and sent it on its way, once the vehicles got unstuck.
“Brad Palmer was Johnny-on-the-spot. He went over and got it plowed out for them. That was amazing. He remedied that problem immediately,” the newly sworn-in Chief of Police reported.
During the interview with Jason Dahl, he revealed that there was another such accident on a side street which resulted in the same injury and medical attention from Dr. Linemeyer.
The third (and counting?) Saturday incident happened on course during the Sport Division, as reported by Leadville Mayor Greg Labbe: “I was on the avenue and observed a horse that was bleeding from its right front hock. There were a couple people attending to the horse and one person involved said that the horse had kicked itself at full gallop and that the injury was minor. They seemed to be handling the issue well.”
The pool of blood left at the end of the race track quickly drew a crowd of spectators concerned about the welfare of the horse, although the incident left only a slight cut to its hind leg, according to Dr. Linemeyer. The rider, although visibly shaken, knew how to handle the situation and tended to the horse with the quick wrap of a bandage all the while calming a growing crowd voicing their opinions about the incident. Afterward, the horse walked back to the trailer parked behind the Elks Lodge. Dr. Linemeyer did confirm that he checked on that animal and it had a superficial wound, one he anticipated the horse would fully recover from.
The Code of The West is about leadership. It’s about doing the right thing, especially when nobody is looking – or reporting. The list doesn’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen. In fact, it prepares you for the curveballs, the unexpected.
Because it’s what people do AFTER something happens that separates out the ranch hands from the cowpokes, the trail bosses from the wranglers. The Code of The West still reigns in Leadville Today. There are still many honest people who will go on the record and talk about an incident. Their integrity is intact and they “Remember, that some things aren’t for sale.” And this town and its legacy reputation for skijoring are among them.
To the Leadville Ski Joring team, from the organizers to the competitors, to the countless volunteers, keep The Code of The West close to your vest as you continue to promote this legacy event. Read it. Study it. Let it be your compass. After all, the Granddaddy of ‘Em All is counting on it!
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC, a digital media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes Leadville Today and Saguache Today. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.