You know you’re in for an exciting show when the race information clearly states that an ambulance will be on hand.
This weekend, spectators lining River Street in Red River will get the state’s first taste of the centuries-old sport of skijoring in a competition showcasing a bit of the Wild West blended with fast paced ski racing.
“Skijoring gets in your system so dang bad,” one participant says in a promotional video, “it’s like being a drunk.”
“Skijoring” is derived from the Norwegian word “skikjøring” which means “ski driving.” The skijoring competition in Red River is equine-powered. Other forms of the one-time transportation activity feature a snowmobile, dog, or reindeer to pull a skier on a towrope. Skijoring was first used in the 1940s in the U.S. to tow skiers up Colorado mountains in place of ski lifts, and the sport of skijoring was first on display in Steamboat Springs, Colo., as part of a winter festival.
“Anybody with a horse and someone dumb enough to ski behind it can be a competitor,” says another participant. “You know you’re in for a ride!”
The course in Red River is a timed, 800-foot-long straight run with three ski jumps 6 to 8 feet high and two sets of gates that skiers must navigate, plus two sets of rings that skiers collect as they fly past. Racers are vying for a $6,500 purse funded by entry fees and sponsorships at this 2016 season opener for the North American Ski Joring Association series of races.
Dally Up Events’ owner Jodee Thayer hatched the idea of bringing a skijoring competition to Red River over a beer at the Motherlode Saloon. “Where else?” she says. “A friend and I were chatting about what a great fit skijoring would be for New Mexico and for Red River in particular, with the mixture of cowboys and skiers – perfect for our little Western culture ski town.” The race is expected to draw about 50 top national and regional competitors in the field.
Some New Mexico talent to watch includes 16-year-old Savannah McCarthy, who was 12 when she started racing. Her father, Tim McCarthy, will also compete in the open, or expert, division. A former bull rider with more than 20 years of skijoring, Tim says you shouldn’t underestimate New Mexico’s long shots – at age 13, Savannah won the prestigious Leadville, Colo., season-opener race, among numerous other wins in the past two years. “She’s smokin’ it,” Tim says. “New Mexico had Mine That Bird, Holly Holm, and now Savannah.”
In Red River, she’ll be riding Tank, a former racehorse. “Getting on my horse and hearing my name called to start – I love that adrenaline rush,” Savannah says. “I love to go fast.”
The McCarthy’s live in Aztec, where they are preparing five horses to take to the skijoring competition. The horses, which can reach speeds of 40 mph during the race, aren’t allowed to run more than twice a day.
“We’re probably some of the only owners who give our horses oxygen before and after they run with masks we made,” Tim says, following the lead of pro football players you see “sitting on the sidelines eating oxygen.”
Skier John McCampbell competed in Red Lodge, Mont., when he was a teen, and 25 years later he and his niece, Olivia McCampbell, formed a skijoring team for a 2015 competition. He’s a confident skier but admits being hurled around a racecourse behind a horse has its dangers. “There’s a good bit of acceleration as the horse takes off,” McCampbell says. “I saw a guy catch an edge through a corner and end up in a safety fence; it took him a bit of time to get up.”
All three performances of rider, horse, and skier need to sync for a good run, and conditions also factor in as the course is churned by the riders. “I’ve seen plenty of skiers wreck and a few horses go down,” McCampbell says. “But I’ve never seen a horse injured.” Safety restrictions are stringent to protect the animals and the human racers who wear protective gear.
McCampbell and the McCarthys note the appeal of the sport to families who get to travel together and compete together. “You couldn’t ask for a better office,” Tim says.
Savannah adds, “Even if you don’t win, it always pays off.”
What: Red River Skijoring
When: Friday, 8:30 p.m., parties with live music by The Rifters at the Motherlode Saloon and Dewey Paul Band at the Bull o’ the Woods Saloon
Saturday, races at noon (also snowmobile climb race at RR Ski & Summer Area 3:30 p.m. torchlight parade, fireworks, rail jam at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. party at both saloons.)
Sunday, noon races with tentative 13-and-under kids’ event; 6 p.m., awards ceremony
How much: $45-$65
Info and registration: redriverskijoring.com