Under a blue sky as dazzling as you’ll ever find in southern Alberta, 11 men in Bavarian–style tunics stand in a snow–covered arena, yodelling the national anthem. As the final words of “O Canada” echo out over the packed grandstand, a horse comes charging from behind the Wildrose Yodel Club, steered by a trick rider standing tall in her stirrups. Pulled behind them is a man on skis, dressed in head–to–toe denim. The skier veers toward a large jump in the middle of the infield, releases the rope, then soars high into the air, back–flipping for an awestruck crowd – all the while clutching a flag with the words “Skijor Canada” emblazoned across it.
Skijoring cowboy–style in the Foothills is part snow rodeo, part extreme ski competition and the wildest spectator sport around. Ski–haw!
The Millarville Racetrack, nestled in Foothills County, 45 minutes southwest of downtown Calgary where the prairie gives way to rolling hills before cresting into Rocky Mountain peaks, is the site of an event so quintessentially Albertan, you’d think it was invented here. But skijoring – pulling a skier over snow with dogs, horses or trucks – dates back thousands of years, first recorded in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. “Skijoring” comes from the Norwegian word skikjøring (kjøring means “driving”), as Laplanders have long strapped on skis and hitched rides with reindeer to traverse snowy stretches. In the early 20th century, organized skijoring events took off, making appearances at the Nordic Games in Stockholm and the 1928 Olympic Games in St. Moritz. Here in Alberta’s ranch country, competitive skijoring is just catching on – and it’s done on horseback, “cowboy–style.”
Sam Mitchell is unmissable at the racetrack in a calf–length coat trimmed with fur and covered in vintage patches, blond hair cascading from under a felt cowboy hat. She’s a horse trainer and coach, and the founder of Skijor Canada and its pre–eminent event, Skijordue. A lifelong rider and skier, Mitchell combined the fashion and après–ski scene of the Alps (where she spent seven winters), the cowboy spirit of the Foothills and the ski and snowboarding culture of the Rockies to create Skijordue. “It’s the best of Alberta, with a little Euro thrown in,” she says. The annual one–day charity event, which began in 2016 when a dozen friends got together to horse around and eat cheese, sees riders and sliders face off in four competitive events (Circuit, Sprint, Relay and Long Jump) with horses reaching speeds of up to 65 kilometres an hour. It goes down in front of a crowd wearing flamboyant western–meets–Euro ski getups, resulting in a technicolour sea of snowsuits, chaps, cowboy hats and fur – all fuelled by fondue, bratwurst and beer.
Skijoring may be relatively new as a spectator sport in the Foothills, but horse folks in these parts have been doing it all along. Kirk “Gongshow” Prescott lives in De Winton, just 20 minutes away. “From a young age we used to tow each other around on sleds and skis, but in the last five years, skijoring has taken off and become more of a sport.” As an ambassador for Skijor Canada, he’s part of the tight–knit volunteer organization led by Mitchell that’s pushing it forward, working to standardize competition and safety and help other communities organize events. They’ve received calls from skijor groups from as far away as China with questions about how to pull off races like theirs.
At Skijordue 2020, Susan Oakes, the world record holder for sidesaddle high jumping, and her childhood friend Barry O’Brien Lynch travelled from Ireland to compete. When Oakes shared news of their participation on her Facebook page, the duo was interviewed by their local radio station in Meath County, which caught the attention of the national papers – landing Alberta’s distinct style of skijoring a spot on the front page of the Irish Examiner. “People from all over instantly knew about this crazy sport and that we’re here,” says Oakes. “All of Ireland is behind us.”
The timed Circuit event plays out on a curved track, with skiers and snowboarders navigating a series of obstacles: weaving between hay bales, careening around berms and – for bonus points – ringing a large cowbell hanging in an adjacent tree. As a horse and rider race to get their skier across the finish line, the announcer surveys the crowd: “How many of you are at a skijor event for the first time ever?” Cheers and hollers erupt from the already boisterous bleachers. At the first official Skijordue in 2017, attendance was 800; now it’s 4,000, with 150 competitors. “I don’t think a lot of people who don’t ride would go see horse shows, and who don’t ski would go to ski races,” Mitchell says. “But they will come to see this.”
In this individual timed event, horses and riders run on the inside of the curved track, while sliders (skiers and snowboarders) navigate obstacles on the perimeter.
Horses and riders propel sliders over a two–metre jump (one at a time). One winner is declared for farthest distance travelled, and one winner for style.
Three horses and riders race abreast, towing slider A for 90 metres, who then hands the rope to slider B for the 90–metre dash back to the finish line.
Four horses and riders race abreast, towing sliders down a straight 200–metre track.
When You Go
Foothills County, Alberta
Azuridge Estate Hotel
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Foothills County, this hidden–gem resort is themed around precious stones (the owners are geologists). Each of the 13 guest rooms is named after a mineral, while the new–in–2020 Flourish LIV Well Spa uses stones and crystals in treatments.
Stop in for the Australia–meets–Alberta “Sunday Brekkie” – avocado toast and farm eggs with thick–cut bacon – at this laid–back eatery in Black Diamond. Co–owner and chef Erin Kendrick, an Aussie transplant, also serves up fresh glazed and filled doughnuts on Saturdays.
Bertie’s General Store
Housed in Black Diamond’s first store, Bertie’s is run by friends Isis Velkova and Jolene Friesen. Half of it is vintage clothing curated by Friesen, and the other half is an apothecary, featuring Velkova’s Tender Living Farm teas, bath soaks and salves, made with local ingredients.
Leighton Art Centre
Come for the best view in the Foothills – a Sound of Music–esque vista as far as the eye can see – and stay for the local art exhibits, a shop filled with handmade gifts and to learn about the legacy of Alberta artists A.C. and Barbara Leighton, who lived in the Arts and Crafts–style house and painted the surrounding landscapes.