In just a few years, horse skijoring pulling in fans around Maine

Jan. 29—Eric Nathanson of Portland competed as a snowboarder last year in one of Maine's first horse skijoring events, and called it "a sort of esoteric thing and a blast."

Jen McGoldrick of Bangor said her family's Appaloosa horse clearly loved towing her on skis this winter as they prepared for their first horse skijoring race. And Kayla Starr of Solon declared this wild, western pursuit that first came to Maine five years ago a growing winter draw.

"I feel as Mainers that's what we want: insane, fun that gets us through the winter," said Starr, 35, who will compete this year in the fifth horse skijoring event in Skowhegan and the second in Topsham.

Horse skijoring, or equestrian skijoring, was made popular in ski towns in the western United States. The sport is much like the skijoring many Mainers know and love, in which they are tethered to the back of their dog from a harness that wraps around their legs and torso, much like a rock-climbing harness.

Just like with canine skijoring, horse skijoring involves a horse and rider pulling a skier from a tow rope — but rather than racing on a Nordic ski course, the skiers maneuver around a roughly 1,000-foot race course filled with obstacles wearing Alpine skis or a snowboard. The Alpine gear is essential because horses often run as fast as 30 mph. Courses often are built at fairgrounds and always at a spectator-friendly venue. Because horse skijoring draws fans.

"It's fun and unique. Everyone is really excited to be there. It has a community-barbecue atmosphere," said Nathanson, a backcountry snowboarder. "They do a good job setting up the course with most of the jumps and rollers happening right in front of the grandstand. It's definitely an electrifying event."

The second-annual horse skijoring event at the Topsham Fairgrounds will be held Feb. 11. On Feb. 25 the fifth horse skijoring event at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds will be held in conjunction with the Somerset Snowfest winter celebration.

At the Skowhegan race there are junior, novice and pro divisions that involve jumps, tight turns and dips. Neither the skier nor the rider are actually professional racers. The pro division simply involves teams bold enough to try the more challenging course.

Each team gets two runs and the winner is decided based on the fastest time. The cost to enter the Skowhegan race is $80 per team. The prize money, sponsored by Franklin Savings Bank ranges, from $400 for the top pro team to $200 for third place.

For years such events were held in ski towns in Colorado, Utah and Idaho. Horse skijoring first came to Maine in 2019 when Maine native and skiing enthusiast Mary Haley started it as a part of the Skowhegan winter carnival. It's grown every year since, from 500 spectators and 35 teams in 2019 to more than 2,000 fans and 42 teams in 2022.

As a result, another group brought horse skijoring to the Topsham Fairgrounds last year. Janice Hill of Brunswick, who helped stage the event, expected 120 spectators. It drew around 1,200 and she had to turn people away because of the lack of parking in the deep snow. This year more lots will be plowed and they're increasing the entry field from 22 to 40 teams.

"I spent maybe $10 on posters. The rest was word of mouth," Hill said of last year's event. "My daughter raced up at Skowhegan. We brought it up at a board meeting. We had three weeks to pull it all together."

New at this year's Skowhegan event is a snowboarding division. The Topsham race this year will introduce a miniature horse division. They also are adding an event that invites spectators to enter, using a snow tube that is dragged by a horse.

"I have minis and a lot of my friends have minis. Go on YouTube and watch videos of minis skijoring. It's hysterical," Hill said.

As the Skowhegan event enters its fifth year, competitors now must find their own team, which many are doing on the Skijor Maine Facebook page. The result is a wild scramble — much like the race itself — in which riders and skiers are trying to pair up with equally competitive and competent teammates to join in the fun.

McGoldrick tried horse skijoring this winter to help her 16-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, decide whether to compete in Skowhegan this year.

"I was scared out of my mind. The horse is going 50 mph and I could break a bone. But it was really fun," she said.

McGoldrick said the family's Appaloosa, Jose, digs it.

"This is definitely something new for Jose. But her ears were forward. She was not at all resistant to pulling me. She's not throwing a fit," McGoldrick said. "When she's doing dressage in a ring, it's very measured and very precise. With this she can go in a field and gallop away. She's enjoying it."

Starr, an expert backcountry skier, said horse skijoring is not dangerous because you can let go of the tow rope, and the rider is able to cut it loose if needed. Learning how to use the tow ropes to carve and manipulate the landing after a jump helps, she said. Starr thinks as knowledge of the sport spreads, it will draw more competitors from around Maine.

"My husband goes behind a horse that's very fast and unpredictable, and he's fine with that. He wants to go as fast as possible. It's very scary to watch. I go behind a horse that is more predictable," Starr said. "Two months after having a baby I decided to get behind a horse and do it. It definitely was an adrenaline rush. I have two young boys, ages 2 and 5. I can't let my boys watch Dad have all the fun. They have to see Mom do it. I really wish more women would do it."