Aaron Griffen. PHOTO: Mark LaRowe
Aaron Griffen. PHOTO: Mark LaRowe

This Is Ski Racing, With Horses

Getting to know ski joring with America's champion

PHOTO: Mark LaRowe

Aaron Griffen needs a glove sponsor. The 27-year old excavator hailing from Bozeman, Montana, went through a few this winter. Western-style equine ski joring—the competitive niche sport that involves a skier grabbing tight to a rope and being pulled behind a fast horse through a course—is a glove-shredder.

Ski joring can’t claim one country of origin, but its roots are Scandinavian and Nordic. Hunters found they could travel efficiently if they strapped long wooden planks to their feet and let their dogs, or reindeers, pull them across the snow. Competitive equestrian ski joring first debuted as a demonstration event at the 1928 St. Moritz Olympics, then gained popularity in the Western United States, starting in Colorado, in the 1950s. Today, the sport has a governing body, Ski Joring America, which organizes a huge roster of events across the west each winter.

This season, Griffen competed in 11 Ski Joring America races—nearly twice as many as most of his peers—in Idaho, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. And when the circuit wrapped up earlier this month, he was on top of the standings with 117.75 points. Griffen, whose ski roots go back to racing gates in Upstate New York, first competed in ski joring last winter. This was his rookie season in the "open" division, ski joring's pro class. Tyler Smedsrud earned second in the division with 97.25 points, and Toby McIntosh took third with 75. Griffen's frequent teammates, Ebbie Hansen and Richard Weber, ranked first and second among open riders.

"Aaron is an extremely dedicated competitor whose hard work and tenacity is something we love to see in all ski joring competitors," Matt Crossett, a Ski Joring America board member, said. "This year is has been extremely exciting to watch as an organizer of the sport. Our sport has quickly exploded with more competitors, more money, and more races than ever before popping up. We hope this is just the beginning of many competitors who travel the entire circuit."

Griffen spoke with POWDER about his season on the tour.

Aaron Griffen (right) with his brother. PHOTO: Matt Crossett

I started at the Bozeman ski joring competition last year. It went great. Ebbie and I ended up winning it, and right there that weekend, decided we'd figure out the schedule and keep going. We went to six or seven events.

Work slows down this time of year for us, so I have the time. I wanted to go all-in for my first year in the open class.

I grew up ski racing and skied a lot. Going to the mountains and just running trails, it kind of got old for me. This was a new element of skiing. Brings the excitement back. It sure is exciting.

I also grew up rodeoing. I was on the rodeo team at Montana State. I've been around horses and skiing all my life. I think that comes in handy with knowing how horses might react in situations. These horses have a lot of energy. [At the start,] they're ready to go, and sometimes, you have to hold them back. As a skier, you can read that and know they're going to pull out of there. You have to be ready.

It's a ski race where all the power comes from the horse. It's a start that can be faster than anything you've ever felt out of the gate. The start behind a horse is definitely faster than snowmobile or a four-wheeler, even.

Starts are huge because timing is all based off of the skier; the skier starts and stops the timing. So if you can get a great start—which would be at the end of your rope when you start the clock, putting that horse another stride or two ahead—that makes a huge difference. Finishing as far up the rope as you can is another big aspect of the sport. Between the start and finish, you can make up four-tenths of a second or even more [by climbing up the rope].

Rope handling is the biggest thing. You try not to have slack. Just let the rope slide through your hands, but still keep it tight. I like to make sure there's always some rope behind me, so if I do get into a little bit of trouble, it's a safety net… It's a lot of climbing, and then sliding, down the rope. You don't want to just sit, or to keep climbing, because then three-quarters down the course you won't have any rope to make your turns.

I burn through a pair of gloves a weekend. A lot of people use knitted construction gloves with a rubber palm. This year, I started using football-receiver gloves. They work great. But they don't last long.

I probably prefer a straight course. In a round track you have 50 feet of rope, and that's a lot more—on the straight track, it's just a 33-foot rope. A little less chance of getting into trouble. I have been tangled up a few times.

Not a whole lot of practicing goes on… Practice is not something that people usually get to do.

I've been in a couple good crashes. It's a flat course, so the jumps can be a little screwy sometimes. If lips are built just a little off, they can cause big issues. A flat landing, that's usually where it gets me every now and then. I've always hopped right back up. I've been in far worse [accidents] in ski racing. I haven't had one that's made me question it yet.

Both [ski and horse communities] invest a lot in something they love. Skiers buy the ski pass, or spend hours climbing the backcountry just for that one sweet run. You go in 100 percent. And that's very similar with the horse community. With horses, you either love ’em or you don't. You got to commit 100 percent with both sports.

There was a lot of great competition in [this year's open] class… There's a couple skiers that out-skied me the majority of the year, but I just went to a few more [races].

The traveling is a huge sacrifice in and of itself. It can really tire a guy or gal out, being on the road that much. It's just a weekend event, but you throw in a Friday and Monday of traveling, sometimes longer, and you only get a couple days off in between. Eleven events is definitely very tiring by the end of the season.

It does get pretty expensive traveling. The hotels, eating your meals out every weekend. Those opportunities to win money—without them, I wouldn't be able to go.

It pays well, too. But not a lot of people are able to [support themselves entirely with ski joring earnings]. If you have one bad weekend, it can put a pretty big hurting on a financial situation. And stack a couple rough weekends in a row—you have to slow down a little bit. It's similar to gambling in that aspect. Even a second's difference could be a $2,000 swing.

There's a handful of races that add a lot more money than others, and they've got a community that's been supporting ski joring for 10-plus years, and those are the really fun ones to go to. The crowd shows up and the community looks forward to it every year. Those would be like Whitefish and Leadville. Having the sidelines packed with people hooting and hollering gets everyone ready to compete.

You meet a lot of friends. Get to know a lot of people. It's growing fast, but it's still a pretty small community.

I was hesitant at first. I had the opportunity to do it before, but passed because I was a little bit nervous. Don't be nervous. Try it, then decide if you like it or not.