About 10 years ago, he went to watch a co-worker practice skijoring. “I thought, that looks like a lot of fun, so the next time I brought my skis,” Mr. Nelson says.
He was a natural and soon began entering—and winning—local races. He now competes in about a dozen each winter and credits his downhill-skiing background, combined with 15-plus years of motocross experience, for helping him pick up the sport quickly.
“Core strength, balance and a bit of a daredevil spirit come in handy,” Mr. Nelson says.
Skijoring teams consist of a skier, a rider and a horse. The courses are typically 600 to 1,000 feet long, can be straight, U-shaped or L-shaped, and typically include slaloms, jumps and other obstacles.
Races take place over two days, with two runs per team. Each team’s finish times are combined for an overall score, with penalties for errors such as missing a ski gate.
The sport comes with its dangers: Mr. Nelson says he has seen skiers blow out their knees or get struck in the face by a loose horseshoe. The rope once coiled around his neck, but he acted fast enough to untangle himself without injury.
“When the skier gets whipped around a corner it feels like it adds another 10 miles per hour,” he says. “I still get that nervous, dry-mouth feel when I’m at the starting line.”
Mr. Nelson’s alarm goes off at 5 a.m., so he can get to the gym by 5:45 a.m. during the week. He runs 5 miles on the treadmill, then lifts weights, focusing on his core, shoulders and legs.
“I try to always bring something new to my routine so I don’t get lazy,” he says. He finds new exercise ideas online and from P90X workout DVDs.
On some weeknights, Mr. Nelson skis uphill, using removable climbing skins that attach to his skis, adding traction. “It’s an intense cardio workout,” he says.
On weekends, he goes both downhill and uphill skiing, and practices skijoring at a friend’s track.
After workouts, Mr. Nelson eats hard-boiled eggs and fruit. Lunch is his biggest meal of the day and might include a burrito, banana, granola bar and slices of salami. His wife prepares dinner, which is often pork loin and vegetables.
Mr. Nelson is a hunter, so the couple eats a lot of wild game, such as elk. “I try to keep healthy but I don’t deprive myself of good foods,” he says. “I’m a sucker for peach pie.”
The Gear & Cost
Mr. Nelson races with slalom skis, which are shorter and narrower, allowing for quicker turns. He wears a helmet, goggles and gloves.
“You start standing 10 feet behind the horse, holding 50 feet of rope in your hand,” he says. “About 30 feet of rope slides through your hand before you have to clamp down and hold on, so without gloves you’d get a nasty rope burn.”
He used to wear leather gloves but has switched to cotton, he says. “I buy them cheap, for $5 a pair, and use a pair per run.” He pays $25 a month for his membership at Flathead Health & Fitness in Kalispell, Mont.
“My gym has four big TV screens, so I use gym time to catch up on local news, weather and ESPN,” he says.
Where to Try ‘Water-Skiing on Snow’
It may not be an Olympic sport—the closest it got was a demonstration at the 1928 St. Moritz games—but skijoring is growing in popularity. Several major competitions held annually in the U.S., and several resorts and Nordic centers offer skijoring lessons.
“It’s kind of like water-skiing on snow,” says Kristen Snavely, head wrangler at Triple Creek Ranch, a resort in Darby, Mont., that offers skijoring lessons. “Most people’s first instinct is to lean back and be pulled. But when the momentum starts, you aren’t moving at a steady pace, so you need to be an active participant. Balance and core really come into play.”
Ms. Snavely says it is important to keep your elbows and knees slightly bent, as they work like shock absorbers, and to keep your hips, heels and shoulders in line so that you stay centered as you increase or decrease speed. If you start to feel out of control, she adds, just let go of the rope.
Triple Creek Ranch offers horse-drawn skijoring lessons for resort guests of all levels through snowy meadows and forested trails.
The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Mont., offers hourlong, horse-pulled skijoring sessions on a groomed course.
The St. Regis Aspen in Colorado offers private skijoring lessons for guests and their dogs. Those traveling without their pet can adopt a dog for the day from the Aspen Animal Shelter.
Frisco Nordic Center in Frisco, Colo., offers two-hour skijoring clinics for skiers and their dogs.
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