Those Norwegians sure know their way around a winter sport. They boast an absurd number of winter Olympic medalists, both per-capita and straight-up. The word “ski” is from the Old Norse “skíð”, meaning “split piece of wood or firewood”.
And then, they brought us the wacky world of skijoring.
It’s a rip-roarin’ time, where a horse and rider take off full tilt down a long track. Behind them is a skier, hanging on for dear life to a climbing rope tied to the saddle. Depending on the category, they’re either going for speed, a long jump, or style in the air.
For obvious reasons, it’s surprising that it’s not a made-in-Alberta concept. Of course, there’s no reason Albertans can’t put their own twist on the sport, and that’s manifested itself the last few years in the Skijordue event held most recently on February 22 down at the Millarville Racetrack.
The crowd energy is just as high, maybe even higher, than the summer rodeos throughout southern Alberta. Over 2000 people turned out to the outdoor event, in winter. Busloads of excited attendees were shipped out on school buses from the Calgary bar Ranchman’s, and then shipped right back afterward.
Much of the buzz stems from the event’s overall flair and identity. The -due suffix on the Skijordue name refers to fondue, what began as an inside joke and is now a central part of the afternoon experience.
It also speaks to the nature of the event as a fabulously in-your-face three-way cultural smackdown. The cheese, beer and sporting history all add to a “European” aspect of the event’s identity. Skijordue’s big-time costume contest even includes a “Eurotrash” (their word) category.
Traditional western pride shines through as well, with auctioneers, rodeo announcers, and so many patrons clad in rough brown leather they could start their own cowboy cavalry.
Third, anyone who hits the Rockies on most of their winter weekends will know that extreme skiers, and snowboarders, have their own distinct cultures all to themselves. They’re a different breed.
“The cowboys love to get rowdy and so do the skiers, so they definitely mix well together,” said professional slopestyle and big air skier Michael Brush.
“Adding a little western mentality to skiing, it’s buck wild.”
He teamed up for the event with the Stampede Ranch as their sponsored athlete on the team, paired up with rancher/cowboy influencer Brad Karl.
“My rider BK, he’s a badass. He loves horses, loves to compete and he wants to be the best. I like the rowdiness of the whole thing. To have a rodeo in the wintertime, what could be any better?”
With multi-thousand attendance figures after just a few years in existence, Skijordue has gained a solid foothold in the area’s party and western event calendars, and Brush says it has nowhere to go but up.
“They’ve got it covered on the western side, it’s about getting more good skiiers involved,” he said.
“Soon, you’ll have a whole different group there in the mix and you’ll have a hell of a big event.”
On the 22nd, skiiers, boarders and riders battled it out for $10,000 in prize money across four main categories. First there was ‘circuit’.
“Circuit is all about having a good team relationship,” Brush explained.
“It’s knowing how fast you can go with your rider, how fast the horse can go and what you can handle and having the ability to be able to make the turns as quick as you can, being good on your feet.”
And then there was a relay.
“It’s definitely a lot in the horse, but the hand-off between skiiers is a key ingredient.”
And then the sprint.
“You just need a super-fast horse, plain and simple. As long as the skiier can hold on, it’s all in the horse, for sure.”
Last was a jump category where competitors could choose to go for a prize in either long jump (the winner hit just over fifty feet), or they could go for a style prize by launching off a jump with more “kick” and doing tricks. With Brush having competed across North America in major park skiing events, the style category was going to be the day’s holy grail for him and the Stampede Ranch team.
With 40 entries and a limited time frame, each skier or snowboarder would be allowed only one jump, so he’d have to make it count. The trick Brush chose to go with was a corked 720, a wild, twisting and turning feat with airtime requiring a massive amount of speed generated from the horse. He nailed it, but he’d wind up in second.
Phil Hudec had beat him with a backflip. It’s am objectively and technically easier trick than a corked 720, but to an audience member’s eye a backflip can often appear much more exciting.
To top it off Hudec, clad in jeans, chaps and a leather vest over bare skin, did it all while maintaining the burn on a full-sized cigar in his mouth and looked very, very cool doing so. After all, “style” doesn’t necessarily correlate to difficulty.
“This was my first year, and I’ve figured out for next year that it’s all about giving the crowd what they want while making it look good,” said Brush.
“I need to be willing to go out of my comfort zone not just doing a trick, but how I execute the trick and make the crowd react to it.”
“And of course, most importantly, I gotta have the right outfit.”