BUCKING THE PANDEMIC

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With limited racers, no spectators, San Juan Skijoring presses on

  • Rider Josh Abbott pulls skier Aaron Griffen during the open competition at the San Juan Skijoring competition on Saturday. The team and horse Elvis completed the run in 22.09 seconds. “It’s surreal,” organizer Sarah McConnell said after the first day of competition had gone smoothly. “I didn’t know if we’d ever get here.” Erin McIntyre — Ouray County Plaindealer
    Rider Josh Abbott pulls skier Aaron Griffen during the open competition at the San Juan Skijoring competition on Saturday. The team and horse Elvis completed the run in 22.09 seconds. “It’s surreal,” organizer Sarah McConnell said after the first day of competition had gone smoothly. “I didn’t know if we’d ever get here.” Erin McIntyre — Ouray County Plaindealer
  • Ridgway’s Richard Weber III, riding Serge, pulls skier Jake Benda during the open competition on Saturday. The San Juan Skijoring competition is the 49th skijoring event Weber has competed in. Erin McIntyre — Ouray County Plaindealer
    Ridgway’s Richard Weber III, riding Serge, pulls skier Jake Benda during the open competition on Saturday. The San Juan Skijoring competition is the 49th skijoring event Weber has competed in. Erin McIntyre — Ouray County Plaindealer
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As racers made their way down the course at the Ouray County Fairgrounds, the pounding of horses’ hooves and the yells of jockeys and skiers carried over the music played on speakers, with no crowd of cheering spectators to drown them out.

Instead of grandstands packed with people and vendors selling food and drinks, the parking lot around the 4-H Center was closed off with cones.

Organizers of last weekend’s San Juan Skijoring limited the number of racers and eliminated the audience as concessions to keep the event going for its fifth year, even as many others have been canceled this season.

The sport brings together rodeo and snow sports, with jockeys on horseback pulling skiers and snowboarders around markers and over jumps. Teams compete for the fastest time and fewest penalties, and in the open category, the skiers’ course includes jumping over an SUV.

While they compete fiercely for prize money, the contestants who travel the race circuit together treat each other like family, supporting and helping out when they can. While they waited between runs, some pointed out tricky spots on the course to others, advising where to slow down or speed up as they made their way over the jumps.

“It’s been 10 months since we all got to be together,” said Duffy Counsell, who lives in Leadville and runs the annual competition there. “This is the most fun I’ve had since March 2020 at Leadville’s event. I’ve missed all my skijoring brothers and sisters, big ones and little ones. We love competing against each other.”

He’s waiting to find out if his event will be allowed to go on this year.

“If we can safely do our event, as Ridgway has done, then we absolutely will do it for our 73rd year,” he said.

San Juan Skijoring is typically the first race of the season, which has been cut short this year due to the pandemic.

“It’s nonexistent,” organizer Sarah McConnell said of the race circuit. “There’s four, possibly five races. We’re usually looking at 16 or 17.”

Ouray County commissioners gave McConnell and Tyler Smedsrud approval for the event about a month ago, under the condition that no spectators be allowed inside. Only 150 people were allowed in the fairgrounds, and temperatures were taken as they entered. The number of competitors was limited, and their families and others who might normally have attended with them were not allowed to attend.

“It’s surreal,” McConnell said Sunday afternoon, after the first day of competition had gone smoothly. “I didn’t know if we’d ever get here.”

In December, County Fairgrounds Manager Erin Stadelman said she wasn’t comfortable approving the event, so the committee brought it to the commissioners for consideration. McConnell initially presented a plan to commissioners with limited spectators and no vendors, but County Health Director Tanner Kingery raised concerns about a potential domino effect if it resulted in an outbreak Organizers were tasked with keeping out rogue spectators and limiting attendance inside the event to comply with state mandates.

“In a normal year, the whole family would travel,” said Will Faust, who hosts another skijoring competition in Saratoga, Wyoming. This year, “we made it like a guys’ trip,” he said, with only those competing traveling, including his 8-year-old son Edgar. “His mom was watching from home on the Facebook stream.”

More than 12,000 people tuned into the livestream for the first day of competition, Ridgway resident and organizer Richard Weber III said, and Sunday’s video had more than 13,000 views.

A few dozen more watched in person. Despite the prohibition on spectators inside the event, cars parked along U.S. Highway 550 both afternoons to watch.

“We decided we would not be we not denied,” Roger Stewart said.

He and his wife, Susan, brought chairs and thermoses of coffee to watch from the sidewalk as their daughter, Erin Luks, competed on horseback.

Some of the spectators who joined them on the sidewalk stumbled across the event and asked them questions, he said.

“We just happened to see that it was going on,” said Aleisha Largent, who lives in Delta and was working in Ridgway on Saturday. “We came last year, when you could sit and watch and do stuff.” Her kids sat on the hood of her car watching from the roadside.

“I think it’s pretty cool, as long as they’re being safe,” said Karl Thees, a member of the event’s board of directors who spent much of the event walking laps around the course, checking in with judges, competitors and ensuring things went smoothly. Inside the gates, “everybody complied” with the social distancing requirements, he said. “Not one person gave me any grief at all.”

He attributed some of that to the close-knit nature of the group: The locals who help put on the event are “a core group where everybody gets along,” he said, and the competitors know each other from racing together week after week every year.

“Skijoring is just family,” McConnell said.

For some contestants, racing itself is truly a family affair: Sibling duos competed together in the junior and novice divisions, and the Fausts weren’t the only father and son pair competing.

Ridgway residents Tate Rogers and his son Roscoe competed together for the first time, with Tate riding on Chief, an off-thetrack thoroughbred. Roscoe, who is on break from his freshman year of college, is a competitive slope-style skier, and would typically be traveling at this time of year.

“I’ve always been into equestrian stuff,” Tate Rogers said. “This is the first year he’s not off traveling competing somewhere, so we had the opportunity to do it together.”

“Getting to compete with him, alongside him, is really cool,” Roscoe said.

With a bit more experience and the chance to take a few more runs, he thought they could have placed higher in the standings.

“It’s definitely the same sort of thrill, butterflies at the starting gate when it’s go time,” Roscoe Rogers said. “There’s the same energy in the competition.”

Counsell , who now runs one of the sport’s highest-profile events, got involved because of his kids, who started at 4 and 6, he said. His son Brennan, now 17, competed against his father for the first time this weekend.

“It’s the scariest, most stomach-turning and most expensive skiing I do. But once that rope goes tight and you relinquish control to that horse and your rider,” he said, trailing off and gesturing at the course. “You can’t wait to do it again.”

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email erin@ouraynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work.