BELLEVUE | When Kurtis Stutz brought skijoring to the Wood River Valley in 2000, the locals' first go at the sport was comical.
"The skiers that showed up, they didn't know what they were doing. They weren't really prepared for how fast you can be moving behind a horse," Stutz said.
But skijorers in the Wood River Valley have come a long way since then. Dan Vandermuelen of the Wood River Extreme Skijoring Association whipped through a course with ease Jan. 17 in Bellevue, behind a galloping horse. At the end of the course, he held all four orange rings in his hands.
The sport pairs competitive skier with horseback rider. The horse gallops, pulling the skier through a course of jumps and gates. Horses have clocked as fast as 47 mph at competitions. The goal is to complete the course in the fastest time, sometimes while collecting rings.
The local skijoring group first formed as the Smoky Mountain Skijoring Association. Today, it's the Wood River Extreme Skijoring Association, or WRESJA, and has about 40 members.
"It's a newer sport. A lot of people don't know about it," association member Michelle Bobbitt said. "It's something that is getting out."
But Stutz grew up watching the sport in Red Lodge, Mont. The skijoring national finals are held there every year, he said. He has also competed as a skier and was a skijoring race producer for many years.
Stutz now lives in Boise but is glad to hear that others are participating in skijoring in south-central Idaho.
"It's good to see people like Danny (Vandermuelen). It's a whole new generation coming into it. I'm 49, almost 50; it's good to see young guys come into the sport," Stutz said.
Bobbitt became involved with skijoring a year after Stutz brought it to the valley.
"It sounded fun," Bobbitt said. "I rode horses all my life, so the speed thing was one more thing to do with a horse."
The North American Ski Joring Association website says the sport began several hundred years ago in Scandinavian countries as a way to travel during long winters. Skijoring found its way to North America in the 1950s, the website says.
Competitive skijoring competitions are held in more than five states in the U.S. and in several countries.
On Saturday, Jan. 24, the inaugural Intermountain Sleigh Driving and Skijoring Competition will he held at Vandermuelen's ranch, 10 Costoff Road in Bellevue. Races will start around 1 p.m., and admission for spectators is free.
Wood River Extreme Skijoring Association will hold a three-day competition Feb. 6-8 at Swiftsure Ranch Therapeutic Equestrian Center, 114 Calypso Lane in Bellevue. Sign-ups will be Feb. 6 at Mahoney's Bar and Grill, 104 South Main St. in Bellevue.
The sport can be just as much fun for onlookers as it is for participants, Stutz said.
"There is some pretty big competition that's going on. People winning $10,000," he said. "There are kids skiing behind them that ski in the X Games. It gets pretty competitive on the national level."
On Jan. 17, more than 20 skiers and horseback riders with WRESJA practiced for the February competition at Vandermuelen's ranch in Bellevue. The 835-foot course was designed on a hill behind his house. Skiers took turns being pulled over jumps while trying to spear orange rings with their arms. If you lose or drop the ring, that adds a second to your time.
Skijoring is growing in south-central Idaho, Vandermuelen said. Skiers and horse riders from the Magic Valley have been coming north to get involved. But some weeks the association will get 50 skiers and no horses, he said, and other weeks there will be more riders than skiers.
It's better to have more horses so they aren't worked too hard, Bobbitt said. Horses typically can run twice, while the skier can go unlimited times.
There is not a set standard for tracks or rings, Vandermuelen said. Tracks can be straight, J-shaped or U-shaped, which is actually a circle. Jumps can be as high as 9 feet at some competitions.
"It's not very hard. It's about doing it. You want to start slow and then get faster," said Jess Deckard, of Bellevue.
This will be Deckard's fourth year skijoring. He has competed twice but said he did "poorly" both times.
"I'm out here for fun," Deckard said. "It's a pretty nice social event. It's pretty family-oriented. It's great for the horse and skier. A great way for people to get together in the winter."