Skiers to pair with horses in Topsham’s newest high-octane sport

Reece Glew hits a jump at the 2019 Skijor Skowhegan competition. Contributed / Jonathan Wheaton Photography

When Drew Batson rips around the gates and flies off the jumps of the Topsham Fair’s new skijoring course next month, he’ll draw on over 30 years of experience snowboarding down Maine’s mountains.

Yet instead of harnessing the power of gravity, he’ll rely on a different engine to reach the finish line: a half-ton horse galloping at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

Makenzie Tessier tows Mila Long-Frost at Skijor Skowhegan. Contributed / Jonathan Wheaton Photography

Equestrian skijoring, a rock-and-rolling winter mashup of horse racing and waterskiing, will make its Topsham debut on Feb. 12. The competition, popular in Scandinavia and parts of the American Midwest, requires a horse and rider to tow a weaving skier or snowboarder through a course at high speeds.

“You either fall or you hold on for dear life,” said Batson, a Gray resident who first practiced the sport about eight years ago. “You have no choice but to go forward if you want to finish the race.”

Competitors in junior (ages 10-17) and senior (18+) age groups will compete in two skill divisions starting at 10 am, according to Janice Hill, who runs the Topsham Fair’s equestrian events. Each team of horse, rider and skier or snowboarder will take two runs through the approximately 800-foot course, which contains a series of gates and, in the pro division, jumps.

“It’s a brand new adventure for all of us,” Hill said. “This first year, we just want to dip our toes in it. If it seems like it’s going to be a go, then we’re going to really try to make this a big event in the future.

To prepare, the Topsham team recruited support from Mary Haley, who helped first bring Maine’s first skijoring race to Skowhegan in 2019.

Katie Williams rides at Skijor Skowhegan. Contributed / Jonathan Wheaton Photography

Though Skijor Skowhegan, now a popular annual event, had billed itself as “New England’s only equestrian skijoring competition,” Haley said she’s excited to help grow the sport further.

“We’re thrilled,” she said. “We see it as an opportunity.”

Haley envisions a circuit of races around the Northeast, concluding with the annual competition at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds, which this year will take place on Feb. 26. Though the sport is still in its infanty in Maine, she said it produces enough excitement to quickly win over first-time viewers.

“It’s definitely a high energy spectator sport,” Haley said, noting that 1,500 fans attended the 2020 Skowhegan races before pandemic closed the event to crowds last year. “There’s plenty of crashes and burns that people get psyched about.”

“There’s so much adrenaline,” agreed Batson, who has competed in each of the Skowhegan competitions. “Being on that stage for that short period of time and just blasting through that course is super exciting.”

Caitlin Rice of Topsham and her horse Leeroy normally compete in endurance races. It took weeks for Leeroy to adjust to the high-speed sport of Skijoring. Contributed / Caitlin Rice

Batson said intermediate and advanced level skiers and snowboarders should be skilled enough to try skijoring. Horses, though, may need more time to adjust.

“It’s something totally different than what my horse normally does,” said Caitlin Rice, who will partner with Batson for the second year in a row. “I thought it would be a fun challenge.”

Before racing last year, Rice spent over a month acclimatizing her horse, a thoroughbred Morgan Cross named Leeroy, to the sensation of towing a snowboarder. After getting used to pulling an empty wagon, and then a wagon with a person in it, Leeroy, normally an endurance racer, was ready for skijoring’s short sprint.

Top finishers in each division will win prizes, likely including a cut of the registration fees, Hill said. Yet for many racers, the real goal is simply to participate in an exciting winter challenge.

“I’m not doing this to win,” said Rice, a Topsham native. “No expectations we’re going to win. I’m doing it for fun.”

Though the event is capped at 40 teams, there’s still room for interested pairs to register by the Feb. 5 deadline for $50, Hill said. Organizers will also attempt to pair up individual skiers and horse riders, who can register for $25 each.

Tickets for the event will cost $5 for individuals or $15 for an entire family. A food vendor and beer garden will round out the experience, which Hill said mid coast residents won’t want to miss.

“We’re all trying to be outdoors more now,” Hill said, “and what better way than to sit in the historic grandstand at the Topsham Fair and watch people ski being pulled by a horse?”

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