Colorado skijoring accidents lead to horse euthanasia, increased scrutiny |

Colorado skijoring accidents lead to horse euthanasia, increased scrutiny

A team of skijoring competitors take a run down a course with skier, horse and rider at the annual event in the Town of Minturn on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. After two horse deaths in back-to-back events, some are questioning the sport's safety for the animals.
Louie Traub / Special to the Daily |

The niche sport of skijoring is under increased scrutiny after recent accidents led to the euthanization of two horses.

The city of Leadville hosted its 67th annual skijoring competition on March 5 and 6. The sport features a horse and rider pulling a competitor on skis through various obstacles.

At the Leadville competition this past weekend, rider JJ Swirka of Fairplay — astride her experienced quarter horse gelding Logan and pulling Leadville resident Duffy Counsell behind on skis — crashed on the course when Logan took a false step. The graphic wreck, on full display for thousands to see, broke the horse’s leg. The animal was later put down as a result.

The incident occurred after a similar situation at the fifth-annual skijoring event in the town of Minturn only a week earlier, on Saturday, Feb. 27. The back-to-back circumstances at contests, where alcohol and a party atmosphere are widespread, created a wave of inquiries on social media that questioned the safety measures and well-being of the horses competing in this growing sport where mountain life meets cowboy culture.

In Minturn’s case, rider Lenny Hay of Wyoming, aboard his horse Pepper and dragging sport skier Colin Cook of Montana, completed the course for the final run of the afternoon’s competition. That’s when the horse took “an unfortunate misstep at the end,” according to event organizer Loren Zhimanskova of Skijor International.

“My vet called it a fluke and was on the spot, and the horse didn’t suffer,” she said. “It was done discreetly, and we weren’t trying to hide anything, but we also weren’t trying to upset anyone who is not from a ranching background because sometimes animals have to be put down.

“It was a reality check,” she continued. “Everyone realizes there are risks involved, but we just hope we don’t see those manifested. But it still doesn’t make it any easier. It really doesn’t. People take proper precautions, but we can always do better.”

Adverse weather

The situation in Minturn — said to be the first such incident in event’s history — was tended to inconspicuously at the conclusion of the day’s contest as many fans were exiting, with the horse being buried at a nearby ranch shortly thereafter. The accident in Leadville this past Saturday, however, was on full display, drawing increased scrutiny from onlookers, with many attending such an exhibition for the very first time.

“It’s unfortunate that it happens, horse or skier, but it’s just something that’s inherent in skijoring,” explained Paul Copper, Leadville native and one of the event’s organizers. “If we just walked the horses down, we wouldn’t have the participation, and it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. And it’s important for people to know that every time we do this, we look at all of the aspects — the building of the jumps, measuring them, checking slope — there are so many things we look at as far as safety. Ninety-nine percent we’re great with it; 1 percent we’re not.”

Copper, who is also a former competitor and has been involved in the sport for more than 40 years, said that to the best of his knowledge Saturday’s regrettable death of a horse was just the third incidence dating back to 1949. He estimated the last time it happened was the late-’80s and blamed the unseasonably warm temperatures this past weekend as the chief factor.

“We’re not used to 53-degree weather in March,” he said. “We build the course the same, with snow on the avenue that builds a layer of ice underneath. Horses have no problem running through 8 inches of snow, but it just got so warm, and we noticed two horses stumbled.”

Similar weather hit the event in Minturn the week prior, causing the snow to soften up. These conditions slow down the teams of racers slightly, but also has the effect of providing a lesser footing for the horses. Chunks of ice loosened from the pavement in Leadville, said Copper, requiring the course to be repacked and refrozen overnight to once again become race-safe as if running on a track.

As a result, he and other organizers decided to suspend the rest of the event to avoid such a situation happening again. On Sunday, race times were also bumped up to earlier in the day to better contend with potential 50-degree weather once again, and no additional injuries occurred — at least not to the horses in this gritty tournament.

“Another girl fell out of the saddle, and her broke nose,” said Copper. “She was angrier that she lost a nose ring her boyfriend had given her.”

growing sport, growing concerns

Based on Facebook comments from those who witnessed the grisly incident in Leadville on Saturday, when Swirka’s horse was injured on the racecourse and had to be euthanized in a trailer, questions remain about horse health and safety in skijoring. The rider and skier get to make the choice to compete, while the horse is the lone silent participant.

Swirka could not be reached for comment for this story but told the Summit Daily just ahead of the Minturn event, in which she also competed, that her horses enjoy the event. Horses routinely run at speeds of between 35 and 40 miles an hour in a straight shot. Although she did not compete the day after losing Logan, her skier for that run, Counsell, got back out there on Sunday, per her wishes, said Zhimanskova.

A local horse welfare group did not raise particular concerns about this style of competition.

“It’s a real tragedy,” said Shana Devins of Mountain Valley Horse Rescue in Eagle. “These are athletes, and they try to take really good care of those horses. Unfortunately, tragedies happen, and it’s an unfortunate incident, especially at consecutive events, and is really horrendous.”

She went on to add that her organization felt confident saying skijoring is typically safe, despite the challenges presented by weather and footing conditions and “an incredible pairing of athletes — horse and human. Horses are generally cared for with utmost attention, such as that given to any competing athlete.”

Still, with such incidents happening just as the sport is increasing in prominence with more events popping up around the country, severe injuries — particularly to the horses — create added challenges for its future.

“It was a one-two punch,” said Zhimanskova of the repeat occurrences in Minturn and Leadville. “It was just a very sobering moment. I don’t know how much this happens in rodeo events, but it’s the reality, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it 100 percent. It’s absolutely unfortunate.”

This story has been updated to correct information that the horse put down at the Leadville event was euthanized in a trailer away from the course, and not on the course. The Summit Daily News regrets the error.

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