Take 5: Colorado skijoring veteran Jesslyn Swirka
2016 RMX Skijoring in Minturn
What: A two-day skijoring contest for skiers, horses and riders, with a combination of six rings and several eight-foot jumps spread along a 800-foot course on Main Street
When: Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 27-28 beginning at noon daily
Where: Main Street in Minturn
Cost: $100 per open team, $70 per Sport team, free for spectators
Registration for riders, horses and skiers in the open and sport divisions closes today. Riders younger than 18 years old must have a parent sign the online liability waiver. To register or find out more, see www.rmxskijoring.com.
When Jesslyn Swirka tells people what she does in winter, the reaction is nearly as good as barreling down a snow-covered Main Street on her husband’s quarter horse gelding, Logan, with a just-as-crazy skier secured to her saddle by a rope. Oh, and that skier has to gather rings and clear jumps, all while going anywhere from 30 to 40 miles per hour.
“It’s a conversation starter in the off-season,” said Swirka, a honey-blonde Michigan native who’s spent most of her life living and working on ranches in Colorado. “People are like, ‘What? You pull a skier behind a horse in the snow?’ It’s just too great.”
Now 26 years old, Swirka has been living in Fairplay for nearly two decades and riding horses for “most of my life that I can remember,” she says. But it wasn’t until three years back that she first got interested in skijoring: the proper term for barreling down Main Streets with horse and skier. She’s the third factor in the equation — the rider — and her job takes just as much skill (not to mention pure grit) as the adrenaline junkies on skis.
Swirka considers skijoring a natural extension of her summertime horse work, which includes rodeo roping and barrel racing. It only helps that she and her husband, Tyler Swirka, own and operate a Fairplay-area stable, known as JBarJ Horses and Equine Services, where they train daily with horses that are then leased out to Colorado tour guides. She doesn’t do as much hands-on horse training these days and, instead, focuses on rider training, with her sights on skijoring in winter and rodeo in summer.
Like any sport, training is a must for champion skijor riders, and the two-day competition in the heart of sleepy Minturn this weekend is not for amateurs — or the faint of heart. Between a day at the stables and an evening with the South Park High School girl’s basketball team — Swirka is also a hardwood coach when she’s not at JBarJ or her full-time job with Summit County Animal Control — the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with her for insight into the wild, weird and fascinating world of skijoring in the Rocky Mountains.
Summit Daily News: Let’s start at the top: How and why did you get into a crazy sport like skijoring?
Jesslyn Swirka: Well, I like any kind of competition. I like to go fast, and I had a few nice roping horses at the time that weren’t afraid to try anything. We decided to go for it — this is my third year, so it was 2013 — and have just had a blast since then. I think my first one (skijoring event) was out at Minturn. It was just something I’d been wanting to do for a long time. Every year I kept pushing it off and pushing it off, but that year I just made it priority. I’ve made sure I have time to go ever since then.
SDN: Your fulltime job is working with horses at your stable in Fairplay. What’s the trick to training a horse for skijoring?
JS: Really it just takes a lot of patience. You want them to be good and broke, with lots of exposure to loud noises and all of that. At home I’ll make them drag tires and steers and everything else. They get lots of work with sprints and long distance. It’s about making sure they’re in shape to get out there and drag a person on skis.
SDN: What animal is your horse of choice this weekend?
JS: I usually bring multiple horses to these events. If I’m going to go I like to enter as many as I can. Last year I had five, and this year I’ll be bringing the three fastest from last year. I have Kai, a registered paint mare, Durango, a black quarter horse gelding, and then Logan, who is my husband’s horse, and he’s another quarter horse gelding. Logan and Kai have gone all three years and this will be Durango’s first year. He’s shown to be talented at other things, so I thought, “You just might be good at this.”
SDN: What’s the trick to training a human for this?
JS: You’ve got to be a little crazy and you’ve got to have a lot of confidence, with no fear. If you overthink it and overanalyze it things can go wrong. You pretty much go with your need for speed (laughs). It always helps if you as the rider can be in shape. If you’re riding a lot then your muscles will be in shape. You won’t get as sore. It’s like anything: If you go for a two-mile run and haven’t done that before, you’re going to be sore when you’re done. If you try to get out and ride hard and you aren’t used to it, you’re going to feel it.
It also just takes time with your horses. I do a lot of sprinting and long-distance work with those horses, starting about two months before the skijoring. If they run out of wind and run out of air they have nothing left at the end of the course, so you want to make sure they can drag — logs, spears, tires, just trotting with that behind them. You also want to prepare for the hustle and bustle, maybe test them at parades or other public events. You want a horse that can do what you want it to do with a lot of outside stimulation.
SDN: As a rider, how do you prepare for the Minturn event? Is it different than other races, or is the format pretty similar from place to place?
JS: Leadville and Minturn are pretty much the same. There’s one in Montana with a U-shaped track, but just about all of them have a straightforward track. There are little variations but the rules are pretty much the same.
SDN: Do you work with just one skier, or do you know a few different people who are willing to get dragged along the street?
JS: My first year no one knew me and I didn’t know anyone else. It was a draw then. The past two years I’ve had at least two (of the) same skiers. The way the rules work is you have one match with one run, then the next run is a draw. This year in Minturn I think they’ll let us have matched skiers for both.
But, there can be advantages to both. Sometimes a random skier can be a good match for you on the day. They have to collect rings and you get penalties if you don’t, so if you have a skier who pairs well with the horses — they go the same speed and have the same idea — it can work well.
SDN: Are there any tricks of the trade for skijoring? Maybe tactics that casual spectators wouldn’t notice?
JS: You really want a horse that will run straight and not waver. If your horse is going all over the place that can make a hard line for the skier You also have to remember that at the beginning you can’t start with a dead run — you’ll pull the rope right out of the skier’s hand. When you get full speed on the course they’re running 35 to 40 miles per hour. The faster horses in the Open division will hit that, but every other horse is hitting 30 miles per hour at least.
I give the skiers credit — I’d say they have the hardest job to do. As the rider this is comfortable to me, but I’m also comfortable with horses. Those skiers have guts. They give it their all.
SDN: What keeps you coming back year after year? No major injuries or mishaps yet?
JS: The people are great out there. They put on a great event and it’s fun to meet new people, get in a circle I wasn’t in before. The thrill of it is just awesome. My horses have shown that they like to do it and that makes it a neat event. It’s a conversation starter in the off-season. People are like, “What? You pull a skier behind a horse in the snow?” It’s just too great.
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