Summit County family, non-skiing ranch hand find passion for skijoring at Ute Pass ranch
Tony Pestello called out to his son AJ’s snow-soaked German wirehair pointer, as the sound of a galloping horse and slushy ski turns grew louder and louder with each split second.
“Weezy, Weezy!” Pestello said. “Get, get over here!”
Forgive Weezy, for the grizzled ranch pooch was having the time of his life alongside a border collie named Baby, as they ran ahead of, behind and next to a speedy horse named Skip. Weezy and Skip’s dog run for the day was a snow-covered driveway about two football fields long at Pass Creek Ranch, just north of Ute Pass in northern Summit County’s wide-open country.
Weezy, the Pestellos and their friend Al Mikkelsen, the ranch’s caretaker, were here on this bluebird Wednesday in the shadow of Ute Peak to get in some practice three days ahead of the 71st annual Running of Leadville Skijoring event. It’s an annual event that pairs horses, riders and skiers to manage what is a dastardly inter-species race course down Leadville’s historic Main Street.
This strip of driveway at Pass Creek Ranch is the closest thing you’ll find to an ideal practice venue for Leadville. In the weeks prior, Mikkelsen, the Pestellos and some other ski and ranch friends used shovels to build a few jumps they hoped would mimic what AJ, 26, and his younger brother Vinny, 24, will see at this weekend’s skijoring event.
The venue also mimics the closest thing to skijoring the Pestello brothers ever experienced before they tried out the sport for the first time in 2017. Scouring their memories back to more than a decade prior, the Pestello brothers found fun in a way Summit County’s most daring teenagers sometimes do. At their then-home in the Farmers Korner neighborhood near the high school, they’d build a jump that would launch them over a 40-foot gap, from one side of their driveway to the other. And, to do so, they’d be towed behind a snowmobile or car.
“There were too many different times to remember, really,” Vinny said.
These days, it’s a different kind of horse power that the Pestello brothers are using to satiate their need for speed. This weekend will be their third winter competing at the annual Leadville skijoring event, where they each will ski behind one of Mikkelsen’s horses, Skip and Frank. The accomplished horseman AJ, who lives on a ranch property just north of Summit County within view of Green Mountain Reservoir, will also don his cowboy boots and ride a horse, towing a still-to-be-determined skier behind him. And their father Tony will place bets on his sons and others at the event’s annual Calcutta auction, which raises money for charity.
For the brothers, skijoring is a best-of-both-worlds competition that pairs their childhood passion for skiing with the horseman’s life AJ has fallen in love with since his high school graduation. As kids, AJ was more of the freestyle skier while Vinny dabbled in more traditional downhill racing after the Pestellos moved to Summit County from Minnesota in their pre-teen years. They each competed for Team Summit before transitioning, like so many local kids do, into more casual and adventurous free riding around the resorts and backcountry.
It was right around that time when Tony brought them to their first skijoring event in Minturn.
“I think AJ said to me, ‘There’s no way we are going to go to another skijoring event and not be signed up,’” Vinny said.
But life got in the way for both brothers, as it would be just about a decade later when they tried skijoring for the first time. During that span in between, AJ and Vinny both got more accustomed to horses while working carriage and stable jobs in the Breckenridge area. AJ then became even more of a well-rounded horseman, attending an agricultural college in Nebraska.
During that time AJ grew close with Jorge, a 9-year-old, 1,000-pound, 15-and-a-half-hands tall gelding paint quarter horse that is still by his side to this day.
In fact, despite his lack of speed, Jorge in some ways is the ideal horse to run at the Leadville event. He has a life’s worth of what AJ calls “ranch horse versatility,” or the ability to calmly undertake such tasks as roping and controlling a cow to going over a trail course. Jorge is also desensitized to the kinds of things that may make most horses skittish, such as a plastic bag flying up in front of his face.
“That’s a huge component in my opinion,” AJ said, “because we’ll get up to the start gate, and you’ll get some horses who are barrel racers and they’re not quite desensitized to all of those aspects of ropes and rings and skis and people. Because these horses start to learn, ‘When I get here, I’ve got to run my guts out.’”
With that wisdom, when the Pestellos and Mikkelsen practiced out at Pass Creek Ranch the past couple of weekends, AJ made it a point to ease the horses into what they may see in Leadville. So he’ll strap on his powder skis and walk with a certain gait to demonstratively slap the skis on the ground. The idea is to get certain horses, particularly Mikkelsen’s Skip and Frank, used to the kind of unnatural commotion they’ll experience when hundreds of screaming fans create an energy-filled racing snow tunnel in Leadville.
Which brings us to Mikkelsen. A lifetime horseman dating back to his upbringing in Michigan, the ranch’s caretaker said he got hooked “big time” on skijoring last year when the Pestellos invited him out. If you can believe it, Mikkelsen is a 17-year resident of Summit County who has never once strapped into skis. But skijoring? Now that, that’s something worth trying for the bull rider.
“Too many people on the mountain,” Mikkelsen says while leading Skip out from one of the ranch’s barns. “But what they are doing on a closed course? That’s pretty cool for me. Anything with horses I’m drawn to. This is one of them things, you don’t even hear about it back home in Michigan. I didn’t even know about it out here. It’s amazing.”
Come the weekend, the Pass Creek Ranch crew is hopeful all of their preparation will pay off. If they are to win, it may just come aboard Skip. He’s “a getter,” as Mikkelsen will tell you. He enjoys doing what Mikkelsen asks of him and with a smile on his face to boot.
Skiers, though, skiers are much different for a horse than a calf, Mikkelsen said. So the key for Mikkelsen and the Pestellos this weekend, as they chase a skijoring title, will be making sure a zippy horse like Skip is used to the skier being pulled behind him.
Because, if not, all Calcutta bets may just be off.
“It’s something because, this guy,” Mikkelsen said looking into Skip’s eyes, “he’s trained that when I latch onto a calf, he turns and stands and keeps that rope tight. But he’s not wanting to rip that calf’s head off. And now I’m asking him to turn and rip his head off, you know? That’s been something learning wise, for him.”
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