Skijoring: Where human and dog athletes work as one
A niche winter sport is a dream come true for skiing dog lovers.
Humans have deep psychological attachments to their dogs. But with skis strapped to his feet and a leash wound around his waist, Kein Murphy made his attachment physical. Murphy spent over a decade sliding down trails with Myta, a Siberian-Alaskan Husky mix.
Myta and Murphy skied together for 14 years, getting up early in the cold and dark to participate in a sport known as skijoring. While Myta has passed on, Murphy’s love for skijoring — a sport that unites man and dog in the quest for speed — is alive and well.
Murphy, dubbed “Mr. Skijor” by Minnesota local press, is a former president of Skijor USA, an organizing body for skijoring. Skijoring, a sport that originated in Scandinavia – it's derived from the word skikjøring in Norwegian – is a racing sport that combines human and animal power. Horses or dogs are harnessed and strapped to cross country skiers who aim to complete a course as fast as possible.
The horse-drawn version of skijoring made a solitary Olympic appearance in St. Moritz, Switzerland in 1928 (although only in a demonstration event). Murphy is partial to the dog version of skijoring rather than the horse-drawn version. He’s diplomatic about it but the dog-drawn version, he tells Inverse, brings out the sport’s core values:
“My two cents is it [the horse version] looks like a lot of fun, but the skier is just holding on for dear life. Whereas skijoring, with dogs, you’re really sort of part of the team.”
That’s one of the major draws of skijoring, Murphy says. It’s about physical exertion, training, and most of all, learning to cooperate and compete with a team that’s 50 percent (or even more in 2-dog versions) beast.
What makes skijoring a sport? — Skijoring, Murphy explains, is more athletic than you might think. Even Balto himself couldn’t make up for a skier that’s not doing his part.
The races, which are usually held time-trial style though there are some mass-start versions, aren’t about letting an over-eager dog pull a skier along the course. Instead, the best teams achieve a steady state of exertion that exhausts neither skier nor dog too soon.
Both have to put in the same amount of effort, whether that means putting in extra to get uphill or controlling the speed on a downhill.
“As soon as you start, you want to start skiing and helping a dog as much as possible, so that your dog stays fresh, and doesn't get worn out before you're done,” Murphy says.
In all cases, the dog must cross the finish line first so preserving their energy stores is critical. (It should also be noted that not every dog is built to skijor: The dog should be at least 35 pounds, but larger is better).
For skiers that means getting in good enough shape to withstand a full cross-country ski race. It also involves training a dog, both physically and mentally.
Skiers employ a series of cues taken from mushing or horse racing – whoa for stop, gee for left, and haw for right. A particularly important one, he says is “on-by” a cue for the dog to ignore a distraction and stay focused on the trail.
The goal for the human, Murphy says, is to become “a remote control for your dog.”
"It's like you're just flying down the trail."
Becoming a remote control isn't too complicated on an average dog walk, but while sliding on skis on an icy trail tension is elevated, as is the reward. Skiers can hit speeds up to about 25 or 30 miles per hour on the flats, and as fast as 30 to 35 miles per hour on the downhill, Murphy says.
“When you're out there by yourself with your dogs, and they know what you're doing, and your communication is good. It's magical. It's like you're just flying down the trail."
The Michael Jordan of skijoring – Murphy has been dubbed “Mr. Skijoring” by the Quad Community Press. But when asked if he is the Michael Jordan of skijoring, he is non-committal. Instead, he points to Richard Kisseloff.
Kisseloff, who maintains a YouTube channel of some of his skijoring runs, competed in the single-dog competitions at the International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) World Championships in 2015. It wasn’t one of his better runs (evidenced by video), but his racing style and finish times are still being closely watched by Murphy.
Kisseloff, says Murphy, dominates partially because of the efforts of his large German shorthairs and due to the fact that he is “a terrific athlete himself.”
“He’s probably one of the top people at the moment,” Murphy says.
The spirit of skijoring – Skijoring can get competitive. Every two years, there’s a world championship-style event held in either Europe or North America. The 2021 event, which would have taken place in Sweden, was postponed to 2022 because of Covid-19.
Looking toward the future, Murphy is focused on broadening the horizons of other canine-powered sports. His chosen avenue for that is skijoring, but there’s also mushing or canicross – the sport of cross country running alongside a dog. All dog-powered sports, he says, share the central feature of deepening the relationship between humans and animals. It means seeing dogs not just as pets, but as athletes.
Learning to skijor with Myta prompted Murphy to notice small changes in all his dogs — he's cared for multiple canine athletes over the years. He thinks carefully about their nutrition, well-being, and weight. He also keeps an eye on his dog’s mental state as much as his own. Like all elite athletes, dogs can get burned out from intense competition.
When a dog and skier are well attuned, the dog should be “bouncing off the walls” whenever the harness – skijoring dogs well special harnesses for pulling – comes out. If the dog is having fun, odds are the skier will be too.
“They can do amazing things," Murphy says. "I don't think we give dogs enough credit for the kinds of things that they can do."