What Skijoring is and How to Get Started with Your Dog

I’ve been strapped into one type of ski or another since I could walk. I’ve played the backyard enthusiast wandering through my woods and the racer daring the elements in a thin, skintight uniform. Recently, I’ve added a dog to the mix.

Skijøring is an ancient method of transportation with roots that begin thousands of years ago in Scandinavian countries. Traditionally “ski driving” was done with reindeer pulling drivers on skis, but more modern athletes utilize dogs or horses. In fact, this event was once featured in the Winter Olympics and there are efforts to bring it back! The sport has evolved since then to include snowboarding, alpine skis, races of endurance or speed, and even steeple-chase like events. Those who don’t have access to snow may enjoy bikejoring or canicross, which is running or hiking with a dog trained with mushing commands.

Skijoring itself involves a driver/musher usually on cross country skis connected to one or more dogs. Most people chose to skate/freestyle as it allows for greater speed and rhythmic movement with your dog. People can also choose to utilize their classic skis and adventure deeper into wild areas. The driver is connected to their canine(s) by a bungee and a padded belt (mine has a “seat” in it that gives me a bright red booty). A quick release on your line is usually standard for safety. Not any harness will do; It will need to be one specialized for pulling. Proper equipment and conditioning are just as important for you as it is for your dog.
Skijoring with two dogs
Skilled dog athletes are generally trained with the following commands: “Hike” = Go, “Woah” = Stop, “Easy” = Slow Down, “Gee” = Right, “Haw” = Left, “On by” = Leave it alone and keep moving, “Line Out” = keep that line taught and move ahead, and “Trail” = Get Over” (other variants are “Haw/Gee Over”).

I’ve been alpine skiing as long as I can remember. However, in High School I began competing in Nordic all over New England with the BFA Fairfax Nordic Team. I met my now Husband on this team. Under the tutelage of coach Fred Griffin I developed an insatiable need to adventure. Afterwards, I participated in a few races with the UVM Nordic Club and a few on my own. These days I join the BFA Fairfax Team’s annual Nordic Enrichment trip to Mont Saint-Anne in Quebec. I help to instill a sense of adventure while teaching them to ski. Now I’m just lucky enough to include my dog in my search for wanderlust.

My journey in skijoring also began in high school with a dog named Colt, a leggy lab mix with a penchant for speed and pulling. I’ve always been a huge Jack London fan and I still idolize stories of the Iditarod and Quest races in Alaska. Even though I knew I’d never have a full team of dogs I settled for our family pup. We mostly played around in our backyard and were limited to commands such as “Hike” and “OH CRAP, SLOW DOWN.” Sometimes even “Woah” if I was lucky. I may have broken a few bindings and clotheslined a sister or two in the process, but I was bullheaded enough to enjoy the speed and suffer the consequences later. Now that I’m older and have years of cross country skiing under my belt I’ve become more serious about the sport. I calculate my turns in advance and communicate this to my dog. Now, I think more about how we can use the natural trail to our advantage and I see my new dog learning to do the same.

In 2016 I welcomed a fuzzy red Siberian Husky into my family and dubbed her “Freya”. She is my constant companion and I could not ask for a better friend. Ever since she was a puppy, I accustomed her to a harness, pulling gradually increasing weights and taught her driving commands on a leash. Getting her used to travel, crowded events and being around people on skis has been another whole task. She has been prepared the whole of her one and a half years to skijor. She was a natural from the start. We skijor almost every weekend when there is snow on whatever local or backwoods trails we can find. At the end of a run Freya is rewarded with a pig ear treat and lots of love. I swear I can see her smile when I look at photos of us. She wags her tail when her harness comes out because she can’t wait to run. Together, we fly free through narrow woods, icy trails and the silent backcountry. I could not be more proud or feel more connected to her in these moments. They make up for any frustration from naughtiness at home.
Skijoring with Freya and her smiling
There is no better primal feeling than skiing in the silent winter woods as snow is falling and your breath hangs in the air. When you include your dog you experience the sensational and ineffable ancient bond between human and dog. You feel connected in a way that you won’t be on a regular walk to the park or lounging at home. You are placing trust in your dog to keep you safe, and the dog understands that you will never put them in a harmful situation that they can’t handle. Together you challenge each other, grow together and become one connected tandem body of energy. I love when Freya looks back at me over her shoulder when we encounter new sights or a divergence in the trail. She seems to be asking “what next?” or “did you see that too?”.

If you have a dog over 35lbs that likes to pull, or maybe you want to include your canine pal in your favorite winter sport, then you should give skijoring a go. The world of skijoring can certainly be intense for those who want to be serious about the sport. Even though it is easy to cross country ski, it can be arguably one of the most grueling and technical sports out there. It combines a total body workout with a deep understanding of your equipment and waxing choices. Throw a dog, training and caring for that dog into the mix, and you add a new level of complexity. Don’t let any of this daunt you. You don’t have to be perfect or race-quality to have fun.

Skirack can help you get set up with a pair of freshly waxed skis and equipment and you can take lessons at your local ski centers or resorts. Skirack certainly helped me get set up way back in High School, I purchased my first race skis from them. They certainly keep me stocked now too!

There are a plethora of wonderful books (start with Skijor with your Dog by Carol Kaynor and Mari Hoe-Raitto), YouTube videos, and Facebook groups (Vermont Mushers) out there that can help. In the “dry” months there are other ways to include your four legged companions in your wild adventures - bikejoring, canicross, dog driving, sulky… the list goes on.

Good luck and happy trails!

- Heather Peatman

“There is no ‘proven right way’ to be a dog musher. Each person develops a unique relationship with their animals, and the team reflects that relationship in their behavior as a pack of canines” – Mary Shields.

About Heather Peatman: Heather is a long time cross country and alpine skiier, Skirack customer, and former UVM Nordic Team member. She is currently involved with the BFA Fairfax Nordic Team and resides in Fairfax, Vermont.

For more information on Skijoring and Canicross, check out Heather's web page: @JustChasingFireflies