Pioneers

Pioneering with an Olympic touch. St. Moritz has an inborn pioneering spirit – it is the alpine health resort where winter sport and tourism were founded, and was the first place in Switzerland to have electric light. And it was also here that, almost 100 years ago, a couple of enterprising sports enthusiasts invented a brand new equestrian pastime, which in 1923 – five years before the first Winter Olympics were held in St. Moritz – even flirted with the idea of becoming an Olympic discipline: the sport of skijoring. However, although imitated and adapted in many alpine countries, skijoring in its original form has only established itself in the place where it originated, the Engadine valley in Switzerland. Nowhere else in the world do thoroughbred horses regularly compete without riders on their backs but instead with skiers in tow.

Back in the days of the first skijoring race in 1906, many things were quite different to today. The race followed a route by road from St. Moritz to Champfèr, and the participants did not start all together, but individually at one-minute intervals. Philip Mark, President of the Alpina Ski Club, and his Irish chestnut gelding, Blitz, were the fastest, taking 20 minutes and 22 seconds to complete the almost ten kilometre stretch. Ever since skijoring was transferred to the racecourse, it has been run like any other horse race – in a group, horse against horse, skier against skier. This demands a great deal of skiing prowess on the part of the athletes, as well as firm control of their four-legged partners.

A particularly precarious stage of the race is the start, for then the reins can easily get tangled up or the thoroughbreds sometimes take off in different directions. Over the decades there have been many reports of this “hopeless confusion”; in 1965, for example, not a single skier succeeded in crossing the finishing line. As a result, skijoring is now organised as an official gallop discipline, the equipment has been standardised, coloured skis have been made compulsory (so that the horses can see them in the snow), and the skiers are required to undergo stringent testing in the run-up to the race. Although the quality of the horses used in these competitions has steadily improved over the years, and each winter every effort is made to increase the safety of the racecourse on the 60 cm thick ice, even today skijoring involves a certain degree of foolhardiness. For in order to master a 2,700 metre long course over compressed “turf”, with a flurry of snow raining down on all sides and with speeds reaching up to 50 kilometres per hour, a considerable amount of strength, athleticism, balance, instinct and toughness is required. A decisive factor governing success or failure is the attempt to vie for position between the start and the first bend. However, incidents can also happen at a later stage in the race, for example, when a horse accidentally stands on the driver’s skis. In recent years, the St. Moritz skijoring races on the three racing Sundays have been combined, with participants competing for one trophy.

The skier with the highest number of points is crowned “King of the Engadine”. It is a shame that the idea of anchoring this mixture of skiing and horse racing in the Olympic programme has never been seriously discussed. There is no doubt that the Swiss would dominate in this sport – at least, until skijoring is also discovered by the Austrians …

Corinne Schlatter