This is a preview of a feature that originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of SKI. To read the full story and get access to more premium content than your eyeballs can handle, join Outside+ today.
Warning: This story includes sensitive content that might be upsetting to some readers.
When Jason Dahl clicked into his skis last March on the north end of Leadville, Colo.’s historic Harrison Avenue, he held a rope in one hand and an eight-inch baton in the other.
The rope was connected to a horse named Moose, ridden by a 17-year-old cowgirl named Savannah McCarthy, of Aztec, N.M.
Dahl, a Leadville native who lives in Denver and works as a custom home builder, is as close to royalty as you will find in the high-speed, high-stakes sport of equestrian skijoring, in which quarter horses and thoroughbreds pull skiers down a course of imported snow, seven-foot-tall jumps, gates, and rows of small rings to catch with the baton. Dahl, 34, and his brother Greg, 32, have won the Open division at Leadville more years than they can remember. Every time you win you get a Carhartt jacket, and a few years back Dahl’s wife turned all his winning jackets into a quilt.
Last March, Dahl was not just a competitor but also one of the organizers of the annual Leadville Ski Joring races, which began in 1949 and usually run the first weekend in March. He, like more than 2,000 spectators, had watched Saturday afternoon as a horse ridden by 26-year-old J.J. Swirka of Fairplay, Colo., stumbled just before the finish line, pitching Swirka forward into a tangle of the downed horse’s limbs that also ensnared her skier, Duffey Counsell. The horse, a 13-year-old named Logan, broke his lower left front leg in the wreck and was euthanized by injection a short time later. The unsettling scene sent many onlookers away in tears, and the rest of the day’s runs were canceled, including all 14 in the Open class.
Dahl knew how nervous everyone was when he prepared to lead off the next day’s races at noon—a start time that had been bumped up to avoid the same slushy conditions in which Logan had fallen. Just one week prior, a horse named Pepper, ridden by a Wyoming rancher named Lenny Hay, had broken its leg on a soft course in Minturn, 45 minutes north on Highway 24 from Leadville, and had to be put down. Two deaths in two weekends, including one at skijoring’s signature event, did not reflect well on the sport. Dahl knew they couldn’t afford anything less than a clean day of racing.
The moment he signaled he was ready, Moose took off down the snow-covered street like a missile. McCarthy kept her steed centered as Dahl wove from side to side, schussing off jumps, arcing around gates, and threading his baton through the rings like a spear—skiing much more nimbly than you might expect from a 235-pound man. He managed one of just three clean runs that day, avoiding the dreaded two-second penalty that gets imposed for missing a ring. His time, 15.17 seconds over 900 feet, would hold off all challengers and secure Dahl yet another Leadville win—and another Carhartt jacket.
McCarthy did not fare as well. A moment after crossing the finish line, the teenager tried to disconnect the rope from Moose’s saddle so it wouldn’t flap and accidentally spur him to accelerate when he should be slowing down. Moose lost his footing when the course transitioned from snow to asphalt, pitching McCarthy onto the pavement. Moose spooked down a nearby street, while McCarthy, who was one of the few riders wearing a helmet, escaped with just a swollen nose. Bystanders soon corralled Moose. McCarthy withdrew from her next three rides.