Wisdom, Montana, in the Big Hole Valley—known for its sprawling cattle ranches and hay farms—is the setting for the annual Big Hole Valley WinterFest. But wisdom may not be what comes to mind as you watch a horse and rider galloping at full speed down the town’s snow-packed main streets with a wind-whipped skier in tow.
This is cowboy skijoring, country cousin to the 19th-century Norwegian sport, powered by reindeer (and later dogs). The festival event features 30 pairs of skiers and riders, ages 16 to 78. Amid the sounds of clattering skis and thumping hooves, each skier negotiates eight gates and three 3-foot jumps over snow-covered hay bales to the roar of crowds from nearby Hamilton and Dillon.
Participants “draw pot” for partners, which acquaints newcomers with old-timers and “keeps people talking,” says Blake Huntley of the Big Hole Tourism Association. Riders are matched up with working ranch horses with names such as Benny, Big John, Jonesy, and Pistol.
“They doctor calves in spring, they’re out with yearlings in summer, and they push cows the rest of the time,” Huntley says. Except, that is, during the winter skijoring weekend, February 23 and 24 this year.