BELLEVUE, Idaho — A ranch hand leans low in the saddle as his galloping horse tows a skier, who executes a rapid series of turns and jumps behind the flying hooves.
This is skijoring, an extreme winter sport that's particularly suited to south-central Idaho's mixture of cowboys and competitive skiers.
But it's a spectacle that the region sees just once a year, at the Wood River Extreme Skijoring Association's two days of races. This year the event, sanctioned by the North American Ski Joring Association, is set for Feb. 9-10 off East Myrtle Street in Hailey.
"It is some serious wintertime fun," said Tyler Peterson, president of the Wood River nonprofit.
But some preparation isn't a bad idea.
A handful of riders and skiers — some new to skijoring — gathered Saturday south of Bellevue at a practice course that Dan Vandermeulen groomed and shaped with agricultural equipment: a straight, flat run for the horses, with a series of low ski gates along one side and mounded jumps along the other.
"I scrounged up just enough snow for this," Vandermeulen said.
Holding the rope attached to the saddle, the skier cuts from side to side behind the running horse. At the Feb. 9-10 races, each skier will attempt to spear rings on his arm, too, and each missed jump or gate or ring adds to the team's finish time.
On Saturday, the gates and jumps were challenge enough.
While Vandermeulen has "logged about a thousand miles behind a snowmobile," he said, he had never skied behind a horse. Neither had Sun Valley skier Michael Porter.
Don't choke up on the rope; stay on the end for maximum tension and a strong pendulum effect, advised Bellevue skier Chase Gouley, a man with some skijoring credibility.
"But I can't give you all my tricks," Gouley added, laughing.
Casey Meggers of Hansen, who hauled three ranch horses to Bellevue, would pull Vandermeulen on the first run of the day.
"If he gets going too fast, I'll just straight-line it," Vandermeulen said.
But he turned out an amazing first-time performance of tight, neat turns, sucking up his knees at the crest of every jump to stay on the ground.
A skier in the air — or one whose skies aren't turned toward the next gate by the top of the jump — will drop the rope. There's no negotiation with a gallop.
On his first run of the practice course, Gouley lost the rope on the second jump.
"She's running good!" he said, rejoining the riders, skiers and dogs gathered around a flat-bed truck. "I was late and in the backseat."
After a couple of starts and stops behind Meggers' horse, Porter had some skijoring technique figured out. When you come around a corner, expect a little jerk, he reported. "But if you can get through that, everything's great. It's pretty smooth sailing."
Infectious fun for a calm, sunny afternoon.
"What are you thinking, Danny? You hooked?" Bellevue horsewoman Michelle Bobbitt asked.
"Yeah," Vandermeulen said, later adding: "It's a good honest sport."
Skijoring first-timer Brittney Snyder, a Sun Valley rider, sighed as she returned from a run. "I want to do this all day."
But on each race day, each horse may run the course only twice, Bobbitt said. Skiers, on the other hand, may enter multiple events and ski the course as many times as they want.
So in most years, there aren't horses to spare. A skier is wise to line up a teammate instead of signing up alone.
"I've been Facebooking a lot of friends in Washington and Montana, trying to get them to bring horses," Bobbitt said.
In past years, competitors have traveled from Montana, Colorado and Oregon. Organizers expect some Utah cowboys and skiers this year.
On Saturday, riders cooled off Meggers' horses after each run. But the quarterhorse ridden by Becky Warner of Twin Falls seemed to share Snyder's do-it-all-day enthusiasm.
"She's mad that I'm making her walk," Warner said.
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com