The Building of a Skijoring “Dream Team”
Josh Stallman and skier Lane McKenney practice on Jack Morey’s skijoring course in preparation of this weekend’s winter rodeo. Photo by Sandra Wallop.
It began as a casual conversation over wine at a cocktail party.
While discussing the upcoming inaugural winter rodeo and skijoring competition, Elizabeth Windsor and Sandra Wallop decided they wanted to put together a team.
To do so, they realized, would require importing other athletes, because as Elizabeth pointed out, they wanted to win.
“We knew we could come in last place,” she laughed, “but we wanted to participate more safely.”
“With our limbs still intact,” Sandra added.
So, they put their heads together to recruit top talent. Calling upon her ranching connections, Sandra immediately contacted local pro rodeo standout Weston Mann, who said he was more than happy to lend a hand. Meanwhile, Elizabeth called upon her ace in the hole, 17-year-old Lane McKenney, who was by far the best skier they’d ever known. Lane had been her son’s best friend when the Windsors lived in Washington, so she sent a text to Lane’s mother, who immediately replied with a yes.
A free trip to Wyoming to ski in a quasi-rodeo event?
He’d be on the next plane out.
For those new to the sport, skijoring is where water skiing meets rodeo in a pseudo winter Olympics. Cowboys on speedy horses whip through an icy slalom course pulling a skier behind on a rope as they race for the fastest speeds in a high-adrenaline competition that could only have originated from ski bums in Leadville, Colorado, back in the late 1940s.
According to Tony Fox’s historical account on the Skijoring America website, the sport was first introduced in this country by two friends in Leadville, who were looking for ideas to ramp up their annual winter carnival. Heading over to Steamboat, Tom Schroeder and “Mugs” Ossman witnessed skijoring for the first time, and after watching the horse-and-rider casually pulling the skier through the streets, wondered why on earth they weren’t going faster.
Mugs, who raised Quarter Horses for speed, and “feisty Irishman skier” Tom, decided to reinvent the sport by increasing the speed a few notches. So, practicing at a nearby ranch, the pair turned the sport in a thriving competition.
Elizabeth and Sandra will testify that not much has changed in the past 50-plus years, either. On a recent winter morning, they watched their “dream team” take practice runs on Jack Morey’s ranch, just west of Buffalo. Morey, an engineer by trade, designed and built the course for local competitors and has had several other teams out practicing, too.
However, because Weston Mann had to take a load of horses to Arizona and wouldn’t be back for a few days, Sandra had brought a stand-in practice rider, Josh Stallman. Josh is a professional cowboy and farrier
Since Josh was working out so well in Mann’s absence, the duo decided to throw together a second team, recruiting skier Hanns Mercer, who already competes in the Western skijoring circuit.
With two teams representing Canyon Ranch, the women were feeling pretty confident in their chances as they watched Josh pull Lane on practice runs this past Tuesday.
Lane, who was skiing before he could walk and who regularly competes in free-style, was having no trouble adapting to being tugged behind a galloping horse on a rope as he leapt over the jumps and expertly navigated through the orange cones on Morey’s practice course.
“He always wanted to be a cowboy,” Elizabeth joked of Lane, and now he’s finally getting his chance.
The pair completed their first run in just under 20 seconds, and by their second, had already shaved off 2.5 seconds.
Meanwhile, both Elizabeth and Sandra were feeling a bit like the owners of winning football teams, gratified to see their first-pick recruits working out so well.
The pairing of naturals is an area in which Sandra excels.
“I like to put talented people together and watch them excel,” she said.
And that day, she was enjoying watching the fruits of her labor.
The pair also had plenty of positive things to say about Shawn Parker, executive director of Sheridan Travel and Tourism, who along with other innovative ideas for bringing tourists into the area, had also initiated the idea of a winter rodeo with skijoring as main event.
Parker had been thinking of ways to enhance winter tourism in Sheridan for the past couple years, and last year was inspired at a tourism conference in Cheyenne, where he’d first learned about a wildly, successful skijoring event in Sundance.
“Not many places have the combination of outdoor recreation, equestrianism, and ranching history that Sheridan does,” Parker said. “If Sundance was able to get thousands of spectators in five years, we can get tens of thousands in the same time frame.”
Hence, the inaugural event was born with more than 100 teams expected to compete in five different divisions, including professional/open (pro), sport (amateur), novice (beginner), youth (15 and under) and snowboard.
As far as Elizabeth, Sandra and their teams are concerned, the competition – win or lose – is a welcome change. Not that they’re planning to lose, mind you, but either way, they’re looking forward to a fun, adrenaline-filled weekend.