Two locals bring new winter sporting event, Coal Mountain Skijoring, to Craig Feb. 11 |

Two locals bring new winter sporting event, Coal Mountain Skijoring, to Craig Feb. 11

Ben Hessling, skiing, and Kaley McLean, riding, work together at a skijoring competition. A skijoring team consists of a horse, a rider and a skier. The rider runs the horse at full speed, pulling a skier through an obstacle course. 
Kaley McLean/Courtesy photo

The first skijoring event coming to Craig has sparked curiosity in the community about a lesser-known winter sport that’s gaining popularity across the West.

Coal Mountain Skijoring will be a two-day event from Feb. 11-12 at the Moffat County Fairgrounds, 750 E. Fourth St., in Craig. Contestants will be traveling from across the region to compete. 

This will be the first time an event like this has come to Craig, and local producers Kaley McLean and Ben Hessling said it is going to be much different than the snow activities that take place during the 110th Winter Carnival in Steamboat Springs. 

Steamboat’s annual Winter Carnival, a long-running winter tradition in Routt County, has some well-known street events where Lincoln Avenue is covered with snow, and youth get pulled behind horses on skis while the adults do shovel races. By comparison, skijoring is a competitive winter sport where teams compete in a series of races to take home cash prizes. 

A team consists of a horse, a rider and a skier. The rider runs the horse at full speed, pulling the skier through a snowy course engineered with obstacles such as jumps and gates that the skier must pass through. Every race is timed with an electric eye that gauges not only the speed, but also the accuracy of the skier hitting the obstacles. If a skier misses a jump or a gate, a penalty is assessed. 

“Clean runs are gonna be the ones that win the money,” McLean said. 

Kaley McLean, rider, pulls her 9-year-old son, Kaleb at a skijoring event. The Coal Mountain races will begin at 10 a.m. Feb. 11 with four divisions: youth (ages 12 and under), novice, sport and open, with a $100 entry free for each team. 
Kaley McLean/Courtesy photo

Changing out any element of a team — a rider, horse or skier — will create a whole new team. As a result, riders and skiers can sign up to compete on multiple teams for a better shot at winning. Horses are only allowed to do two runs in one day, while skiers are allowed four and riders can compete in as many runs as they want.

Team registration will take place Feb. 10 at Yampa Valley Brewing Company, 576 Yampa Ave. There is a $100 entry free for each team. 

The Coal Mountain races will begin at 10 a.m. Feb. 11 with four divisions — youth for ages 12 and under, novice, sport and open. The races will be open for spectators with a $5 entry fee at the gate. 

Additionally, a Calcutta event will allow contestants and spectators to bid on the teams they think will post the best average of both race days. The bids will be based on the first day’s performances, and the Calcutta will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 11. Following the Calcutta, the Wordan Jilson and the Wild Bunch band will play at the grandstands. Skijoring races will resume at 10 a.m. Feb. 12.  

Each winter, teams travel to compete in a circuit of skijoring competitions in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, McLean said. This year, there are about 31 races with 100-180 teams. 

“It’s a huge thing,” Hessling said. “People take time off work, travel and spend money to compete in these things.” 

Hessling and McLean are bringing Coal Mountain Skijoring to Craig after racing for a few years and seeing what makes or breaks an event. Some races struggle to keep the track from melting, even in the winter months, but McLean said that with the freezing temps in Craig, it shouldn’t be a problem.

The two have also seen the sport start to grow and become more competitive over the last few years. McLean remarked how cool it is to see a novice team come through and then see them next year winning races in the upper divisions.

Four years ago, Hessling, a skier who grew up in Durango, saw an ad for a skijoring race and told McLean, who is a horse rider and grew up around rodeo and roping events.

“We should try to do this,” Hessling said.

Initially, McLean was skeptical about skijoring because it seemed like a safety concern for the horses. But the pair went to a skijoring event in Ridgeway, one of the most esteemed races in the circuit, and McLean realized how much time is put into the track and the tread for the horses. 

“The only thing that will cancel a race is if it’s not safe for the horses,” McLean said. 

That first race got Hessling and McLean hooked on the sport, and they started practicing to prepare for other races in the circuit. Starting out, riders know nothing about skiing and skiers know nothing about horses, so they have to figure out how to communicate on the course, McLean said. 

Hessling said the main thing for the skier to practice is rope handling and being able to loosen and tighten the slack to be able to clear the obstacles. The track will have obstacles on both sides, so the skier must zig-zag behind the horse throughout the course. 

“It’s a lot like a horse race — the horse is going as fast as it can,” McLean said. “The horse gets so excited because they know what is going to happen.” 

Ben Hessling, skiing, and Kaley McClean, riding, compete in a skijoring event. In skijoring events, horses are only allowed to do two runs in one day, and skiers can do four runs.
Kaley McLean/Courtesy photo

In their first year of producing a skijoring event, Hessling and McLean have learned how much engineering and forethought goes into spacing the obstacles so skiers will be able to hit them at pace. It is a balancing act to create a course that is technically challenging but feasible for teams to finish. 

“The goal is to have a really good production,” McLean said. “We’re having the Ridgeway guys help with the track. They have been building them for several years. They can come and help fine-tune the placement of the jumps so it’s safe and competitive. (Ridgeway) is the best race in the circuit to get their feedback.”

Hessling and McLean have been focused on getting the track in shape for the event, and they have had plenty of snow to work with. The event is also open to local food trucks that want to come out and serve food. In the future, McLean thinks there will be possibilities to have additional activities for families, though the focus will always be on the races. 

“Giving people something to do is big,” McLean said, adding that after the rodeo and hunting season wrap up, this is the first major event in Craig until Grand Ole’ West Days over the Memorial Day weekend.

Craig is an ideal location because spectators will be able to see the whole track from the grandstands. Hessling and McLean are still looking for someone to help film the event and do a livestream, so viewers from all over can tune in and watch.

McLean said the event wouldn’t be possible without support from the community. Coal Mountain Skijoring received support from the Local Marketing District, and sponsorships from over 34 local businesses and individuals. 

For more information, go to, follow Coal Mountain Skijoring on Facebook or email

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