The Most Exciting 30 Seconds in Maine

Horseback riders, skiers, and snowboarders meet in Skowhegan each February for a skijoring spectacular you won’t want to miss.

The Most Exciting 30 Seconds in Maine

Horseback riders, skiers, and snowboarders meet in Skowhegan each February for a skijoring spectacular you won’t want to miss.

by Paul Koenig
Photography by Nicole Wolf

Issue: January // February 2023

A flannel-shirted skier gripping a rope pulled by a white horse carves around markers in the snow and flies over a series of jumps.

“That’s the time to beat, folks,” shouts a man in a cowboy hat over the loudspeakers at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds. “I don’t think we’ve seen a sub-25.”

This is skijoring.

When most racers and their horses arrive this morning, the temperature is in the single digits. Some horses are standing outside their trailers in the parking lot, getting acclimated to their surroundings. For animals that haven’t raced before, this may be the first time seeing people on skis or wearing goggles.

Hannah Novaria is riding Kazuki, a tan horse still in its trailer, and will pull her uncle, Bill Poulin. Novaria and Poulin have been racing in the Skijor Skowhegan since its inaugural year in 2019. Just a couple weeks before this race, they finished second in the Topsham Fair Association’s first skijoring event.

Novaria, who grew up and lives in Lisbon, has been riding horses her whole life, but she says nothing compares to skijoring. “I love the thrill of it, the adrenaline rush,” she says. “You get there, and there’s really no care other than to run your course as fast as you possibly can go.”

Hannah Novaria pulling Charles Simpson in the Pro division.

Typical equestrian events can be competitive and intense, while skijoring is just for fun, Novaria says. It also gives horse riders something to look forward to in the doldrums of winter. And unlike the structured, serious events of dressage and show jumping that Novaria participates in, competitors in skijoring can wear whatever they want—as evidenced by a racer in a red tutu and another in a get-up of metallic gold cape and briefs, tank top, white helmet, reflective ski goggles, gloves, and nothing else.

“As long as you cross the finish line, you’re good,” Novaria says.

The first recorded instance of a person being pulled on ski-like objects happened thousands of years ago in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia, according to Skijoring International, an organization founded in 2012 to promote the sport of equine skijoring. In more recent history, the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia have been harnessing reindeer and riding on Nordic skis for hundreds of years, according to the association.

Equine skijoring reached the United States in the early 1900s, and there are now around 30 racing events held in the United States and Canada each year.

When Skijor Skowhegan held its first race in 2019, it was Maine’s first and New England’s only equine skijoring event. Topsham now has the second.

At the Skowhegan event, horses pull skiers or snowboarders down the 1,000-foot groomed track at up to 30 miles per hour, and racers must navigate a series of gates and—if they’re in the pro division—jumps. Novice and junior novice racers are penalized for missing gates, and pro racers get a five-second penalty for missing a jump or gate. Teams can also earn a half-second deduction off their run time for each of two rings they can grab.

It’s part of the weeklong Somerset SnowFest, a celebration of winter activities in the Skowhegan region organized by Main Street Skowhegan and Lake George Regional Park. Along with skijoring, there is an ice-fishing derby, a kite-flying derby, a downhill kayak race, and a winter triathlon. Hight Family of Dealerships is the festival’s major sponsor, and Baxter Brewing Company sponsors the skijoring event.

The man in the cowboy hat talking over the speakers is Sam Hight, from the family-owned auto dealership group. The master of ceremonies for the event, Hight narrates the action and provides words of encouragement—“DQ, but not DQ in our hearts,” he says after a racer drops the rope on the final three jumps and is disqualified.

Along with the hat, Hight is wearing Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots with spurs. He announces locals he sees in the crowd as if they’re celebrities and then talks to them like they’ve just run into each other at the grocery store.

There are 46 teams competing today, up from 37 the year before and more than double the number of teams in the first year. By the time the pro division begins, the grandstands at the fairgrounds are starting to fill up. Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan, says the race has grown significantly since 2019, when around 500 people attended the inaugural event. About 2,000 attendees are here today, including out-of-staters and community members. “It’s something that locals can be proud of,” she says. “We hang our hats on it being one of our coolest events.”

Mary Haley had pitched the idea of the event during her interview with Main Street Skowhegan after seeing the popularity of the sport in Colorado. Haley now contracts with the town revitalization organization to run the event through her company, MXH Marketing. She also helped organize the Topsham skijoring event.

Julia Latham riding in the Novice division.

Grace Hilmer, a rider who won the Topsham race three weeks before with skier George Yodice and horse Hildi, first raced in 2021. She recruited her friend and fellow horseback rider Harry Akkerman to join the Topsham and Skowhegan races in 2022. Akkerman says he didn’t anticipate the events being so fun. “When you do that run, it’s like taking some kind of weird drug. You fly by the grandstand, and they just erupt,” he says. “For those 30 seconds, you’re one with the horse.”

2023 Skijor Skowhegan is scheduled for February 25, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds as part of the Somerset SnowFest, which runs February 18-26. |

Read More:

Share The Inspiration