Hold your Horses

Want to try something completely different? Head to the French Alps where an enterprising man of the mountains is reviving an ancient mode of transport to create a new winter sport

Featured February 09 Words by Catherine Cooper

WHAT WOULD YOU GET IF YOU CROSSED WATER-SKIING WITH HORSE-RIDING AND CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING? Probably something akin to ski joëring, an ancient form of Scandinavian transport that is making a comeback as a leisure activity in modern ski resorts.

Jacques Fillietroz offers ski joëring excursions at his La Cavale equestrian centre in Les Arcs in the French Alps. Born and raised in nearby Savoie, Jacques was given his first pony at the age of eight and by the time he left school he had accumulated several horses. Jacques started leading horse treks around Mont Blanc in the warmer seasons while working as a pisteur (someone who patrols the pistes) in the mountains during the ski season.

Then 10 years ago he saw a postcard from the 1940s depicting someone on skis being towed behind a horse in St Moritz. He realised this would be a good way to use his 40-odd horses during the winter, so added ski joëring to his repertoire of horse-related activities on offer to holidaymakers.

Ski joëring dates back to around 2,500BC, when Scandinavian farmers would cover long distances by donning skates and getting reindeer, and later horses, to pull them a long. It arrived in France at the beginning of the 20 century, at the same time as downhill skiing, and was used to transport skiiers up the slopes. However, it almost disappeared with the advent of motorised chair lifts.

JACQUES’ SKI JOËRING TRIPS IN ARC 1600 RUN FOR ABOUT AN HOUR AND A HALF. “Most people can’t do much more than that—it is too tiring,” he says. At the start of the session he attaches a special harness to the back of each large, cross-breed horse for the skiers to hang on to. Jacques designed and patented the harness, which is semi-rigid with a bar at the back so that when the horse stops, the skier doesn’t end up sliding under the horse’s hooves. A driver holds onto the horse’s reins as well as the harness and the novice joërer stands alongside the driver, also hanging onto the harness.

The 12km joëring course runs along snowy walkers’ paths and meanders up and down through the trees. Much of it is a gentle ride, allowing some time to take in and enjoy the scenery. However, the start of the path is quite steep, so there is no time to get used to the strange marriage of horses and skis before the whips crack and the horses charge up the slope, sometimes stumbling slightly as their hooves sink into the deep slope while the skiers cling on and try to keep their balance behind. Once at the top of the short slope the horses slow down and on the flat parts of the path the experience is somewhat like cross-country skiing, except without all the hard work. When the horses go downhill, the bar at the back of the harness stops skiers going too fast.

“It is very safe,” says Jacques. “If there is a problem or you feel you are going too fast, you can just let go. It is easier to do it if you are used to skis, but we have also taken novices joëring at a slower pace after a short practice in the paddock to get them used to the skis. Most children over the age of about 12 can do it and younger ones can have a go in the paddock.”

The group stays close together, which can mean having a horse in front towing you along while another horse is close behind you, sometimes at a high speed. If you are not used to horses, this can feel a bit alarming—I was worried that if I fell I would be trampled—but Jacques assures me that “horses respect humans” and this hasn’t happened in the 10 years he has been running the excursions.

The pace changes frequently. For a while you will be quietly sliding along admiring the view and then the horses will suddenly pick up to a gallop to get you up the hill while you hang on for dear life, which makes the experience both tranquil and exhilarating in equal measure. It’s just as well there are slow bits as they give you a chance to rest your aching hands and arms.

Today ski joëring isn’t just something a bit different for tourists to try when they come out on holiday. For the past six years Les Arcs has played host to the ski joëring championships. Each year, around 40 teams come from across France and Switzerland to compete in a giant slalom, special slalom (horses go in a straight line while skiers slalom around poles) and a speed event, during which horses can reach up to 45km per hour.

If you’re in Les Arcs in summer, you can still try ski joëring—on rollerskis. “It’s the perfect activity all year round,” says Jacques. “You’ve got horses, you’ve got mountains, you’ve got skis. What more could you want?”

The main drag

Here are some top tips for ski joëring

Wear goggles or sunglasses ski joëring— when the horses gallop up hills they kick up lots of snow.

Be aware of the changing landscape so that when the horses pick up speed you will be holding on tight.

Don’t snow-plough when going downhill.

If you stand behind the bar it will act as a brake.

Don’t go after a big night out—even though you are being pulled along, the ride is surprisingly physical.

If you can, choose shorter skis as these are easier to control.

Be prepared for your arms to ache after your ride.

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