An Austrian Hafflinger, he’s short and sturdy, but a mischievous glint in his eye makes me glad I’m not getting on his back. Instead, I’ll be taking the reins and keeping my feet firmly on the ground.
If ski joering — being pulled along on your skis by horses or dogs — sounds a little indolent, think again. Thought to have originated in Scandinavia to transport goods during winter, it’s become a niche sport and is often performed at breakneck speeds.
Watch the World Ski Joring Championships in the US (where contestants battle it out for $20,000 in prize money) and you’ll see the skier being propelled by a horse and rider through an obstacle course involving gates, jumps and rings.
Thankfully I’m in France, where competitions tend to involve a rider-less horse, and today we’re planning on skiing at a more sedate pace. But as I listen intently to every tip my instructor, Julien, utters, I’m still not convinced that I’ll be able to stay in control of my direction or my speed. I find myself wishing I had the same luck as my husband, who’s been paired with a pony that seems perfectly content to doze quietly in the spring sunshine. “That chilled out one’s from Spain,” grins Julien, an agile guy who bounds around pointing at various bits of tack that will (hopefully) help us steer the horses. “He’s built for sun and sand but he gets on just fine with snow under his feet.”
Julien assures us that ski joering is as easy as water-skiing and nonchalantly hands me the tow bar. “But I’ve only ever water-skied once,” I say, as I clip on my skis and stand behind my pony, who turns his head and gives me a look that confirms he’s in control.
I adopt the ski joering stance (arms straight, knees bent slightly), and repeat the command for slowing down — ‘whoah-ho-ho’. I’m not likely to want to go faster but I’m reliably told that, should I change my mind, the trick is to simply bend down, pick up some snow and throw it at the pony’s bottom.
We start at a walking pace and progress to a slow trot, the snow hypnotically crunching under the pony’s hooves. As the tempo gets faster, I try to relax but it’s a good 10 minutes before I master the art of turning without clenching every muscle in my body. Another 20 minutes on and we’re flying past densely wooded pine forests, trickling streams and quaint chalets at a canter. As clumps of snow and ice fly through the air I suddenly realise I’m enjoying every moment.
In charming La Clusaz — a picturesque Savoyard resort where cows outnumber people — it seems fitting to abandon the chairlifts and traverse the snowy ground using horsepower.
How to do it
Julien Fournier Bidoz offers a 90-minute private lesson for two people at Aravis Passion equestrian centre for €238 (£172) per person. To take the reins you must be sporty and a good skier (able to tackle red runs). aravis-passion.com laclusaz.com
Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)