Skijoring in St. Moritz

Skijoring in St. Moritz

Strapped to skis and driven around a frozen lake by a horse, skijoring is like nothing else. Valeria Holinger shares the thrills of the sport

The starting stalls open, 12 athletic horses burst forward, their daring drivers grasping the pole attached to the rein metres behind them, hoping a towel will protect them from the kickback of the snow as they reach speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour (nearly 40 miles per hour) around frozen Lake St. Moritz in front of a roaring crowd. This is the sport of skijoring, and I am one of the 12 drivers.

Skijoring dates back hundreds of years to the days when Arctic hunters harnessed reindeer to cross the frozen landscape in search of food. This traditional transportation gradually evolved, developing into the adrenaline-fuelled sport that made a once-only appearance in the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, the town where it has become a winter spectacle.

Two factors make the skijoring practised in St. Moritz unique and different to the sport in the US or Norway: firstly, the horse is a thoroughbred; secondly, there is no jockey and our horses are controlled by the driver skiing behind them. We are not attached to the horse, we just hold on to the reins, so we have to wear a helmet and body protector in case we need to let go.

Skijoring on Lake St. Moritz takes place during the White Turf, which is held over three Sundays in February; the skijoring event is a crowd favourite. The driver with the most points wins the Skijoring Trophy and is declared the ‘King’ or ‘Queen of the Engadin’. In 2017, I became the first ever Queen. It is a bit of a sore point for my father as he never won the title, but he is proud of me really!

I grew up in St. Moritz and used to work at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel. My father competed in skijoring and ever since I was a small child I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps. In 2009, shortly after I received my skijoring licence at the age of 18, I competed in my first race, becoming the first woman to cross the finish line in the sport’s history. I came third, which made the occasion extra special.

Valeria Holinger skijoring Lake St. Moritz
Valeria Holinger racing on Lake St. Moritz, getty images

There are very few licensed drivers – about 15 currently. We all have full-time jobs and don’t earn a wage for competing. I work in marketing for a sports equipment company; others are ski instructors or office workers. To be successful, you have to be fearless, have incredible core strength and be a very capable skier. I am a former race skier, so it came fairly easily to me.

As the gates open at the race start, the power of the horses as they thrust forward is extraordinary. You need to be totally focused on where your horse is going – is it moving over to the left or right, and is it going to get tangled up with another horse? The good news is that there are few accidents in the sport because we are all so careful. If you do encounter a problem, you just let go of the reins. The biggest risks are that your horse slips and takes you down with it, or the towel behind a horse is trodden on by another.

In training, the horses only walk wearing all of the kit, so the first time they gallop with you is in the race. It means it is a risk for the owner to lend you a new horse because you don’t know how it will perform until the race is over. But, as the sport is genuinely so thrilling, owners enjoy sending their horses to compete here, and it is such an honour to be part of something unique and to continue a St. Moritz tradition.

Valeria Holinger with her horse
Champion skijorer Valeria Holinger with her horse, / Andy Mettler

How to experience skijoring in St. Moritz

In the nearby town of Samedan, you can experience the thrill of the sport with the help of a jockey, who will steer the horse as you ski, making it much safer.

Enjoy the excitement of the sport as a spectator at White Turf, held on 6, 13 and 20 February 2022. If you can attend all three skijoring races, watch from a different vantage point each time – by the starting stalls, in the middle of the course and on the finish line.

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