'Ben Hur on snow': The high-octane sport of skijoring

Story highlights

  • Skijoring is akin to human chariot racing as horses tow racers on skis behind them
  • Franco Moro has become the master of the sport in St Moritz, a historic hub for skijoring
  • Scott Ping nearly lost his life competing in the United States after breaking his neck
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(CNN)It has been described as Ben Hur on snow.

Twelve horses line up in a start gate but the race is far from conventional.
The race track is a snow-covered frozen lake and attached to each horse is a skier. It is akin to human chariot racing as riders hit speeds of 50km/h jostling for position and, ultimately, victory.
    The sport of skijoring has a long and rich history. And Franco Moro and the Swiss ski resort of St Moritz have been a part of the White Turf event for over three decades.
    With its often combative nature, it is no wonder Moro likens the sport to the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston.
    "Skijoring is just something that people want to see," he says. "It's like Ben Hur on snow, the modern way. I love the speed, the adrenalin rush is something special. It's just unique."
    Skijoring comes from the Norwegian word skikjøring, which literally translates as ski driving, and is thought to date back to the 14th Century.
    When it first began, participants set off at one-minute intervals over a 10-kilometer stretch.
    But after it was switched to a makeshift racecourse, the race now consists of two laps covering a distance of 2,700 meters.
    There is no doubting the precarious nature of the sport. At one notorious race in 1965, not a single entrant finished.
    And at the last race, during the notoriously challenging start where jockeys aim to avoid getting their ropes tangled, Moro says: "One jockey crashed his head and lost a few minutes with a loss of consciousness."
    Some 10,000 people flock to each race in the Swiss Alps, creating a party atmosphere for the only three events of the year held each February.
    The overall victor is crowned "King of Engadine," so called after the valley where the racing takes place.
    Moro, who has been skijoring for 31 years and has no qualms about nudging horses out of his in a bid for on-track supremacy, was crowned king on Sunday.
    The 55-year-old could only finish fifth in the third and final race of the three-week series, but two previous wins towed by the horse Dreamspeed proved sufficient for another title.
    His family ran a horse-carriage business, so skijoring allies one passion with another. His day job is as the director of St Moritz Ski School.
    And having stumbled on the sport in the first place, he says: "Skijoring is something you can't forget. Maybe we're a little bit crazy, I don't know."
    There are obvious dangers to the sport, not least wrestling with reins and ropes in a melee of horses and drivers at the start.
    "You get very close to the other horses, it's like a sandwich and it's a bit dangerous," he explained. "You have horses in front and behind and the danger is someone can stand on your ski."
    Amazingly, though, Moro has never had a major accident in his time in the sport and is pleased to point out there have been no deaths during his era.
    Although there have been a litany of injuries to others, "nothing too bad, broken arms and legs," he adds matter-of-factly.
    It's not just in Switzerland where skijoring has taken hold, variations of the sport can entail people being driven by dogs or even motor vehicles.
    In the United States, it generally involves jockeyed horses pulling skiers along by a rope -- catching hoops and tackling jumps along the course.
    For Scott Ping, president of the North American Ski Joring Association, which hosts its own World Championships at the end of January each year in front of 4,000 spectators, the sport almost cost him his life.
    Ping does not ski -- he rides the horses instead -- but became precariously unstuck while training for one particular competition.
    "I was running my horse through ice and snow when it broke through the ground and half a ton of horse came down on me," he recalled. "It all happened in slow motion.
    "I heard my neck break, I heard it crack like a gun going off."
    With his head planted, he couldn't move. He was trapped in the snow, with just enough room to breathe in a gap under his chin.
    He had broken the C1 and C2 vertebrae in his neck and was now alone as his horse headed back to the barn.
    "I was getting very anxious that this was where I was going to die," he said. But eventually he regained sufficient movement in his arm to telephone for help and was in an ambulance 20 minutes later.
    Two hours later he was moving his toes and, defying the doctors, he was walking within two days.
    "The doctor said one tenth of 1% of people that have that injury live and one tenth of that number walk again. I'm walking."
    Despite the horrific nature of his injuries four years ago he returned to skijoring only to fall again and break eight ribs leading to a longer hiatus from the sport, which ended two years ago.
    For him, it is a drug he just cannot give up: "It's a lot of fun, it's a kick. I don't think there's any sport to compare to it. It's an unusual combination of old cowboys and skiers getting together to make a big run. When I compete, the adrenalin is just unbelievable."
    As for the wider appeal, he jokes: "The silly story is that some guys got together to have a combination of who the best horseman is, the best skier and the best drinker, and this combines all three!"
    So what exactly makes a good skijoring competitor? Moro, who like his fellow riders has to take an exam in order to be eligible to compete, explains: "First it is experience, and knowing what can happen in a race so you can react when something goes wrong.
    "You have to be a very good skier and you have to have the feeling of the horse. You need to be a team. Often these are horses you don't know so they need to get an immediate confidence from you."
    Edging into his 2015 season finale, Moro continues to master that triumvirate in what is perhaps the purest form of horsepower.