SKOWHEGAN — Skijor Skowhegan was on this year, though the celebrations and fanfare were held remotely.

“We thought it was important to have it this year even if we can’t have spectators to keep the momentum going and keep it in the public eye, at least virtually, and keep competitors excited about it,” said Mary Haley, who pitched the idea of the event over three years ago to Main Street Skowhegan.

Skijoring is a team time-trial race in which a horse and rider pull a snowboarder or alpine skier around a groomed track. Saturday’s event was held at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds, with only media, sponsors and participants allowed to watch in-person. The event was broadcast live on Facebook for spectators.

A snowboarder loses grip on the rope while being towed by a horse and rider Saturday during Skijor Skowhegan, one of the Somerset Snowfest events at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

SnowFest is organized by Main Street Skowhegan and Lake George Regional Park, with the Hight Family of Dealerships being a major partner.

Kristina Cannon, executive director at Main Street Skowhegan, said that more teams were added this year and that moving forward, more team slots will be available in future years as COVID-19 crowd limits become less stringent. Unlike past years, competitors from out-of-state were turned away because of these guidelines.

Cannon previously said that several conversations were had about whether or not to move forward with hosting the event, given the pandemic. The decision was made to proceed after seeing success in Skowhegan Outdoors activities, which encourage the community to get outside. Skowhegan Outdoors is a project of Main Street Skowhegan.

“We have 37 teams competing,” Cannon said. “All of our sponsors have been gracious to donate all sorts of goodies and cash prizes.”

The lead sponsor of Saturday’s event was Baxter Brewing Co.; others included Sugarloaf, NewGen Powerline Construction, Skowhegan Savings Bank, Franklin Savings Bank and Hight Family of Dealerships.

Haley pitched the idea during her interview at Main Street Skowhegan. Now, three years later, she does freelance marketing and was contracted through Main Street to help with the events. Her inspiration to bring this event to Maine stemmed from a trip to Leadville, Colorado, in 2010, where she learned about skijoring and how big it is in the western regions of the country.

A skier flies off a jump Saturday while being pulled by a horse and rider during Skijor Skowhegan, one of the Somerset Snowfest events at Skowhegan State Fairgrounds. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“Ever since then it’s just been simmering in my head,” Haley said. “When I worked for Main Street, I had the opportunity to pitch it. I’m an avid downhill skier and I grew up riding horses so I’m acutely aware of how big both industries are in Maine. I was confident that it was going to be a hit in Maine.”

Saturday’s skijoring marked the third year since its inception; it is the first skijoring event in Maine and the only equestrian skijoring race in the Northeast.

The competition is split into three divisions: junior, novice and pro levels. Each of the 37 teams were given two runs across a track peppered with jumps and gates throughout.

Amelia Rhoda, 18, of Bingham, competed in her first skijoring competition with her horse Willow, 20, a Pony of the Americas. She pulled Brady Batson, 14, of North Waterboro, who made the trek to compete on his skis.

To prepare, Rhoda said that she’s been riding her horse on the side of roadways as well as snowmobile trails to get Willow used to the footing. Batson’s preparations were done at Little Ossipee Pond in Waterboro, where he was pulled on a snowmobile.

Harry Akkermann of Harmony brushes Hildy as the horse eats prior to racing in the Skijor Skowhegan event Saturday during Somerset Snowfest at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds. In skijoring, a horse and rider haul a skier through the course. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“My friends at work do it this every year so I thought I would join in,” Rhoda said. “I’m excited to see how it’s all going to go. I’ve pulled sleds on (Willow) before, but not skis and I’ve only gone slow.”

The first race began at noon with the novice division and progressed throughout the day. Each team is timed and additional time is added if any jumps or gates are missed. New this year was an added bonus ring on each jump, which if grabbed by the skier or snowboarder, deducted a second off of the final time.

The event is part of the weeklong Somerset SnowFest, which began last weekend with an ice fishing derby in Canaan. SnowFest includes a series of activities and wraps up Sunday with a Kite Festival at Lake George Regional Park in Canaan, beginning at noon.

The fastest time was 25.7 seconds, completed by Josie Mcallister and Nate True in the pro division. Winning the novice division was Lizzie Dumont and Pat Moody at 30.4 seconds; Mallory Williams and Charlie Babbin won the junior division at 52.5 seconds.

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