PENROSE - It's been the case the past few years that winter comes around and Will James feels slightly conflicted.
It's the season of skijoring, the rowdy Western tradition in which skiers join forces with cowboys to be pulled by horses racing down snowy tracks.
"I've kinda been thinking about getting out of it," James, 36, says as he brushes Red and Tanner, his 1,300-pound thoroughbreds, on his land in the countryside far south of Colorado Springs. In his tattered jeans and flannel, the mustachioed horseman chuckles over his dilemma. "Every year, I got a set of buddies that call me."
In January it was Shawn Gerber, a skier James has pulled at events in Colorado and beyond for a decade. The 44-year-old from Vail doesn't sound ready to throw in the towel any time soon - so what if the sport has jacked up his fingers, shoulders and ribs? "The pure adrenaline, the rush," he says. "Better than any other feeling you can get."
The feeling still has James hooked. He plans to team up again with Gerber next weekend for Leadville's 68th annual race, with more than $6,000 in cash prizes on the line. They're expected to be among 50 teams that will take to Harrison Avenue, which will be converted into a course with three 8-foot jumps. A crowd upwards of 1,000 is likely to surround the two-day action.
"I'd say we're all a little crazy," says skier Jason Dahl, an organizer of the race in his hometown, where he and his brother learned the ways of skijoring at a young age. This was thanks to their father, who continues to ride into his mid-60s and who expects to do so in Leadville despite earlier this month breaking two ribs and puncturing a lung at a New Mexico race in which he was flung 12 feet in the air.
"It's a little pride, I guess," Dahl says of what keeps his family active. "A little bit of that Wild West spirit, you know? You get bucked off, you get back on."
Thrill amid tragedy
The sport runs also in the family of James, who moved from Leadville to Penrose a few years ago. He grew up around the local spectacle beloved by his poor ranching family. Some of his fondest childhood memories are atop horseback in the backcountry.
And he's made some of his best memories the past 12 years along the skijoring circuit. Win or lose, it's always a party after with cold beer. It's always unpredictable - a fact that also keeps him coming back for more.
Take last year, for instance: He was driving to a race in Jackson Hole, Wyo., when a tire fell off his trailer, which later got rammed by an antelope on the side of the freeway. He got to the race late, and with a borrowed stallion and a randomly selected skier, he came away with a winning belt.
Or take the year in Red Lodge, Mont., when old reliable Red kicked him in the foot, swelling it to a pulp. "I put a paper towel over it, duct taped it up," James says. "Next day, I'm out there racing in tennis shoes because I can't get my boot back on."
Or take the 2014 version of that same race in which his reins wrapped around Gerber's bindings and flung him off his feet at the finish line. "I've got a picture of me hovering in the air with my back to the ground and my time in the background," Gerber says. "It's pretty sweet."
Or there was last February in Leadville, when tragedy struck. Over the track believed to be softened by the warm weather, a horse tripped, breaking his leg and resulting in his death. An identical accident occurred the previous week in Minturn.
Leadville organizers called the horse's death a freak accident, something that had only occurred two other times in the event's history. A representative of Skijoring America says the back-to-back accidents in Colorado were the first of their kind in 10 years.
"From my understanding, it was something nobody could've foreseen," says Matt Crossett, vice president of Skijoring America's board. "There is talk now about how we can possibly prevent something like that. You know, when do you call a race?"
Though considered the sport's U.S. governing body - it tracks points for the national championship series - Skijoring America does not regulate all events, including Leadville's. Still in its infancy at 2 years old, the organization receives dues from member races that in return receive insurance, boosted advertising and a technical assistant who implements rules in Skijoring America's handbook.
But the sport maintains its old outlaw quality. "We really try not to force anybody to do anything," Crossett says. "We do have rules to follow, mostly a set of recommendations."
And Dahl says Leadville's race follows those recommendations, including one about the course track having a consistent 6-inch snow depth and one about having a veterinarian on site. To prevent snowmelt deep into the afternoon, Leadville's racing start time was changed from 2:30 p.m. to noon this year.
Still in the saddle
Last year's incident isn't keeping James away from Leadville. But skijoring's effects on the animals he grew up loving does have him thinking about his future with the sport. He's seen how horses lose hundreds of pounds in racing weekends alone.
"Just trying to keep that weight on them when you're trying to race them, it's brutal," he says.
And James, who works as a traveling technician, is certainly aware of the cost to keep them fed on grain and electrolytes, as well as the cost to travel the circuit. He's a betting man, and he's lost money at the races that way, too.
But the sport is doling out more these days - "This is the first year I believe we have three races giving out $20,000 each," Crossett says. And as James says: "You just ain't gonna know if you don't go."
He tends to Tanner's hooves, trimming them for racing comfort. "Oh man," he says, "he's bucked me off more than any other horse."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332