Cloquet grad wins world skijoring championship, again
Ever since he was a boy, Joe Scanlon has loved horses.
Whether it was riding his father’s horses near his Cloquet area home, training quarter horses in Texas or riding them at his home in Montana, the equine life has always been close to Scanlon’s heart.
“It’s my life,” Scanlon said. “I’ve always loved being around horses.”
And now, after a lifetime on and around the track, Joe Scanlon is at the forefront of a sport that allows him to utilize his skills in a unique way — in the sport of skijoring.
It’s a racing sport that, depending on the version, is either a skier pulled by a dog or a skier pulled by a horse. In Scanlon’s case, it’s obviously the latter.
“It’s a way for me to stay around horses,” he said.
Scanlon is so good at the sport that he recently won the skijoring world championships, held annually in Whitefish, Mont.
Skijoring allows Scanlon to stay close to his beloved horses, while making extra money and helping grow a sport that is increasing in popularity in the West.
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Scanlon played hockey for Cloquet High School under Bill Kennedy and graduated in 1974. But even before that time, he knew that he really wanted to be around horses.
“My dad was into horses when I was growing up,” he said. “He let me ride my first horse early in life. I played hockey but then in the summer times I would ride racehorses at the Carlton County Fair.”
Those early experiences helped shape Scanlon’s later life, and when he moved first to Bemidji in 1978 and later to Montana for school, he stayed around a sport he loved.
Scanlon studied at the University of Montana, graduating with a degree in political science and economics — and promptly turned 180 degrees from his education by getting a job training race horses.
“I was a hunting guide for a private company for awhile, and then I trained horses for about 15 years,” he said. “I started doing that when I was still in school, because it helped me pay my tuition at the University of Montana.”
His first actual job with horses came as an exercise rider for quarter horses and the experience gained at the Carlton County Fair stood Scanlon in good stead.
“I loved it but my mother hated it,” Scanlon said with an easy laugh that is easy to enjoy.
Scanlon then moved to Texas for a time to train racehorses but soon found himself back near Helena, where he now lives. The Texas racing style was hard on Scanlon because it was hard on the horses.
“I left the racetracks down there because they used up horses pretty fast there,” he said. “It was hard to compete with people who use (performance enhancing) drugs on their horses. So I went back to Montana and there wasn’t much racing left for me so I got into horse training.”
When contacted for this story, Scanlon had to excuse himself because he was watching horse racing videos on YouTube. “It’s just in my blood,” he explained.
Scanlon, now 60 years old, works on a ranch and continues to train horses — but a few years back he heard about a sport that allows him to stay close to horses and find a way to keep competing.
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Skijoring is believed to have originated in Scandinavia, though no one nation can claim it as its own invention. Dogs and skiers work in tandem in Norway, in a sport called pulka, but equestrian skijoring is more widespread.
That’s the sport Scanlon found — and which is keeping him active riding horses for speed.
“I skied out here and my buddies had gotten into this sport,” Scanlon said. “I still had a bunch of quarter horses and they’re fast, so I got into it and within three years we started winning.”
Skijoring was once an Olympic sport; it was part the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. “But the Norwegians won the first nine places or something like that so somebody said ‘we aren’t doing that again,’” Scanlon said, and laughed.
In the United States, skijoring is big in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah — places where the spaces are still wide-open and the idea of rider and horse in a special kind of race holds an allure and charm all its own.
“They have a skijoring international governing body and in the United States they have race meets where you race for points,” Scanlon said. “They pay pretty well for the open division, which is professional riders in each meet.”
Scanlon, at age 60, is the oldest regular rider on the circuit — and also one of the most successful.
“The horses make the money,” he’s quick to point out. “Horses are allowed to pull for two teams, meaning two different skiers, and since my team has been together for about 12 years, we have a pretty good team now.”
Equestrian skijoring has two types of races: a straight-track race and a round-track race.
They’re just like they sound — but in a straight-track race, the skier following the pulling horse has to navigate through gates and claim several rings on the course, with missing gates and rings adding a time penalty to the overall score.
“The courses are about 300 yards long and that’s to save the horses,” Scanlon said. “In Montana, the tracks are traditionally round so you aren’t doing as many gates. Lots of times a straight course will go right down the main street of a town.”
That was the case in Whitefish, which traditionally runs its course right through the middle of the city’s Winter Carnival as part of the World Championships. That’s a two-day event, with the first day being on a round track and the second day running right through downtown.
There, Scanlon and his ski team won $5,600 for two races per day. It isn’t huge money, but it’s growing as the sport grows in popularity.
“The money supplements my income so that’s a great thing,” he said.
The skier helps complete the team, and the best ones really know what they’re doing.
“To get speed, you need a fast horse and a skier who can handle a line like a water skier,” Scanlon said. “You can’t have any slack on the line. If you have an unseasoned skier — which is the difference between the classes — you can really see it. It’s about getting your horse to go for speed.”
That’s something Scanlon, as a horse trainer, is more able to find than many of his competitors.
“I’ve had my skiers for about 12 years,” he said. “We recently won the Open class at a race in Sun Valley, too, so we’re doing pretty well.”
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Scanlon’s team is very effective.
His skiers are Cody Smith of Spokane, Wash., and Toby MacIntosh of Whitefish.
“Cody grew up in Jackson Hole and was already beating everybody at 16 years old,” Scanlon said. “Nobody could beat him. I’ve known him for years and we’ve won national titles and world championships together. Toby is another very good skier and we all have success together.”
The most important member of the team, though, especially to a horse lover like Scanlon, is his quarter horse, with the registered name of Mud D. Duck.
“You want your horse to be like your skiers,” Scanlon explained. “You try to pinpoint it. Montana is so full of cowboys and everyone thinks they have the fastest horse. These skiers are laid back guys who want to kill themselves (racing).”
Thankfully, Mud D. Duck isn’t suicidal in nature. In fact, he kept Scanlon from getting out of the horse training game entirely.
“I tried to get out a few years ago, when I used to run two horses, and they both did really well,” Scanlon said. “I retired them, but a friend’s family I used to train for still had some racehorses in the field, and called me to come get one. I said to myself that I didn’t want another horse but it didn’t work that way.”
The 7-year old quarter horse has won three national championships already and looks to be good value for Scanlon far into the future. He’s sanguine about all his success — which fits in well with the skijoring ethos.
“Everyone wants to be the best, and everyone wants to be the fastest,” he explained. “But everyone’s laid back about it.”
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Despite being gone from Carlton County as a resident for nearly 40 years, Scanlon still visits Cloquet regularly to see his mother and friends.
“My mom is back there and we try to go ice fishing in the winter,” he said. “I get back whenever I can, because I’ve got a lot of friends in your country. But with the schedule (of the skijoring circuit), it’s hard. You can only run a few meets with your horse, but some go on the road every weekend which is hard on the horse and on the rider.”
So does the old political science major, after all this time, prefer horses to politicians?
“Absolutely,” he said. “Horses don’t talk back to you.”
The ease of Scanlon’s manner and his ready wit speaks well of his sport, which he would like to bring to Minnesota some day along with some of his friends.
He’s always ready to show newcomers how to race — Scanlon recommends the movie “Ice Cowboys” to anyone who wants to know more — and in the finest tradition of the West, is ready to show some hospitality as well.
“If you ever come out to Montana, be sure to look me up,” he said. “And be sure to bring your skis.”