For Minnesota native Jennifer Butler, it took a few friends, a fast horse and 45 years before she found out she had a competitive side.
Not long after she moved to Whitefish in pursuit of the “true Montana lifestyle,” a group invited her to try her hand at skijoring, a winter sport that involves a person on skis being pulled by rope through an obstacle course, most often behind a horse.
Although her horse at the time, Sandy, was more accustomed to traipsing over mountain trails, she maneuvered the track well. And after that first run more than seven years ago now, Butler knew she wouldn’t soon forget the feeling of weaving through a course.
“I had never really had an activity I thought I really couldn’t go without until skijoring,” Butler said. “It brought out a competitive side in me because it’s incredibly challenging.”
For the first three years, Butler raced Sandy mostly for the pure joy of the sport. But once she got more comfortable with skijoring, her competitive nature outgrew her longtime trail horse.
She knew if she wanted to win races she needed two things: an even faster horse and a strong ski partner.
For the first, she found Royal, a former racehorse with a reputation for finishing like a freight train on the track. Before he landed at Jarba Farms in Kalispell, he had raced in California and Europe.
“Some friends at the farm called me one day and told me about this horse that had an amazing race career. They knew he wasn’t going to be a dressage or jumping horse, he just wanted to run,” Butler said. “I fell in love with him instantly.”
Standing over 16 hands tall, Royal was Butler’s winning ticket. After their first season together in 2015, the team’s winnings paid for the next two skijoring seasons.
As for the latter, Butler found a ski partner in her son, David Rizzolo. He was a natural for the role, seeing how he already had the foundation of being an avid skier. David, as well as Butler’s other biological son, Nathan, and two stepsons, Gage and Maxl, have always been big skiers, so the sport fit naturally into her family’s lifestyle.
Aside from providing Butler, 52, a wealth of figurative riches from fierceness on the course and a sense of whole-self off it, skijoring also brought her much closer to Rizzolo.
“There has to be trust between the rider and the skier,” Butler said. “Skijoring is a team event and if you don’t have a strong bond it shows on the track.”
However, she said racing with Rizzolo has also been challenging at times.
On the track, his safety is always in the back of her mind — something that is largely controlled by how fast the rider allows the horse to maneuver the course and how sharp turns are taken.
“My favorite part is the finish when we’ve safely made the turns and I hear David yell ‘go,’” Butler said. “That’s how I know he made it and now it’s time to get to the finish as fast as possible, and on Royal it’s like flying.”
The three have been racing seriously together for three seasons, traveling all over Montana, Canada, Wyoming and elsewhere when they can. Every course is a little bit different either in track layout or skier obstacles.
And after multiple seasons together, Butler said this year is “their year.”
It’s the first season Rizzolo, a student at Montana State University, isn’t playing lacrosse, which usually ends mid-February in the heat of skijoring season. The two can now devote their entire winter to racing.
For the family, skijoring has become not only a hobby, but also a way of life.
Butler works seasonally as a heavy-equipment operator and takes winter off to focus on racing. On the side, she runs Sun and Hills Bed, Bath and Stall, a boarding service at her home in Whitefish for people and their horses.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We all do it for the adrenaline. There is no feeling like it in the world,” Butler said. “I imagine I’ll do this until I can’t do it anymore.”
Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or email@example.com.