SILVERTON, COLO. — The morning snow had stopped as Callie Bradley prepared to ride her horse down Blair Street in Silverton, Colo., as part of last weekend's skijoring competition.
Bradley was one of the contestants in the fifth annual Silverton skijoring event Feb. 15 and 16. In this quirky winter sport, riders on horses tow athletes on skis behind them. Teams are judged on how quickly they complete a run, as well as on jumps and how many dangling rings they grab from a station along the course.
On Feb. 16, Bradley had already successfully completed her first run, along with her teammate on skis. This run, she would be pulling a skier assigned to her through a drawing system. The skier took hold of the rope attached to the horn of the horse's saddle, and they prepared to start the second run.
The officials raised green flags, indicating the course was clear and it was OK to start. Bradley urged her large, brown and white horse forward.
The horse, named Birdman, had been acting up all day. During warm ups, he bucked up, and at the first run he had problems at the start. Other skijoring contestants said later that he had been acting up and rearing the previous day, too.
As soon as the run started, Birdman spooked and reared up in the air. The skier let go of the rope.
Witnesses reported Birdman fell on Bradley, and her spur got caught in the rope. Birdman dragged her down Blair Street, heading straight toward a parked truck.
Aztec resident Tim McCarthy watched as he waited for his turn to ride.
Acting quickly, he let go of his quarter horse mare and leapt out to try to stop Birdman. He said he initially planned to step on the rope.
What happened next is still a blur to McCarthy, a veteran skijorer and former bull rider. He knows what he did prevented Bradley from being pulled into the truck and possibly killed. He also knows he hit the truck instead.
After stopping the horse, McCarthy leaned on his truck with an ice pack on his broken nose. He said he isn't sure if the horse or the truck broke it.
"It's not about being a hero or anything like that," he said. "It's about doing the right thing."
During the commotion, McCarthy's horse wandered through Silverton, until finally getting stuck in a snow bank. Birdman was also found stuck in a snowbank after the incident.
Initially, the extent of Bradley's injuries was the subject of rumor among onlookers and contestants. Some said she broke her arm. Others claimed it was her pelvis.
She was taken by ambulance to Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango, Colo. Doctors treated her for bruising. Amazingly, she survived the scrape without any broken bones.
Laura Despalmes, one of the event coordinators, said the organization will meet to discuss whether additional safety precautions are necessary for future events. She said the group is committed to safety, but working with horses always brings risks.
Bradley was released last week from the hospital, and McCarthy stopped in to visit her. He said she was walking around.
"It was just good to see her there in one piece," he said.
In Silverton, skijoring is one of the biggest events of the year, drawing about a thousand spectators who line Blair Street, where the annual competition takes place.
Some of the contestants come from the surrounding area. Others are part of a circuit and a "World Skijoring Championship" was started in Whitefish, Montana in 2009.
Racing skis help with turns: Josh Arnold, a skijoring competitor, said he uses racing skis while skijoring because they help him take the turns faster. However, skiers can choose whatever type of ski they prefer.
Helmet helps with safety: Skiers are encouraged to wear helmets to protect their heads if they crash. In addition to helmets, goggles also help protect skiers' eyes from anything the horse might kick up while running.
Tow rope pulls skier : The skier holds onto the tow rope as the horse runs. All ropes are a uniform length. Arnold said it is important to pull in any slack while skiing and going over the jumps. This helps skiers hold onto the rope.
Western-style saddle needed: Rider Krista Lucas said skijoring uses a stock saddle, like saddles found in the rodeo circuit, rather than a flat horse racing saddle. Another rider, Savannah McCarthy, uses her barrel racing saddle.
The three-block course, which challenges the skiers to negotiate jumps and grab rings, can be completed in approximately 17 seconds. Missing a single ring or jump can be the difference between losing and winning.
Savannah McCarthy, Tim McCarthy's daughter, has watched her parents compete in these events for years.
"They told me once I was old enough, I could try," said the 14-year-old from Aztec.
When she turned 12, she was finally allowed to enter the competition.
On the second day of this year's competition, Savannah McCarthy selected a belt buckle trophy she earned for being the fastest rider on both days of Silverton event.
She rubbed down her large bay gelding, Tank, after the competition. Tank is not only her skijoring horse, but she also competes with him in barrel racing. She said she prefers skijoring.
"There's no technique or anything," she said. "You just got to run fast."
She also thinks Tank likes the winter sport.
"He doesn't ever get to go that fast at home," she said.
Last year, Tank and McCarthy won the novice competition. This year, she was no longer a beginner.
She rode her other horse, Snickers, on the first day and won. And then she followed up on Tank and won again.
Following her win in Silverton, McCarthy was invited to compete at the Skijoring National Championship in Jackson Hole, Wyo. The family left last week to travel to the competition, which is on this weekend.
McCarthy is the youngest competitor in the national championships. Age regulations state that a contestant has to be at least 16 years old.
"To get a waiver on a 14-year-old is pretty awesome," Tim McCarthy said.
The McCarthys were not the only San Juan County participants at Silverton's skijoring competition. Josh Arnold, a wine maker at Wines of the San Juan, also competed.
His first skijoring-like experience was when he was growing up in Durango. His father broke horses and sometimes pulled him around behind the animals.
At age 16, Arnold skied in his first skijoring event at Durango's annual winter celebration, Snowdown. He's been competing ever since.
"Once you do it once, you're like, 'Let's keep doing it,'" Arnold said.
Arnold partnered with a family friend, Perry Whetstone, a former jockey from Mancos, Colo., for the first part of the race on the second day of competition.
Whetstone didn't plan on riding that Sunday. His girlfriend, Krista Lucas, also of Mancos, pulled Arnold the previous day, and the team earned fifth place.
Lucas formerly worked horses on the race track. When she was 16, her father knew a bulldogger — someone who competes in steer wrestling — with a wild horse. She said her father decided she could ride it. Three laps later, the quarter horse had calmed enough for her to ride without any problems.
"My dad was never scared to put me on any of the crap in the world," she said.
After taking fifth the first day of the skijoring competition, Lucas asked Whetstone to fill in for her the next day. That day, Arnold finished fifth in the match competition and sixth in the draw.
Although he hadn't initially planned on riding, Whetstone said he enjoyed it.
"I love the atmosphere of the sport," he said.