Animals, mushers feel the pull of sled-dog racing |

Animals, mushers feel the pull of sled-dog racing

Amanda Holt Miller
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Sled dogs, mushers and spectators gathered in Redstone for the annual sled-dog races over the weekend. (Kelley Cox/Glenwood Springs Post Independent)

A different breed of athlete wowed crowds just down the road from the weekend action at Buttermilk.

Visitors to the 22nd annual Sled Dog Race in Redstone on Saturday witnessed exuberant barks and wild howling from a collection of competitors so eager to hit the trail that they were practically jumping out of their skin.

“These dogs are born to pull,” said Lise Sansom of Carbondale as her dogs jumped at the ends of their short chains on the sides of her truck. “Six of them could pull that pickup.”

Twenty-eight pure-breed and mixed-breed teams competed in four-dog, six-dog and skijoring (one or two dogs pulling a skier) races. There were also three-dog sportsman’s races for young mushers.

“We’re trying to retire out of it,” Sansom said. “But the dogs will never retire. We’ve had some until they were 17, 20 years old just because they’re in such good shape. They’re really athletes.”

Sansom has been a musher for more than 20 years and used to have a kennel of almost 50 Seppala Siberian huskies.

But the race at Redstone drew a diverse group of dogs. At the end of the day Saturday, 16-year-old Katie Harris was in first place for the four-dog race with her German shorthair mixed-breed dogs. She was one of the only racers who wasn’t pulled by dogs in the husky family. John Perry, Katie’s neighbor in the town of Iliff, on the eastern Colorado plains, is a sled-dog champion and introduced her to the sport six years ago.

Harris’ German shorthair dogs don’t have the same uniform look as some of the other teams, but they’re certainly fast and strong.

“A lot of people now are breeding their Alaskans with the fastest of the German shorthairs,” said Jesse Miltier of Palisade, who has 18 pure-bred Siberian huskies and three Alaskan huskies.

The difference between a Siberian and an Alaskan, Miltier said, is that an Alaskan “is a mix of whatever runs the fastest.”

Miltier bought his first sled dog at a pet store before he even thought about racing. He eased into the sport and eventually found himself traveling all over the country from his home in Virginia. He moved to Palisade about four years ago for the snow.

“I realized after a while that the dogs you buy in the pet store are pets,” Miltier said. “And race dogs are race dogs.”

Miltier keeps his 21 dogs in an outdoor colony peppered with doghouses, which he says is a good way to care for the animals because they are social creatures and the arrangement allows them to wander freely and socialize with one another.

With 21 dogs, Miltier has choices when it comes time to pick his team. Torbruk, 11, is Miltier’s oldest dog.

“But he’s been leading since he was really young,” Miltier said.

Torbruk leads Miltier’s four-dog team. Sweetie just turned 1 in mid-January and already has the honor of leading Miltier’s six-dog team.

“She’s showing a lot of potential,” Miltier said. “It usually takes until they’re about 3 years old for them to reach their potential, but she’s there.”

Sweetie did lose the trail on a hairpin turn Saturday and ended up in the soft snow around the edges of the trail, costing Miltier a few precious seconds.

“There are no reins,” Sansom said. “So you have to train them to listen to you.”

Most mushers use horse lingo when they’re driving. “Gee” for right and “Haw” for left. Some say “whoa” for stop.

“You can’t get them to stop,” Sansom said. “With the brake and the snow pick, you might get them to hold for 10 seconds. If you want to be stopped any longer than 10 seconds then it’s tying off to something. Only if you’re going on really long runs do you stop. I doubt any of the teams here are trained to stop.”

Mushers like Harris, Miltier and Sansom said they train their dogs to pull four-wheelers on dry ground and even in desert sand when there’s no snow.

“It’s in their breeding,” Sansom said. “It’s like ‘stick’ is the only word a Labrador retriever knows. These dogs pull.”

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