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How to Guides Skijoring and Winter Sports

Kicklsedding with Dogs

We recently asked our ambassador, Sheila, to breakdown kicksledding with dogs for us – what it is and how you might be able to get into a the sport with your dog. Enjoy!

Kicksledding? What is that? And why would I be interested in trying it with my dog? Is it dogsledding? Well, sort of…

A kicksled is essentially a sled with runners and an upright handle. You stand on one runner, and push (kick) with the other leg, to propel the sled forward across the snow.  You may have seen Scandinavian style kicksleds, which are often used for pushing kids around, or even for competitive racing (without dogs). Many such sleds (i.e. the Esla) have kits available to modify the sled to be pulled by 1 or 2 dogs.  Other kicksleds, such as ours, are modeled along the lines of traditional dogsleds. Our sled is a Maine Made Dog Sled, designed for recreational Kicksledding with one or 2 dogs pulling it while the human driver assists by kicking. The sled is about 25 lbs and folds for easy storage and transport on the roof of our car.

The runners have non-slip rubber foot pads, and it has a dragmat brake. It is not designed to carry passengers but there is the capability to carry a sled bag into which we can pack dog’s water, snacks, and maybe a trail lunch.

The type of sled you might select is a personal preference; we kicksled just for fun, recreation, exercise, and as an alternative to our other winter activities.  We are not into competition, so our sled works just fine for us.  We have a good time, our dogs enjoy the activity… so we share with you just a bit of what we have learned.

Kicksledding might sound easy, right? Hop on, and let the dogs do all the work? Well, not so fast. We have found that kicksledding can be quite a bit of exertion for both dogs and driver.  The dogs do a good bit of work with their pulling of the sled, but your kicking action is essential to keep the momentum of the sled forward and to facilitate the dogs  action.  But it is great fun! It gives the dogs and us a great workout and allows us to participate in pulling sports when the snow may be less than ideal for our skijoring. We can run the sled on crusty, uneven snow, slush, and even when there is bare ground peeking through the snow.

In fact, it was skijoring that led us to Kicksledding. We had been skijoring just a year with our lab mutt Gryphon when we attended the Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair to get more equipment and advice from experienced mushers. There, we saw a very interesting small sled at one of the vendor booths. The folks at Maine Made looked at Griff and said he looked like a good candidate for the kicksled. We found out we could use the same x-back/sled dog pulling harness we use with Griff for skijoring and the sled came with the bridle and gangline necessary  to attach to the dog’s harness. We really did not need any more gear. So Gryphon ran as a solo sled dog until Edgar came into our life and then we had to utilize a slightly different gangline system so that the two dogs could work as a team. They have done a great job over the past 2 winters, learning to work as partners and learning to work with the driver to follow commands. It has been great fun to see their growth and our sledding outings are always memorable.

So how did we learn to kicksled? Admittedly, we had some trial and error. We talked with experienced mushers and tried to ease our way into the activity. In our area there are a few fellow skijorers but we know of no other local kicksledders. Attendance at sled dog seminars, fellow kicksledders’ websites and lots of practice have helped us out.

We always try to keep the dogs health and safety of prime concern. If it is really cold, we will be sure the dogs wear their sled dog parkas. If they need boots or paw wax, we will use those.  We are recreational sledders and are not out to set speed records. We give the dogs frequent rests and do not over exert them. We prepare for the season of running by bikejoring in the fall, giving the dogs a chance resume running and following commands while in their pulling harnesses. This helps get them in shape for skijoring, as well. Though we utilize basic mushing commands (i.e.  Gee, haw, on-by, hike, line-out, easy, come around, whoa, etc.) during the summer hiking season, it is very important that they are fluent in these commands as well as basic obedience skills, when we first hit the snowy trails each winter.  It has become a tradition each year to have them practice their sled skills by pulling our freshly cut Christmas tree out of the woods!

We are a bit selective in our choice of trails. We avoid trails with very steep sections, as that can be risky coming down, especially if there are tree lined curves! We utilize some shared-use trails, and if there may be snow machines in the area or low-light conditions, we put our dogs in reflective gear and put bike flashers on the sled. We really like rail trails, as they tend to be not too curvy and without drastic grades.  Safe, frozen, snowy lakes are also quite fun for sledding.

Are you interested in trying kicksledding? If your dog is suitable for skijoring, it is probably suitable for kicksledding. Our dogs are both lab mutts– dogs of many different breeds and mixes make fine kicksled dogs.  The dog should probably be at least 35-40 lbs.  Our Griff is sort of “Clydesdale” model dog…72 lbs, slow and steady, but certainly strong. Edgar, on the other hand, is a wiry, but extremely strong and quick 55 lb. lab mix. Edgar can pull the sled very easily while alone, but he tends to wander a bit. Griff is our straight line dog… so, together they make a nice team. Edgar encourages Griff to run faster, and Griff keeps Edgar more on trail.  If conditions are favorable, we enjoy having one of us X-C ski, while the other drives the sled. This way, the dogs have a great time trying to catch the skier, and it helps our recreational, just for fun,  sledding dogs stay on track!

What gear do you need for kick sledding? Well, the sled, with gangline and bridle to connect to the dog harness (possibly a neckline if using 2 dogs) and we suggest a brake. Our first winter, we did not have the brake and had a few hairy slide stops. Now we have the dragmat brake, and we feel that we have less likelihood of the sled sliding where we do not want it to go, or worse, crashing into the dogs.

Your dog(s) needs a good quality harness. We use standard mushing x-back harnesses with the dogs for pulling sports, such as bikejor, skijor, and kicksled. Our dogs seem to recognize that these harnesses are different from their hiking harnesses; one type harness is for pulling, and one is not. There are many types of harnesses, which can be used for skijor or kicksled. We recently tried one type of harness suggested to us for use with the kicksled, and the dogs just hated it, and would not run while wearing it. It is a fine, very well-known harness, but it just was not right for our dogs.  So we quickly returned to our regular harnesses. We just attended a lecture presented by the eminent sled dog veterinarian Dr. Jerry Vanek…he said that there have been no studies on the effectiveness of one harness over another, and since each dog has a different build, what works for one dog may be ill-advised for another. He suggested that if one harness is creating problems (i.e. rubbing spots, poor fit, poor performance), then just try another.  We were very fortunate in starting off with an excellent skijor harness, that we were able to continue to use when we added the kicksled to our activities.  I suggest you find your nearest sled dog club, and ask their advice…you may need to try a few harnesses before you get one that fits properly, and it is nice to try one before ordering online. You are doing your dog a favor by spending the time and effort to get it right.  Be sure you familiarize the dog with wearing the harness, before putting it in any skijor or kicksled set-up.  I know many folks use a hands free leash, or skijor line, and run with their dogs in harness (canicross), which is a good way to transition your dog into harness sports, without having to put yourself on a bike or skis. The bright vests are because there are snowmachines that also use this lake…so, increased visibility!

We always carry a water bottle for the dogs, as well as spare booties and paw wax. Be sure that you do not overdress yourself, there is a lot of exertion, especially if you are helping kick the sled uphill, or through deeper or slushy snow. I usually dress as for skijoring, with the exception of boots. Since you are kicking, your boots need to have some grip in the snow. I use a winter hiking boot, and if the snow is slick, I add ice fishing cleats, which help me get good traction. I also recommend gloves, not mittens, since you will be untangling lines, clipping and unclipping attachments, and taking dog treats of your pocket. I also find that gloves allow me better positioning on the handle of the sled.  Of course, if it is quite cold, mittens with liner gloves may be indicated.  One thing we did to modify our sled, was the addition of padded bike handlebar grip tape on the wooden handle of the sled…we find this helps with grip and increases comfort.

If you think you want to get your dog(s) harnessed up, and in front of the sled, I strongly recommend contacting the local mushers club, as they may have equipment that you can try, or they may even offer clinics or classes. There are dryland mushing clubs sprouting up all over the country, even in areas which see little or no snow, which offer classes in dog pulling sports.  Online resources can help, but that does not take the place of face-to-face work with an experienced musher. Our dogs were each experienced skijor dogs before they began with the kicksled, so they knew basic commands, and we knew that they would work in harness.  You certainly would not want to just put an inexperienced dog in a harness, yell “hike”, and expect good things to happen. In fact, it could be disastrous for you and your dog.

Costs?  A sled will run approximately $300-$400, with bridle, gangline and brake, and harnesses for the dog run $30-$50. I have seen used kicksleds for sale occasionally on craigslist, and at sled dog events. Once you have the gear, there really is no added expense, so you can be set for years of fun.

Whatever resources or assistance you use to get started, be sure to go at your dog’s pace. Some dogs take to these pulling sports quicker than others. It can get frustrating at times, but keep cool, and remember your dog really wants to please you.  Laugh, have fun, and relax… soon, you may be swooshing across the snow, kicking up the snow with great abandon!

Resources for Kicksledding: