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If you can't ski - get mushing

by Verite Reilly Collins

26th November 2006

Skiing is big business in the winter holiday months. But what if you have mobility problems and can't ski - is there a disability-friendly alternative that offers the same thrill? Verite Reily Collins thinks so: Mushing, or dog-sled racing.
Huskies in the snow
You haven't lived until you've mushed behind a team of huskies. From Finland to France, you can mush whatever your disability. Those with limited mobility sit in the sled while those with some mobility stand on the back and hang on for dear life.

With my limited mobility, I sat in the pukla (sled). Gliding up the mountain trail, heaven was all around - blue skies, frosty snow and dogs pulling with a will. Suddenly, hurtling down the trail towards us were two sleds. Panic - we threw out the anchor, supposed to stop a sled in full flight - only it didn't. The dogs nearest the sled turned round and gave me a dirty 'what did you do that for?' look, as the lead dogs shot smoothly between the approaching teams. I hid my embarrassment under the blankets, but the dogs forgave me.

Mushers are united in their love of dogs, and disabilities don't matter. But be warned - this sport should come with a health warning. You can be hooked for life!

How do I try it?

Huskies pulling a sled
You don't have to go to Alaska or Greenland to try mushing - it's the fastest growing team sport in the Alps. Start in Switzerland, where in the summer, Greenland Huskies commute to work every day by train up the Jungfrau mountain, giving 'taster' rides on top. You can see them file into their special carriage and sit there solemnly for the ride - like commuters the world over.

If you just want a taster (about £20-30 for an hour or two), you can find this in ski resorts from Andorra to Slovakia. As you arrive at the Slovakian mountain resort of Donovaly in the Tatra Mountains, you see a wooden arch across the road with carved sleds and dogs running across it. Here, the President is such a fan that he turns up at dog sled meetings. The resort often hosts international mushing meetings - described as 'raucous' by one musher - and hotels and tuition are less expensive than in other parts of Europe.

In Italy, Armen Khatchikian's Italian Sleddog School Progres in Ponti Legno, in the Trentino Alps, offers courses for every level. As you arrive, you see a sign prominently displayed: "The Dog is Always Right". Obey that, and you will get on with Armen and his dogs. When I tried standing up at the back of the sled, he and his team of musher trainers were very helpful at picking me out of the snow, after I ended up going headfirst into a snowdrift.

Getting serious

If you want to get serious about the sport, there's always The Iditarod, the biggest event in the dog-sled racing calendar which covers 1150 miles in 10 to 17 days from Anchorage in Alaska to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. Mushers from all walks of life, and all over the world, come to the 'Last Great Race on Earth' to compete.

In the USA, Rachel Scdoris has become the first legally blind musher to complete the gruelling Iditarod. Rachel normally uses a scout ahead of her to radio instructions, but Iditarod rules say that Rachel had to be guided by another musher competing alongside. She was helped by 20-race Iditarod veteran Tim Osmar - and she came in a creditable 57th.

Back in Italy, Armen Khatchikian won a quiz show, and used his prize to go to Alaska and train for the Iditarod, completing the course first time. He set up a school, and now trains people year round using rigs, running the dogs in a harness attached to a belt in the summer.

Armen takes disabled friends off every summer to the high glacier snowfields, spending nights at refuge huts high in the mountains. Dogs love it - and so do the men! It's good for kids too - like many other kennel owners, he is used to coaching children with disabilities. "The dogs don't judge you" he says, "Dogs and children get on." Armen has around 80 dogs, but he knows their individual quirks and strengths, and soon fits dog to musher. Normally, kids go with a senior musher in charge, but many are soon demanding their 'own' team of two dogs. Huskies love looking at people, but if kids are put off by their stare, many kennels offer teams with Samoyeds: the fluffy white 'laughing' sled dogs.

Can I mush in this country too?

Believe it or not, there's a thriving dog sledding community in Britain, with many disabled mushers. The top event is the January Aviemore Dog Sled Rally, which has become Europe's largest event with over 200 teams competing. Every year, entries include disabled mushers like Fife resident Catherine Lewis, owner of 12 dogs. She races at events from September to March, driving 'a lightweight-racing rig specially adapted for me', pulled by either her 6-dog or 4-dog team.
A musher being pulled on a sled by huskies
Due to lack of snow, British mushers almost never use sleds, but run on Forestry Commission or similar tracks with wheeled rigs like those used in the chariot race in Ben Hur. Rigs are custom built so disabled people can adapt designs to their own spec - for instance, if they stand up they have a built in harness; if they sit they may have a sliding seat. Anyone who has built a go-cart will find the principle is the same: start with a pram or small bike wheels then build a chassis on top. Depending on how much you can scrounge, cost is £300 upwards.

What else do I need to know?


It's going to be cold, even though the sun may be shining. Wear:

  • waterproof trousers, preferably lined (NEVER jeans)
  • waterproof washable anorak (dogs slobber all over you)
  • Comfortable, flexible waterproof boots - not ski or Wellingtons.
  • Sweaters and tee-shirts
  • Waterproof Gloves, not ski mittens or gloves, which are too rigid to get your fingers around the harness. A pair of silk glove liners, costing around £8 in reputable ski-shops, is worth buying.


You must take out medical insurance if going abroad. The European Health Card doesn't' cover repatriation if you need helicopter or plane transport. My insurance company doesn't' charge extra for dog-sledding cover, but expects me to tell them before I go. Try Age Concern and Saga - both used to covering people with health problems.


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