Hauling Ass: My first pack burro race

Editor’s Note: This week, we hear from Katrin Silva, an accomplished horsewoman as well as an impressive endurance runner. She writes about the burro races at the Leadville Boom Days celebration in the mountains of Colorado.

Colorado’s State Sport? Pack burro racing, of course!

By Katrin Silva

Pack Burro Racing is, in fact, a sanctioned sport. It involves running with an ass in tow on mountain trails, for distances between 10 and 30 miles. The rules are specific: burros (not mules, not ponies – asses only) must wear a pack saddle with 33 pounds of mining gear, including a pick, shovel, and gold pan.

Runner and burro must work as a team and cross the finish line together. Runners may push, pull, drag, or carry their ass, but they may not ride it.

Katy, a fellow ultra runner I’d met from Sydney, Australia, found this niche phenomenon particularly fascinating. She had heard that burro racing is not a strictly BYOB sport. It might be possible to rent a burro, she said.

Who wouldn’t be tempted by Bella and her cute keeper?

I was curious, too. I’m a cowgirl at heart and I train horses for a living, but had never worked with a donkey.

Intrigued though I was, I had planned to leave by noon at the latest. I would, of course, resist any temptation to run a burro race all day, then drive back to New Mexico really late. No way, I kept telling myself as Katy and I walked to the pack saddle weigh-in. I’d just to check things out. Really.

Downtown Leadville was teeming with burros of all colors and sizes, tied to horse trailers, to trees, and to lampposts. The ratio of cowboy hats to sun visors and cowboy boots to running shoes was 50/50.

The humans were busy with brushes, hoof picks, ropes, and packs. Donkeys were braying, pawing, and circling.

Two silver grey burros caught my eye. They stood like islands in a storm, while a grey-haired man and a young boy fed them hay and brushed their sleek coats.

I complimented the man on the excellent condition of his animals, and their calm demeanor. I patted the donkeys, a nine-year old brother-sister pair named Silver Jack and Bella. They were clearly the pride and joy of their owner, Maple. “Like a tree,” he said.

Maple couldn’t run today because of an injury, but his friend Nathalie was going to race Silver Jack. I mentioned my background with horses and expressed my interest in burro racing. Maple looked at me thoughtfully.

“No one is running with Bella today. Would you like to?”

He didn’t know, couldn’t know, that he had just offered the equivalent of a whiskey shot to a horse-a-holic. I bit back the enthusiastic “Yes!” that wanted to escape my lips. What was I thinking? The race didn’t start until 11 a.m. and would easily go on until late afternoon, depending on the burro’s mood.

I am a responsible woman. I wanted to get home in time to have dinner with my husband and to get ready for work the next morning.

Katrin and company

“I would love to, but I can’t. I have to be at work in the morning.”

Maple and his grandson looked disappointed.

“Well, we’re going to find some breakfast. You think about it,” said Maple.

Tied to a fence post, Bella munched on some grass. I stroked her exquisite ears. I scratched her neck. She nudged me, which I took to mean “Come on, run with me!”

I walked down the block to the cardboard table that served as burro race headquarters. Katy had found a burro and was signing up for the 15-mile women’s race. Her excitement was contagious. Before I knew it, there was a pen in my hand and a registration form in front of me. Forty dollars and a signature later, Bella and I were signed up as team Number 19.

Maple looked pleased and not surprised. He introduced me to Nathalie, and we proceeded to saddle our race partners. Silver Jack and Bella are inseparable, so our strategy was to keep the four of us together and move at a steady pace.

Maple expertly tied our numbers and all our gear securely to the saddle, then it was time to line up for the start.

Part II coming next week: Stop, Go, Gallop!