A First-Hand History of Colorado Pack Burro Races

Colorado is a unique place, home to many strange and interesting phenomena. One activity that embodies Colorado perfectly is the esoteric — and extremely fun — sport of pack burro racing, where contestants race to lead donkeys (burros), loaded with mining gear, through the mountains.

Burro racing is fascinating to me. It’s derived from Colorado’s history of early miners leading burros through the mountains to prospect for gold and other types of ore. Back then, of course, the donkeys were loaded with mining supplies so they couldn’t actually be ridden.

The racing aspect began one day when, according to legend, two miners found gold in the same location and raced each other to the spot. It developed into a full-blown sport, and today burro races are held across Colorado to commemorate these early miners. It has become a big deal over the years and even was named the official summer heritage sport of Colorado in 2012.

As a Coloradoan, I consider burro racing as a perfect mix of all things Colorado. It connects our stunning outdoors with our historical roots, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. When I saw the finish of a burro race in Buena Vista a few years ago, the experience stuck with me. I’ve always loved the culture of mountain towns, and I knew about these races from my dad, who told me about some family friends who had raced in the 1970s or 1980s.

Watching the racers lead their donkeys by a rope across the finish I was struck by the thought “Why don’t I do this?” After all, I grew up on a farm with cattle everywhere. I figured if I could walk around with a cow, I could run with a donkey.

I had my first real taste of the sport this past May, at the 19th Annual Idaho Springs Mining Days Festival and Pack Burro Race.

What Is Pack Burro Racing?

Pack burro racing is a simple concept but an undeniably fun one. Participants lead their donkeys by rope to the finish line.

It is, however, competitive. The burro racing season runs from late May through September as 9 races take place in mountain towns across Colorado. Each event is part of a festival celebrating the town’s history. Keep in mind for your big burro debut that each festival has different lengths of races, from 5 miles all the way up to 29 miles. 

The real serious runners have ‘go-to’ donkeys they run with. However, you don’t need your own donkey to take part, it’s possible to rent one. Being donkey-less, that is exactly what I did. CC Burro Racing provides trained donkeys for a fee and also helps with prep on race day to make sure you have a great experience. CC Burro Racing paired me with a handsome fellow named Pablo. 

The Rules of Pack Burro Racing

The rules of the race are outlined here by the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation (get it?). They’re pretty simple: the outlined race must be followed with no shortcuts, you must not ride your donkey, and your donkey must have a packsaddle with prospector’s paraphernalia including a pick, shovel, and gold pan.

You’ll also need a rope or leather harness to lead your donkey, and this must not be longer than 15 feet. The rules are donkey-friendly, too — any contestant found to be whipping, prodding, or otherwise abusing their trusty companion will be disqualified. Pablo approved of this bit.

The winner is decided by the first burro’s nose that crosses the finish line. This is the case regardless of whether their human is in front of them or behind.

How To Start Pack Burro Racing

By this point, you’re desperately curious about how to take part in your own burro race…right?

Even though I had heard stories from my dad, I never realized burro racing was a fully organized sport until I read the book “Running with Sherman” by Christopher McDougall. It was an incredible story that moved me to run one of the races myself. If you need additional inspiration to run a burro race outside of my thesis statement of “burro racing is awesome”, I’d really recommend reading the book cover to cover as I did. 

Even though it’s fun, there is still some preparation required to ensure safety and a good time. Since the races are in the mountains, the courses are challenging, even the shorter ones. To get ready, I made sure I could run well beyond the distance of the race I chose. It is also important to keep in mind the altitude, even for you Denverites. For example, Leadville, a traditional spot for racing, is almost twice as many feet above sea level as Denver. So be ready for some huffing and puffing of that thin mountain air!

But this race isn’t all about personal fitness. Remember you’re working together with an animal that inspired the phrase “a stubborn ass”. Luckily, I had some previous experience with large animals. So I recalled a few lessons about leading an animal on a halter from when I was growing up on a farm. I wanted Pablo and I to be as simpatico as possible. But for others, it is highly recommended that you get comfortable leading animals that are stronger than you are. Other than that, you’ll just need some trail running shoes.

For anyone interested, I would suggest going to watch a race, but be sure to arrive early and ask some questions. Everyone I interacted with was very friendly and loved to answer my questions, help me out, and encourage me to get running. The people who have done races love their sport and their animals, so they’re always keen to talk about it. 

Then, I suggest simply signing up and going for it—just don’t steal Pablo the donkey away from me before I can partner up with him for my next race. Sure, it may sound a little kooky, but burro racing is the experience of a lifetime and a true piece of Colorado culture. I can’t wait to do it again. See you out there.

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