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What is Mushing?

Niki Acker
Updated May 17, 2024
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Mushing is the practice of harnessing dogs to a sled for the purpose of recreation or transport. It may also be practiced as a competitive sport. The term mushing comes from the call used to goad the dogs - "Mush!" It is thought to derive from the French marche, meaning "go" or "run," but "Hut!" is a more commonly heard call in the sport of mushing today.

Naturally, mushing is only practiced in areas with significant snowfall, although a form of dryland mushing, called carting, also exists. Mushing is most popular in North America and Europe, and it is the state sport of Alaska. Mushing as a sport is associated with a few organizing bodies, such as the International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS). Supporters hope to gain mushing a place in the Winter Olympics. Many people also practice mushing simply for fun and exercise, rather than competitively.

Dogs are no longer commonly used for transport, but some prefer them to more modern solutions, like snowmobiles. Those who use mushing as a practical form of transportation in the snow are more comfortable with dogs than with a machine and find the dogs more reliable. They can also provide companionship on a long, lonely trip through the snow.

Mushing may make use of different harnessing configurations. Most races use dogs harnessed in pairs, like horses pulling a carriage or Santa's reindeer. Alternatively, they may be harnessed in a single line.

In Greenland, the dogs are each given their own lead and pull the sled in a fan formation. This type of harness allows the dogs more room to maneuver, but it is not practical in areas with trees. If the terrain is rough or covered with sharp ice, or if the trip will be long, the dogs are provided with booties to protect their feet.

The dogs on a mushing team are divided into groups depending on their function in the team and their location, much like athletes in a team sport. Lead dogs are at the front of the harness. They are responsible for finding the trail and setting the pace for the rest of the team. There may be one or two lead dogs in a team. Rarely, the lead dog may be unharnessed.

Swing dogs, next down the line, are responsible for leading the dogs behind them around turns. Team dogs are next. They follow the other dogs and serve to add power to the team. This position is optional. Finally, wheel dogs are closest to the sled. Dogs in this position must be powerful and able to tolerate the sled right behind them.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is mushing?

Mushing is a sport or transport method powered by dogs, typically in snowy conditions. It involves a team of dogs pulling a sled steered by a musher. Originating with indigenous Arctic cultures, mushing has evolved into various forms, including recreational and competitive activities like dog sled racing, which is popular in regions like Alaska and Canada.

How many dogs are typically on a mushing team?

The number of dogs on a mushing team can vary widely, from 4 to 16, depending on the type of race or activity. For instance, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, one of the most famous long-distance races, allows teams of 12 to 16 dogs. Smaller teams may be used for sprint races or recreational mushing.

What breeds of dogs are commonly used for mushing?

Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies are traditional mushing breeds due to their strength and endurance in cold climates. However, the Alaskan Husky, a mixed-breed dog optimized for performance, is the most common choice for competitive mushing. These dogs are prized for their speed, stamina, and ability to work in teams.

Is mushing safe for the dogs involved?

When conducted responsibly, mushing is safe and can be enriching for the dogs. Mushing dogs are typically well-cared-for athletes with rigorous training, health checks, and diets. Organizations like the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association ensure guidelines and best practices are followed to promote the welfare of the dogs.

Can mushing be done in areas without snow?

Yes, mushing can be adapted to snowless environments through "dryland mushing," where dogs pull wheeled rigs, carts, or scooters. This allows for year-round training and participation in the sport. Dryland mushing events have gained popularity and are recognized by organizations such as the International Federation of Sleddog Sports.

What are some major mushing events or races?

Major mushing events include the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, which covers over 1,000 miles, and the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile race between Alaska and Yukon. The International Federation of Sleddog Sports also sanctions world championship events for both on-snow and dryland mushing disciplines.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker , Writer
"In addition to her role as a WiseGEEK editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

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Niki Acker

Niki Acker


"In addition to her role as a WiseGEEK editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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