It is 6am and the temperature is -15C. A new blanket of snow covered the area overnight and the frozen fresh air tingles my nose. The reindeers are running around impatiently in their fenced area. “Reindeers are a very suspicious semi-wild animal,” says Antti Pätsi, a young herder and reindeer jockey from Posio in Finland.
Reindeer herding is not a popular career among youngsters. Most of the herders’ children are moving to the bigger cities for work or higher education, but Antti, the son of Jouni Pätsi, a retired herder and reindeer race trainer, decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.
I tried a few other jobs in the travel industry in other towns but a strong bond with nature in my heart drove me back to follow my father’s career – Antti Pätsi
At the age of 12, Antti started practising as a jockey in reindeer racing. When he was 15, he took part in his first official reindeer race. He has won many trophies but has never won the King Reindeer championship. I ask what it would mean to him to win. He pauses, “that would be like a dream come true”.
It takes a lot of time to train a reindeer, starting when the animal is three years old. The trainer puts a leash on them and starts to walk them. This allows them to get familiar with people. After a year, the trainer gets them to increase their pace by driving a snowmobile behind them.
Reindeer, which are mostly bred in Lapland for their meat, are released into the forests to forage during the spring and summer. The racing reindeers usually go with the others. In the autumn it is hoped that the they will have survived and return home for training.
Each year more than 100,000 tourists head to Lapland with many visiting a reindeer farm and going on a reindeer safari.
The Inari King reindeer race, arranged by the Finnish Reindeer Herders’ Association, makes the village come alive during the last weekend of March. IThe racing environment, the uniqueness of the event, and its traditions draws both international tourists and spectators from the north.
Beside the racecourse, locals gather at stalls selling handmade local crafts, coffee and reindeer meat stew.
The championship weekend is a good excuse for the herders to meet up after the long winter. Most are native Sámi people and it is important for them to keep their culture and traditions alive. Aside from the racing, there are other events on over the weekend such as lasso-throwing contests.
More than 100 jockeys and trainers arrive to the competition site, just outside the village of Inari. The racetrack is on the frozen, snow-covered surface of Lake Inari and, depending on the race, is either 1km or 2km.
Twenty-four of the season’s best reindeers compete in the King race championship. On the first day, they race on a 1km track in groups of four. On the second day, they race on a 2km track, one by one, against the clock.
The jockeys wear a downhill ski race suit on cross-country skis (for men) or downhill skis (for women) behind one reindeer. They use a harness trailing a rope which the jockey holds on to … and tries not to fall.
All jockeys must weigh over 60kg to compete and they are weighed before each race.
Only the wildest and fastest reindeer are chosen for racing and they can reach speeds of up to 60km/h (37mph).