Erik Petersen does what many people can only dream of doing — making a living for his whole career with his camera.

“It’s not lost on me how lucky I am,” said Petersen, 43, taking a break from pheasant hunting on the Hi-Line with his dog, Gus.

Petersen’s skills with a camera shine in his latest project, a short documentary, “The Ride.”

His images of a horse and cowgirl rider racing against white snow are stunningly beautiful. And the story he tells of national skijoring champion Ebbie Hansen is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

“Horses are our wings, they give us wings,” Hansen says in the film. “We can fly with them.”

“The Ride” has been selected as a finalist by the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Canada, one of the premiere festivals for outdoor adventure films. The 9-minute documentary will be shown for the first time on Saturday night, Nov. 3, at a sold-out Banff showing.

Only 87 finalists were chosen out of nearly 400 films submitted to this year’s festival, reported Jess Green and Brenda Williams of the film festival office.

“I was really excited,” Petersen said, when he heard that his video had been selected. “It was kind of my ultimate goal for this film project.”

“The Ride” tells the story of Hansen, who won the national skijoring competition two years in a row.

Skijoring is a timed event where a horse and rider race straight to the finish line using a rope to pull a skier through a slalom course. The sport mashes up the Old West and New West, attracting a mixed crowd of Western horse people and puffy-jacketed downhill skiers. One skijoring announcer called it “the most dangerous ride on snow.”

Petersen worked as a newspaper photographer for more than a decade, for the Livingston Enterprise and Bozeman Chronicle, before striking out as a freelancer a few years ago.

His portfolio shows his wide range of interests and talents — from shooting beautiful images of pheasant hunters and cross-country skiers, bison and antelope, the mountains and people of Montana and of Afghanistan, legendary author Jim Harrison and media-mogul-turned-buffalo-rancher Ted Turner.

His photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Esquire and National Geographic Traveler. He occasionally teaches visual journalism at the University of Montana.

Petersen said he started photographing skijoring competitions because it sounded like fun — offering the same kind of intense, fast action as rodeo. He’d written and photographed stories before for Western Horseman Magazine, so he headed to Wisdom to shoot a skijoring competition. There he met Hansen, who had already won one championship.

Petersen decided to shoot video because it’s such an action-packed sport. And in 2016 he’d had success when his first documentary, “The Hard Way,” the story of an 89-year-old ultra runner, was selected as a Banff Film Festival finalist.

“There’s a lot more moving parts with video” than with still photography, Petersen said. There’s not only more equipment, but also more to juggle mentally. He attended a workshop last year at Banff, where he learned that audio is equally important in telling the story.

Petersen followed skijoring competitions, which are held from Red Lodge to Whitefish, Colorado to Calgary, and sometimes in Bozeman. Hansen won a second championship and agreed to let him make a short film as she chased her third.

Hansen looks like she could have stepped out of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, with her blond hair flying from under her cowboy hat as her powerful horse, Zeek, races down the snow-packed course. She wore leather gloves she decorated with her own Indian feather designs and adorned Zeek with similar leather trappings. A yoga instructor, Hansen lives in a one-room cabin, where she makes her artistic “Zen Rodeo” designs to sell, and keeps the many belt buckles won in skijoring competitions.

Hansen gave her horse the credit for winning championships.

“When you’re a horse person and find that great horse,” she says in the film, “it changes your life.”

Yet Petersen found, after following Hansen for a season and a half, that his film ended up being a different story than he originally set out to tell. In a Calgary race, Zeek fell near the finish line and broke his front leg. The amazing champion had to be put down.

“The biggest challenge was not knowing if the story would be over,” Petersen said, “and the emotion of having to go through that with her, having lost one of her best friends, who helped her get through hard times in her life.”

Ultimately Hansen decided to return to the sport with a new horse, and that gave Petersen a comeback story.

She wiped tears from her eyes as she talked about returning after the tragedy. “We’re the kind of people who don’t want to sit home on a couch and watch TV,” she said. “It’s better to take some risks, step out of your comfort zone, and try to do something great.”

Making a documentary is a much bigger and more personal commitment than a quick photo shoot for newspapers, Petersen said.

“They’re much longer-term projects, that’s part of what I like,” he said.

“It’s not only how to tell the story, but to tell it beautifully. I feel there’s a greater responsibility, too. I feel like I’ve been given amazing access to this person’s life, and I need to do it justice.”

Petersen, a Minnesota native, lives in Clyde Park with his wife, Faith, and their two sons, Henry and Kasa, adopted from Ethiopia. Petersen said he hopes to bring the whole family to the Banff festival in a couple weeks.

“It’s such a cool experience,” he said, “to see your work on a big screen in front of hundreds of people.”

Petersen said he plans to release “The Ride” publicly later this winter.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.