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What is Mushing?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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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.

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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.

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