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Meet Stuart Osthoff
One of the top sprint mushers in North America.

Name:
Kennel:
Birthplace:
Home Town:
Occupation:
Stuart Osthoff
Trails End Kennel
Raised in Madison, Wisconsin
Lives in Ely, Minnesota
Magazine publisher, The Boundary Waters Journal

Introduction

I married into sled dogs. Wife Michele started racing when 12, and soon became a top 3 dog and 5 dog class driver. When we had our first child in 1986, I assumed the bulk of kennel chores and running 1st strings. I have raced 4 and 6 since 1986, 10 dog class since 1995. Michele still races our 2nd string 4 and 6 dog teams. We have 3 children: Andrew 13, Alec 8 and Taryn 1.

We are very strong supporters of ISDRA and their medals program. Local, regional and state clubs/competitions are fine for those who approach the sport as a hobby or purely for recreation. Our goal is always to race against the very best competition, which means we must travel far and wide. I have not run a race in Minnesota for nearly 5 years. It used to be the biggest ISDRA races were close to home. Not any more.

I grew up enjoying and appreciating the tremendous desire and ability of bird hunting dogs. I still have a German shorthaired pointer and 2 English pointers, which I hunt on grouse/pheasants as much as I dare without sacrificing the performance of our racing teams.

I'm a very competitive person. I love anything that challenges me physically, mentally and emotionally. I've never experienced anything that does all 3 quite like sprint racing. There are so many variables to contend with, it's a fascinating challenge to consistently do well. The minute you relax figuring you're on top of things, it all starts to unravel, then you find out how good you really are.

I'm not an animal lover like my wife, but I do appreciate these amazing canine athletes, and I love to compete, so sprint racing was a natural fit for me.

Background

I'm a sprint racer, limited classes, 4, 6, and 10. I have no interest in mid-distance or long-distance racing. I'm into speed running on the very edge of reckless abandon where there is absolutely no margin for error to consistently win.

The dogs we cut, I give to guys running trips/tours in the BWCAW. I enjoy these trips into the wilderness by dog team, but it's not racing. I'm also not interested in running open class sprint because I would have to breed a whole different line of dogs, and I can only train 10 miles. Since I can't compete with the Alaskans, I won't even try.

My first time on the sled Michele said, "Whatever you do, don't let go, you'll lose the team." Well I fell a zillion times, broke my wrist but I hung on. I should have quit right there. But my competitive nature wouldn't allow it. Fear of failure is still a powerful motivator in my approach to the sport. Oh Yeah, I still can't believe Michele never told me to keep the slack out of the line on the corners.

Mentors

When I'm at a race, I carefully observe the top competitors. When I was starting in 10 dog, I helped others to the start line, studying how they did things. I'm still amazed to see mushers making the same mistakes they did 10 years ago, and finishing just as far off the pace. If I were starting out, I would help winning teams to the start line. Yet so many don't. Don't they want to be competitive? If not, why race?

My wife, Michele, has helped me more than anyone in this sport. She has the patience to develop our young talent in the 2nd string. Also, when key dogs get sick or hurt, she keeps my head in the game, doesn't let me feel sorry for myself. We talk a lot about what we should do to make a specific dog better--overcome some flaw.

Kennel Management

We will train 35 dogs this year; we have 4 retirees and 0 puppies. All are broke, but a dozen have not raced yet. By December we'll probably have cut 4 or 5. I don't like to put more than 32 on the truck.

All our dogs are on 12-15 foot chains anchored by a car axle. This 25-30 foot diameter circle gives the dog lots of room to run around and helps keep things cleaner. Each has a large house built of treated 4 x 4s for corners with inch treated plywood flat roofs, inch plywood walls and 2 x 6 entryways. Interior space is 24 high x 32 wide x 36 long. They can get under the house to keep cool in summer, and they are roomy for lots of straw in the winter. I replenish/replace straw in the houses every 1-2 weeks all winter. (I completely replace straw in the truck after every race.) Don't fall for the myth that you can make a doghouse out of a single sheet of 1/2-inch plywood. This is an embarrassment to those of us who insist on providing our dogs with the best. What I think of barrels as doghouses is not printable.

Every dog can reach 2 or 3 other same sex dogs without tangling chains. Usually littermates stay together, play together and run together for life. They know everything about the dogs next to them.

When I let puppies run loose or let my bird dogs out of their kennels, those 15-foot chains let my sled dogs get a good work out. I don't need an exercise wheel. Suffice to say I believe a 6-foot chain is very bad for your dogs and the sport as a whole.

I use the best chain available, yet with all our ledge rock, I have to completely replace 500 feet of chain every fall before we start running. So much of a long chain drags on the ground it wears out faster than when suspended from the dog's neck.

We have a 4-foot-high chain link fence completely surrounding all the dogs in case any do get loose; they are contained until we get home. This fence has also been an effective deterrent to the local timber wolves.

On the collar I use a Swedish snap. They are twice the cost of bronze and 10 times as reliable and long lasting. I only wish I had found them years ago. Be sure to give every dog a new collar each season. They look better and the dog feels better.

We feed Tuffys Hi Density 30/20 dog food with ground whole chicken and beef. I mentally ration each dog as I go. I carry 3 buckets from dog to dog: water (warm in winter), dry Tuffys and meat (50-50 chicken, beef). At each dish, I scoop water, dry food 2-4 cups and use a tongs to handle the meat. Then I squirt some wheat germ oil on and go on to the next dog. I can feed in less than 20 minutes, with 0 time to prepare or soak the food. This is the first year I have fed meat year around. I also water each morning with meat baited water. I walk through the yard and flip each a milk bone once or twice a week just to remind them of what a great guy I am. Seriously, if I were a sled dog, I would want to live at Trails End Kennel. I never forget this.

The first thing I do every single day after breakfast is clean up the dog yard, water, bug dope, check straw needs and whatever miscellaneous repairs need doing. I never put this off. Inevitably the day will close in on you with interruptions. My family and employees know I'm not to be bothered while doing my dog chores. I approach it in a business like fashion and the dogs appreciate the consistency. They know they can count on me to keep them comfortable. I completely mow and weed whip between and around all the dogs every week. I am very proud of how clean and well kept our kennel is. If I didn't have the time to do it right, I would find something else I could do right. My kennel management philosophy can be summed up as "uncompromising care of the best canine athletes on earth, because they deserve the very best."

All our dogs are Alaskan huskies, primarily the Attla line of Lingo. In the past 15 years we have bought zero 4-dog class dogs, one 6-dog class dog and eight 10-dog class dogs of which only 4 made the team. We like to breed, raise and train our own.

In males 4 & 6 dog, I want 55-60 lbs., long bodies, plenty of leg and big chest. Gait is not a big deal here. I've won a lot of races with dogs whose gaits were pretty rough. Attitude is huge in 4 & 6 dog classes. Your #1 concern is nurturing a hold nothing back, attack the trail, attitude here.

We don't run females in 4 & 6. Males are better.

I like smooth, straight gaits for 10 dog males, 50 lbs.; females the bigger the better. I won't run little dogs. I just won't. They can look like a million but they don't contribute anything. I run the biggest, fastest, toughest dogs that can make the given distance. If that doesn't win for me, so be it.

Intelligence is huge for leaders. We've had some really smart leaders, watching them make seemingly impossible passes is one of the highlights of my mushing career. Some dogs are bold/shy, some smart/dumb, some aggressive/passive, you must understand each dog's individual tendencies and needs. But I only take that so far. Above all else, we are a team, and nobody gets to put their own personal priorities ahead of what's best for the team.

Some of my favorite dogs are not leaders. My all time favorite is Willie, a 65 lb. black/blue-eyed demon who ran absolutely perfect the first time he wore a harness. He was a 4-dog wheeler. Period. And to my mind, the best ever. He won every major 4-dog race including Minden, 3 straight, and over $25,000 in the 4-dog class! He gave 100% every run, training or racing. He was so totally possessed to run fast, any dog screwing around, we put next to him. Willie showed him in no time how the game is played. People were wary about helping this team to the line, because Willie barked and foamed like a rabid monster. Yet, he is as gentle and friendly as they come, until you put a harness on him. Then he was a different animal. Perhaps the very best at what he did. For 5 miles he was unbeatable till 11 years old. He's still hanging out, barking to go every time we load. Willie set the standard for desire in harness. So I know what a dog can do, I just haven't found another one that can do it every time at Willie's level.

Pups

We breed for specific classes: 4, 6, and 10. Generally it works. We like to always have at least 1 parent be a good leader. We keep all pups until harness broke. At 8 months if they lack drive and have marginal gait, we give them away as pets or to tripping outfitters. If they lack drive but have smooth gait, I'll invest in them till 1 . You can teach them to pull. You can't teach speed, smooth gait.

Yearlings don't ever make the 1st string in any class. The stars are exactly the ones I don't want to stress as yearlings on the first unit. They stay on 2nd string: learn, pay their dues and their 2nd year are ready to go for it.

Training

We train faster, less often than most of our competition. Always train out and back, no stopping, same road, 4 wheeler or sled. Mostly downhill going out, mostly uphill coming back.

Our 4 & 6 dog teams have 25 runs, 100 miles, going into the 1st race in early January. The 10-dog team has 25 runs, 175 miles. I generally run 4, 6, 10 miles in training on the sled.

Everything I do is focused on finding out what a dog (and dog team) is capable of, then expecting him to deliver. No more, no less.

If a dog can only drive hard for 8 miles, he goes in the 6 dog. He's not a 10-dog dog. Everything I do is based on no slack in the tugline. If there is, and the dog isn't hurt or sick, then I get rid of the slack or I get rid of the dog.

My most indispensable training equipment is my tone of voice. You and the dogs can have fun without tolerating less than their best. Once they understand this you're going to be a good team.

Racing

We race the races that have the largest ISDRA sanctioned purses, wherever they may be. This creates a lot of travel and logistical work. The new proposed points/medals system may make it harder to predict which race to go to, but I think in a year or two we'll know where to go for the most points. I see it as another new challenge because those who can't travel as much as we do see it as an advantage to them.

Most mushers can perform task A, B or C well, independently. I think my success comes from being able to put it all together, simultaneously manage a multitude of variables and still keep the dog teams sharp. Being able to bounce back quickly after a humbling race is something I've learned too. Everyone has the will to win. Only those with a willingness to prepare to win are consistently successful. I'm not afraid to do what it takes to be in a position to win. I know I can't always win, but I want to always be capable of winning.

My biggest weakness is I hate dealing with medical problems with the dogs. I hate myself when I'm hurt or sick. I wasn't cut out to be in the health care profession. I dump all medical care of the dogs on Michele. I just say, let me know when this dog is ready to run again.

My career goal is to continue to be a top contender in the 4, 6 and 10 dog classes. Our kennel has won 26 ISDRA medals. Second only to the Belands' 35. I would like to have the most when we hang up the harnesses but it isn't what drives me. I may not have the best dogs around, but my goal is simply to get the most out of the dogs I do have. If they give you their best, you can't ask for anything more.

The Future

I'm content with the sport as it is now. Sure it would be nice to have bigger purses and more notoriety, but you know, this would mean nothing to the dogs. All they care about is having safe, hard-packed, fast trails to run on. We can have safe, fast trails without a lot of money.

I will save my opinions on the organizational needs of the sport for another time and place, but I will say this. The very biggest, most established horse shows and field trials have almost no fan support or prize money. And folks play these with much higher incomes than most mushers. And, yet, they still have created a competitive sport that 9 times out of 10 sees the best animals win.

Don't sell out what is inherently good about our sport in an effort to attract sponsors, fans and dollars. I would rather race under seeded single-start formats for no money with no fans, than some contrived circus triple-start fiasco that fails to allow the best team to win.

Remember the oval track race? It was designed completely for spectator and sponsor appeal. I made the finals in 10 dog 5 straight times, winning twice. My dogs adjusted as well as any to this spectator friendly format. Despite doing everything for the fans, the race died and we are back where we were. Let's learn from this experience. Single starts, 2-minute intervals, seeding, wide hard-packed safe trails--these are what are best for the dogs and the sport. We have a good thing. Let's work to make it so the best teams win. I want no part of anything else.

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