The Reindeer Trainer in Santa’s Village

You know Alpi and Aituri and Jukka and Jussi, Kaapo and Laukko and Taisto and Juntti. But do you recall, the most famous reindeer of all…

OK, those aren’t the reindeer in the song you grew up with. But in Rovaniemi, Finland, an almost magical city in the Arctic Circle known as “the official hometown of Santa Claus,” those are the reindeer you’ll find.

Janne Körkkö and his family own a farm where they train dozens of reindeer each year to pull sleighs full of giddy tourists in Santa Claus Village during their high season, which lasts from November through February. (Even the summer is mostly preparation for winter.) Working with the fur-covered, 400-pound creatures been his family’s livelihood for generations. “Santa Claus trusts us quite a lot,” Körkkö says. He’s not kidding.

Janne Körkkö leading the way. A 1000-meter ride (about 0.6 miles) costs $24 for kids and $30 for adults.

Age: 26
Based in: Helsinki/Rovaniemi, Finland
Area of study: I studied carpentry, and immediately after started working on my family’s farm. I’m also currently studying to be a pilot.

Previous jobs: I’ve always worked at my family’s farm in Santa’s Village.

How long has your family been training reindeer? For sleigh rides, since 2008. But the tradition of training reindeer goes back in my family through many generations.

Your daily routine: I do mostly the same tasks as my father — it’s a lot of maintenance. I look after the reindeer, gather food for them, train them. I also plan new programs for tourists in Santa’s Village. As the leader, my father Ari is responsible for the biggest decisions and investments; my mother Irja is responsible for our restaurant, Kotahovi, and the housekeeping at our farm.

How young are the reindeer when you begin training them? About 6 to 12 months old. We feed them lichen and other delicacies and create friendships with them so they grow to trust us.

The next step is to train them to walk next to people and, when they’re ready, to wear harnesses and connect them to sleighs. When they’re 2 to 3 years old, we walk longer and longer distances alongside the reindeer as they pull the empty sleigh. At age 4, they are fully grown and ready to work full days pulling the sleigh. During this period, they live mostly on the farm, but enjoy summer holidays in the pine forest. Every year, we get five to 10 new reindeer “students,” but some of them are not suitable for this work and we let them back into the wilderness. [Ed. note: Reindeer can grow to be 15 to 18 years old.]

The coats of reindeer are one of the warmest of any animal in the world. Only polar bears have warmer coats.

Do you find these new “students” yourselves? Yes. A few times per year, we gather a lot of reindeer from the forests surrounding our farm. Most of them, the ones not suitable for this kind of work, we lead back to the forest; we’re trying to find the most peaceful ones to train. That’s a hard quality to spot right away. They have to be really calm and friendly. If they’re scared and shy, or angry, we lead them back to the wilderness. They’re going to be surrounded by people in this job, but most reindeer don’t like be touched — they’re not like dogs. If they get too angry, they might hurt people.

How many do you end up keeping? Right now, we have around 30 for sleigh rides, with 10 more in training. Every year, two or three die because of illness, though we do give them medicinal help to try to save them.

How to calm down an angry reindeer: They mostly get angry when we put on a harness for the first time, or attach the sled. They’re trying to kick the trainer or hit us with their antlers. So we have to hold on really tight until he calms down. Treats, like lichen, are the best way to get them to cooperate.

Santa Claus Village sounds like a fantasy land. It’s a happy, cozy village near Rovaniemi in the Arctic Circle, surrounded by forests.

Santa, a total attention hog.

How many reindeer rides do you give per day during Christmas season? Oh, it’s so hard to count. Probably hundreds, and they last about 15 minutes each. There is always one of our staff guiding the reindeer, and no matter what, when the reindeer takes his first five steps, the person in the sleigh always looks so surprised and happy.

We alternate the reindeer throughout the day so they don’t get too tired. We check their legs, eyes, and ears a few times a day, and make sure they eat plenty of grass and dry leaves and drink enough water. Since they’re wild animals, though, they’re not that difficult to take care of; they don’t require much to be happy.

When was the first time you rode a reindeer? When I was 18, and [the reindeer’s] name was Ukko. Though he’s not alive anymore, he was one of the best reindeer we’ve had. I was so surprised how strong such a small animal could be. He was very difficult to train, though, because he was so willful and strong-minded. During his first sleigh ride, was running around really quickly, but after 10 rounds or so, he slowed to a walk. I think he realized it’s better to take it easy and stay calm.

How you keep busy in the summer: We’re preparing for the winter, doing maintenance tasks like fixing fences. We also use that time to develop programs and relax a bit. The reindeer relax in the forest, though some are still working in Santa’s Village, where people can visit and feed them and take photos.

What would people be most surprised to learn about your job? How I can be outside every day despite the weather conditions. [Ed. note: The average temperature in Rovaniemi during January is about -147ºC / 7ºF.]

And the most surprising thing about reindeer? Their antlers grow every year. They can even grow 2 to 3 cm (0.8 to 1.1 inches) in a single day!

Körkkö’s mom, dad and sisters, Niina and Marika, in front of their restaurant, Kotahovi.

Best part of your job: Seeing happy people and living near nature.

Most challenging part of your job: Long days during the high season when there’s not a chance to relax much. It’s the most stressful period of the year.

Do you at least get to relax on Christmas Day? The last eight years have been so busy, there’s not too much time to celebrate Christmas traditionally. But there’s at least one night during the season when we all relax together, talk and eat. This year, I’m working on Christmas to give my parents the day off.

Since you’re studying to be a pilot, does that mean you’re not planning to take over the family reindeer business at some point? I’m pretty sure that when I’m older, I will continue to live and work in reindeer husbandry, or at least something involving nature and tourism.

For more holiday No Joe Schmos, meet the greeting card writer and the mall Santa who wears Birkenstocks

You can learn more about the reindeer sleigh rides in Santa Claus Village here. Photos courtesy of VisitRovaniemi and Janne Körkkö.

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