The oldest competitive sport in the United States also is one of the wildest
Each horse seems poised to run a different race. They face different directions and turn with anticipation as riders tug on reins. One horse backpedals. Another one bucks. Their coats sparkle in the rain and under the stadium lights that fall on this chilly autumn night in Billings, Montana.
Then, the gunshot.
There’s a moment of chaos. Without a stall or a gate to hold them back, there is no obvious starting line. But as the whips crack, disorder disappears. Horses and riders become one as they explode down the track. Team colors—feathers, war paint, ribbons—blur. And they’re off.
If you could capture a lightning storm in a living vessel, it would be the race horse. En masse, they thunder and flash with such incredible power that you can feel it in your chest, even from the grandstands of MetraPark where these 2016 All Nations Indian Relay National Championships are taking place.
A downpour of mud from the storm of hooves is all that’s left as the horses and their riders disappear around the first bend.
And the exciting part hasn’t even happened yet.
Indian Relay pits teams of four—a jockey, two holders, and a mugger—and their three horses against one another in a high-speed, bareback race in which the rider switches horses at the conclusion of each lap.
As the horses make their way around the half-mile track, the rest of the team waits—their job is to remain calm and to keep the waiting horses calm, too. This will prove difficult, momentarily. Two of the team members pace in small circles with the second and third horses, while the mugger prepares to catch about 1,000 pounds of muscle.
Riders slow down, just barely, as they approach their team. In a maneuver that’s easy to miss, they leap to the ground and launch themselves onto the back of the next horse. The mugger attempts to calm the horse that just finished, but as other teams crash into the waiting area, horses inevitably scatter. Sometimes, a rider falls. In one heat, a horse took off without its rider.
It’s both surprising and not surprising that many people have never heard of Indian Relay. Billed as the oldest competitive sport in the country, it’s almost shocking that the thrill I felt coursing through my limbs at my first Indian Relay hasn’t spread like wildfire across the Great Plains to the rest of the country. Then again, Indian reservations in the United States are their own little worlds, full of culture and challenges of which the rest of the country is largely unaware.
The Professional Indian Horse Racing Association (PIHRA), which formed only in 2013, is trying to change that. The group is promoting Indian Relay as a way to offer economic opportunities and inspiration to live healthy lifestyles for young American Indians around the country.
Native Americans have been fostering relationships with their horses for more than 400 years, though Lakota people claim that the arrival of horses with the Spaniards was actually a “reintroduction” of the animals to indigenous peoples.
Horses allowed tribal members to run faster than the buffalo they hunted, travel great distances, and carry more supplies between camps. These tasks required the development of incredible skill and strength in riders.
Native Americans held deep respect for their powerful partners. And they still do. Today, horses embody resilience and fortitude, and riding is still a daily activity on many reservations. Relay rider Ashton Old Elk of Crow Nation recalls growing up with horses.
“I had a little Shetland that I rode almost every day,” he tells GOOD.
Despite so many forces and hardships that have chipped away at the Native American way of life, horses remain symbols of ancient tradition. Indian Relay, in particular, is a striking showcase of horsemanship—once a crucial part of survival and today a deeply revered skill.
Old Elk has been attending races his whole life and competing since he was 13. “It keeps me out of trouble.”
Developing trust between riders and horses is a big part of this sport. Old Elk starts training his horses in March and spends nearly every day with them. The transition between laps requires intimate connection and trust, and they work on that year round.
“When I get off one horse and prepare to jump on the next, they’re not scared,” Old Elk says. “They know me.”
Indian Relay has been gaining momentum in recent years, in large part thanks to PIHRA.
Gary Fellers, executive director of PIHRA, sees great potential in the future of the sport. Fellers has been watching Indian Relay at rodeos for the past 25 years and has always been fascinated by the athleticism and culture on which Indian Relay was built.
“I saw an opportunity to do something bigger—to create a circuit and some economic opportunity for Indian Relay teams and their families,” Fellers says. More and more teams have gotten involved since PIHRA formed and professionalism has increased as the organization strives to implement increased regulations for the protection of both horses and riders.
The top 30 teams from a series of qualifying events competed in the championship in late September, with Awasapsii Express—and rider Chris Carlson—of Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana winning the event and a $10,150 payout.
The sport is dominated by men at this time, but one heat at the 2016 National Championships provided a glimpse into a shifting future. The Pony Kids Indian Relay is a crowd favorite, made up of riders under 10 years of age. Team Sage Women, the only all-female team, came out smiling broadly to a roar of applause and support.
The team rider for Sage Women, Chandra Whiteman, ran into the type of unexpected challenge that is characteristic of the sport. Her pony scurried away from her at the start line and she struggled to mount. The rest of the teams were already on the return trip as she fought to gain control. Her smile faded as a look of hardened determination overtook her young face.
Photo by Britany Robinson
As other teams finished, Chandra eventually mounted her pony. Once she was up, skill and practice overcame the apprehension that had plagued her initial mount. She kicked her horse with confidence and completed all three laps while the crowds and fellow teams cheered her on.
“These kids are our future folks,” said the announcer as Chandra finished her final lap. “I like the idea of a future full of these riders.”