horsemanship, and hard knocks collide in the thrilling sport of
Indian Relay Racing.
grandstands at Sheridan's WYO rodeo fill early, long before regular
rodeo events begin, welcoming a crowd that's gathered to watch one
of the wildest, most colorful events in all of equine sports. A
long-standing favorite at powwows and Indian rodeos, the sport of
Indian relay racing is a crowd-pleasing spectacle that involves
expert horsemanship, teamwork, pageantry, and the potential for
disaster at every turn. The excitement in the stands is contagious
as race time nears, and even newcomers to the sport quickly find
themselves caught up in the moment.
teams dressed in Native regalia, each leading three horses, parade
past the grandstand. John Mark Skunkcap from Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock
Reservation, one of the jockeys, is dressed in beaded buckskin moccasins
and a buckskin breechcloth, with his forehead painted red and a
porcupine roach atop his head. Each horse is adorned with hands
prints, circles, or lightning bolts painted on its legs and bodies
in the bright colors of its team.
first horses in the relay are led to a starting line marked across
the track. They're without saddles and their jockeys stand
alongside waiting for a signal to start. Team members hold the second
and third horses for each relay team along the rail. At the signal
each jockey leaps aboard his horse and races off past teepees that
line the track. A plume of dust rises in their wake. The excitement
ramps up a notch as contestants complete the first lap, cross to
the rail, leap to the ground, and attempt a quick leap aboard their
second horse. The second and third horses are no longer standing
quietly, but jumping and rearing from the excitement and noise around
them. Add to this the unsuccessful transfersriders sprawled
face down in the dirt of the track or clinging to the side of a
horse in a struggle to stay aboardand it's easy to see
why Indian relay racing is helping to fill the stands at local rodeos
across the West.
action continues as the second lap is completed and riders vault
aboard their third horse. In the stands, the crowd roars as riders
bear down for the bell lap. It's a good bet that one or two
horses are running riderless at this point, racing along with those
carrying jockeys. The field plunges on to the finish, where one
triumphant team takes the prize.
and Native American culture have long intertwined. Indian cowboys
not only compete in Indian rodeos other racing events, but also
contend on the larger stage of the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association
and other rodeo circuits. Horse racing is common at many Indian
rodeos and powwows, mostly held during the summer months, but is
staged at only a few rodeos of prominence, such as Sheridan's WYO
event and the Pendleton Roundup. In decades past, many rodeos included
Indian relay races. More might soon bring them back as promoters
take note of rising fan interest. Where relay races are run, they
are a crowd favorite.
been a tremendous reception to Indian relay racing," says Cynde
Georgen, Superintendent of the Trail's End State Historic Site
in Sheridan. "Back in the 1920s they had the Indian relay races
here and everybody would flock to town for the races. Since they
started having them again at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo, it has really
revitalized the rodeo."
spectator in Sheridan observed that Indian relay races have boosted
local rodeo attendance, having become "the biggest draw for
the rodeo." And what's more American than cowboys and
rules of Indian relay racing, generally simple, can vary somewhat
from event to event. Teams are composed of four people and three
horses. Team members are usually all from the same reservation,
and often are members of the same family. Any breed of horse may
be entered into the race, but thoroughbreds are the most common
breed. Many are retired racehorses from the thoroughbred industry.
Only one team member competes as jockey, riding all three horses
team member serves as the "grabber," catching each finishing
horse as the jockey dismounts. The other two team members are "holders"
who try to contain and quiet the second and third horses along the
rail until it's time for their legs of the relay.
events require riders to dress in Native regalia, while others don't.
All races are ridden bareback; something Indian kids do routinely,
which bears testimony to their riding ability. Racers start from
a mark on the track rather than from starting gates, and jockeys
remain afoot until a starter signals them to leap aboard their first
horseand then it's off to the races.
the exact origins of Indian relay races are blurred by time, Floyd
Osborn, a former jockey who is part of a family with a long history
of racing horses, says the practice of riding horses in relay sequence
may have originated as a way of expediting messages of approaching
enemies back to tribal chiefs. The earliest competitions are believed
to date from early rendezvous involving Indians and mountain men
in such places as the Green River and Wind River in Wyoming.
who was born at Fort Washakie on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming
and grew up on Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock Reservation, is the
great-grandson of an Englishman who imported horses from Great Britain.
Some of that bloodline remains in Osborn's string of horses
today, and Osborn's family was among the first to use thoroughbreds
in relay racing. He's seen a number of changes over the years.
"It's a lot faster," he says of racing today. "The
high-powered horses we have now come right off race tracks. During
the '80s they were mostly saddle horses.
I started they only ran one heat. If there were 14 teams, you ran
those 14 teams in one race. That was a real Indian relay. They didn't
break them up into heats like they do now. Nine is the most they
have in one heat now."
still rides and occasionally even does a little racing, but he turned
over the jockey role on the family team to his nephew James Tone
back in the '80s. Tone was only 12 years old at the time, which
is not an unusual age for relay race jockeys to begin their career.
Osborn gives Tone credit for "carrying our grandpa's blood
real well as far as racing horses. His horses are blooded. He takes
real good care of them. He travels a lot and has been to all the
major Indian relay meets and has won at Kalispell, Pendleton, Cheyenne
Frontier Days, and others."
relay racing is a young man's sport, and Tone recently turned
the riding over to his own son, John Mark Skunkcap. John Mark is
a student at Blackfoot High School in eastern Idaho, and runs cross-country
to keep his legs in shape for relay racing on his father's
Mountain Timber team. He raced in Sheridan with nine stitches in
his leg from an earlier race, and still carries scars after getting
rubbed on the rail in Pocatello a couple of years ago. "The
biggest problems usually occur during exchanges when you're
going out and someone else is coming in," John Mark says.
is the team leader. He works at keeping the horses in shape, drives
the truck and trailer to the numerous events the team competes in
each year, and also paints John Mark's face in preparation
for racing events. He also runs practices when the team isn't
day we ride our horses in our field or take them to the track,"
Tone says. "We practice coming in on them and taking them around
the track." The routine also involves work on jumping off,
jumping on, and other maneuvers.
says he feels fortunate to have raced for quite a number of years
with no broken bones, although he admits to some pretty good bruises.
He recalls one incident in particular. "A horse got away and
started running up the track the wrong way," he says. "I
was coming around the last corner and he was coming up towards the
paddocks. I hit that horse head on."
do occur and, as in rodeo, the possibility of a wreck adds to the
intensity level. One 16-year-old jockey did suffer a broken ankle
during the Sheridan rodeo last summer when a horse reared over backward
and fell on him (see Wreck
at WYO: A Jockey's View). Fans are witness to a controlled chaos
of horses barreling past each other and weaving in and out from
the rail, with riders leaping on and off horses bareback, all amid
the traffic that goes with having 21 horses and 28 team members
on the same track.
fraught with the danger inherent in any racing event, Indian relay
racing keeps alive something less dramatic but no less vitala
direct link to Native American traditions and heritage, and an important
point of connection among families.
Timbana and Tillman families on the Wind River Reservation are representative
of a number of families in the area. "My boy Ian is the fifth
generation to race," Verlon Timbana says.
Tillman has a similar story. "My husband Clint and his family
have been racing ever since they were teenagers. It started from
their dad. Clint is now 40 and no longer races, but he has a truck
to transport horses around the country and two brothers who help."
Jerome Cerino now rides for the Tillmans, and his father is a relay
rider too. It's that kind of sport.
Miner with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota rides
for DDXpress. He took first place at Sheridan last summer in what
is advertised as the "World Champion Indian Relay Race."
are somewhat smaller on reservations than at major PRCA rodeos,
but the action is equally fast and furious. Mountain Timber took
first at Fort Washakie and later that same day won the Pioneer Days
races in Lander. They followed that up with a win at Crow Fair in
Montana. Fort Washakie, on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming,
is building a new track to be used strictly for horse racing and
is scheduled to open this summer. Call ahead for a schedule of race
to see an Indian Relay Race