The 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.
Seven 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.
The 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 transfers—riders sprawled face down in the dirt of the track or clinging to the side of a horse in a struggle to stay aboard—and it’s easy to see why Indian relay racing is helping to fill the stands at local rodeos across the West.
The 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.
Rodeo 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.
“There’s 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.”
One 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 Indians?
The 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 in succession.
Another 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.
Some 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 horse—and then it’s off to the races.
While 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.
Osborn, 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.
“When 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.”
Osborn 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.”
But 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.
Tone 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 competing.
“Every 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.
Tone 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.”
Injuries 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 sidebar for the jockey’s take on that incident). 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.
While fraught with the danger inherent in any racing event, Indian relay racing keeps alive something less dramatic but no less vital—a direct link to Native American traditions and heritage, and an important point of connection among families.
The 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.
Rubena 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.
C.J. 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.”
Crowds 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 times.
Where to see an Indian Relay Race
Sheridan WYO Rodeo
July 14-17, 2010
North American Indian Days
July 8-11, 2010
Aug. 12-16, 2010
Crow Agency, Mont.
Eastern Idaho State Fair
Sept. 4-11, 2010
September 15-18, 2010