Colorful uniforms, high-speed horse races, and energized crowds are the perfect equation for the West’s most exciting ride.
Promoters call it America’s first extreme sport. Native tribes disagree on its origins. But everyone involved in Indian relay agrees it’s the most exciting horseback ride on the reservation.
Each relay typically begins with a half-dozen dismounted riders decked out in face paint and flashy uniforms standing alongside their horses, though some hosts have the races start with riders already in position. A few riders struggle to keep the horses under control as they kick and buck in anticipation of the competition. Race officials release the mounting tension signaling the start of the heat with a shout through a loudspeaker, a blank fired from a .357 magnum, or the drop of a flag.
Riders leap onto the bare backs of their equine teammates. Before the riders gain full position, the sprint toward the first turn is underway. After completing a lap around the racetrack, usually a half mile, riders slow the horses down enough for a teammate to secure the reins and facilitate a jump onto a fresh horse for the next go-round.
Races usually last three laps with a different horse for each lap. In addition to the mounts, teams consist of a rider, a mugger (who catches the spent horse), and one or two holders to keep the fresh horse in place until the rider can mount it.
“[The holder] is very important. Most people don’t know how long to hold a horse, and that’s the kind of thing that gets you disqualified,” says relay rider Clyde “The Glide” Jefferson.
If the holder lets go of the horse too soon, it can get away from the rider, and a rider-less lap means automatic elimination.
Jefferson proved himself to be a top rider in relay after finding a home with team Rides a Pretty Horse from the Crow Reservation — a team that in 2015 notched several wins and made the finals in almost every event they attended.
Jefferson grew up in the small Montana town of Lodge Grass. His older brother, Victor Nomee Jr., set him on his first horse at just 3 years old, and a decade of bareback riding later, he started hopping from horse to horse in local relay races.
When Jefferson, now 21, lost his brother in a motorcycle accident midway through the 2015 season, he considered leaving the sport in the aftermath but instead refocused and dedicated the remaining races to Nomee. The team found themselves winning more heats and several events. Rides a Pretty Horse made the finals nearly every weekend down the homestretch and qualified for the biggest event of the year at the All Nations Indian Relay Championships.
Jefferson attributes much of the success to explosive starts provided by the team’s horses, particularly a gelding known as the Grey Ghost that gained notoriety on the relay circuit. But despite having a quick mount, Jefferson recognizes challenges faced at the starting line. Congested standing starts make horse relay a contact sport with some riders even resorting to dirty tactics.
“Most of the time I’ve had a good start, and thankfully I was always in the front,” Jefferson says. “But people try to whip your horse in the face, take your horse into the rail, or take your horse wide.”
At the 2015 All Nations Indian Relay Championships, Rides a Pretty Horse lost the final race after one such incident. The rider from eventual winner Omak Express — a team from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Omak, Washington — lost control of his lead horse at the start of the race, veered into the right flank of Grey Ghost, and knocked Jefferson from the gelding. Omak Express was cleared of a foul and confirmed the race’s winner. It was their second championship title in two years.
Jefferson took the loss to heart, leaving the track immediately after the last lap. He trained hard throughout the off-season, cycling and running long distances to build leg strength. (A strong lower body is key for smooth transitions as riders trade out horses between laps.) Jefferson will be ready for the 2016 All Nations finals, but he’ll also need the right horses.
Although most relay teams hail from small towns on reservations in the western United States and Canada, the horses are increasingly sourced from big-city racetracks and mainstream horse racing.
Rides a Pretty Horse owner and trainer Jordan Whiteman uses his background in the Phoenix horse racing scene to strengthen his stable. Horses too slow to compete at premier tracks like Santa Anita Park often find their way to Phoenix and present a bargain for the relay team.
“There is some class and talent out there. It’s just a matter of where you gotta look for it,” Whiteman says. “Everybody has their secret spot, I guess.”
Whiteman looks closely at how the horses behave in the paddocks. He values a calm temperament, which is an indicator of how the horses will react to a standing start in relay. He also watches handlers saddle the horses to get an idea of how they’ll respond to riders mounting bareback.
“They’re just like people. They have their own personalities. They have their own weaknesses and strengths you have to work on,” Whiteman says.
Fielding as many solid horses as possible is crucial throughout the relay season because unlike flat-track racing, the horses can run three days in a row, and events take place every weekend.
Teams race six to 12 horses on average, but more is better. Whiteman says the additional stress of traveling several hours to the racetrack takes a toll on the animals, and the horses need to be kept fresh to avoid injuries. Showing up to the tracks a few days early helps keep the horses rested and relaxed, but travel can get expensive.
In addition to team members’ food and lodging expenses, each horse burns about $50 a day in food, vitamins, exercise expenses, and horseshoeing. Fortunately, relay purses are climbing.
For decades, racetracks and reservations organized independent “championships.” But since 2013, many of the events have been sanctioned by the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association, a body dedicated to promoting Indian relay and economic growth on reservations through horse racing.
Prior to PIHRA sanctioning, rules varied by venue, but now sponsored events adopt a more unified set of guidelines. The increased sponsorships swell cash payouts, and after earning points as the season progresses, 30 teams qualify for the All Nations Indian Relay Championships held in Billings, Montana.
Last year the All Nations winner walked away with $10,000 just for winning the championship race. In all, $85,000 in cash and prizes was awarded at the event. The large purses allow people like Jefferson to focus on relay full time during the season as a professional rider.
More than 15,000 tickets were sold for the three days of the 2015 All Nations championships, which was held in front of the Billings MetraPark Grandstands for the first time since moving from Sheridan, Wyoming. The Championships were so successful that PIHRA organizers distributed an extra $10,000 in cash to participating teams.
The 2016 All Nations Indian Relay Championships are September 22 – 25 in Billings, Montana.
From the August/September 2016 issue.