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A Relay Through Time

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— October 4, 2019

A Relay Through Time

By ALLAN RICHTER
  • Indian relay racing makes conventional horse racing look tame.
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Trevor Beasley remembers a horse race at the 2012 Eastern Idaho State Fair, more than other races he’s run, for how close he came to victory as he barely trailed competitor James Bullshoe around the track.

“My horse ran strong. We had everyone else in the dirt,” Beasley, 30, recalls. “We were right on his tail all the way around, and he pulled into first place.”

It’s been called America’s oldest extreme sport and makes conventional horse racing look like a pony ride around a pen by comparison. In Indian horse relay races, young Native American riders, often in face paint and traditional dress, dash around a track at full speed before slowing only slightly to leap onto another horse and continue the exhilarating relay.

Indian relay races involve jumping on and off horses at breakneck speed. Click To Tweet

Like a human baton, each rider makes three laps around the racetrack, switching to a new horse at the beginning of each lap with the help of the rest of a relay team.

As the rider finishes each lap, a “mugger” catches the animal just as the rider dismounts. A “holder” advances the next horse, and the rider leaps on the bare back of his equine teammate. Another holder is readying another fresh horse for the rider, while the mugger passes the horse he’s caught to a holder who is free.

The complex exchange takes place in seconds. Dirt flies. Riders fall. Bones break. “If he doesn’t catch the horse,” Beasley says of the mugger, “the horse will fly by and run through your team. People get hurt all the time.”

The riders in Indian relay racing consider their horses to be equal partners in this hazardous sport. Click To Tweet

Beasley, of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, whose traditional lands include southern Idaho and western Wyoming, was nursing a broken forefinger and a pulled ligament near his ankle—both injuries from races.

“It gets pretty crazy out there,” says Beasley, who lives just outside his tribe’s Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho and started riding horses when he was 11. “You’ve got to stay in shape to stay on your horse. If you fall off, they’ll run you over.”

The damage the muscular animals can do to riders does nothing to detract from the respect and admiration Beasley has for the horses. “They take care of us. They’re my brothers,” he says. “I count on them.”

That veneration is rooted in the special place horses hold in American Indian history. Native Americans always viewed horses as equals and with spirituality, not subservient beings. The high regard can be traced back hundreds of years to the contributions of the animals in both battle—one reason Beasley lets out a war cry when he races—and trade.

“Each and every tribe within the Plains and within the horse nation, the horse culture, has its own version of how the horse affected their lives, from battle to moving from place to place,” says Calvin Ghost Bear, president of the Horse Nations Indian Relay Council. “What we’re doing today is taking some of the horse skills that were handed down in each of the tribes and applying them in the relays.”

Some riders in the Indian relays put similar markings on their horses that their ancestors going into battle put on theirs. In the 1800s, horses were painted with symbols of strength such as lightning bolts and hailstones, says Emil Her Many Horses, a curator with the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian. “You wanted your horse to have that power,” he says. (His surname is translated in Lakota from his ancestor, said to own many horses.)

Today’s relay racers are emboldened by the animals. Says Beasley: “The horse makes you feel stronger. It gives you life. When you feel the horse between your legs it’s like sitting on fire.”

For more articles in our Native Trails Series, see below:
Native Trails
Throwing Darts
Reclaiming A Narrative
The Pulse of Native Rhythms
Revival From the EARTH

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