Indian Relay — Keeping Indigenous American Culture Alive

June 1, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

This Memorial Day weekend, Indigenous Americans from all over the U.S. headed to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to be part of an important tradition: The Indian Relay, a horse racing competition. To say horses are a critical part of the Indigenous American narrative is an understatement. They are an iconic symbol of the culture of various tribes, but particularly for those of the Plains.

To Indigenous Americans, horses hold a place of pride, ceremony and healing, and are a reminder of their oneness with the landscape. The history of equines in Indigenous American culture is fascinating. But that’s a story for another day. Today, we highlight a sporting event that, really, goes much beyond being just an event. It is more an annual ritual that celebrates horsemanship, and that highlights Indigenous Americans’ long history with equines.

In 2014, National Geographic, in its The People of the Horse special, called the Indian Relay a “magnificently wild enterprise” that was touted as “the most exciting five minutes in Indian Country.” Indian Relay is a competitive team sport. It is considered one of the most extreme sports in North America. It is also viewed as critical to preserving Indigenous American culture and traditions in the U.S.

But, what is Indian Relay? What are the rules? Here’s a very quick introduction to this sport.

From History To Present

The Indian Relay dates back to a time when the Plains tribes used to steal horses when they were at war with each other, Shawn Real Bird, the Indian events coordinator for the Sheridan Wyoming Rodeo said, according to a Wyoming Public Media post from 2019. “When the horse that they rode got played out, they would jump on another horse, and they would do that all the way back home. That’s where the Indian relay started,” the post adds. Tribes have been competing in the Indian Relay for well over 100 years, but the roots of the sport go back even further. The Sheridan Wyoming Rodeo dates back to 1931, and although the Indian Relay was added to its list of events only in the second half of the 1990s, it’s become the Rodeo’s most famous event.

The All Nations Indian Relay Championships are the culmination of 16 grueling competitions, typically held from June through September each year across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota. Tribal nations throughout these states put up relay teams and risk it all for the pride of tradition and the glory of the win. “To one tribe, the relay’s games simulated war trials; to another, a buffalo hunt; a third views it as a way to outrun the wild horses, enabling their capture. Whatever the origins of the relay, the importance of it and the horse to the Plains tribes cannot be understated,” a post on Native America Travel says.

This year, the international championships of Indian Relay Horse Racing were brought to Oklahoma by Linwood Hisbadhorse Sr., who thinks many of the Indigenous American tribes in the southern United States have lost their horse culture, according to an Oklahoman article. Hisbadhorse is director of the Indian Relays championship, which began Thursday at the Osage County Fairgrounds in Pawhuska and ran through Memorial Day.

This year’s event in Pawhuska has a $140,000 purse, the biggest in history for Indian Relays, the article added. The event was expected to draw about 30 Indian Relay teams, primarily from states such as Montana, Washington, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Idaho. In the northern states, Indian Relays are held every weekend, even if they are not publicly advertised a lot of the time, Hisbadhorse said according to the article. 

The Rules Of Indian Relay

Typically, Indian Relay is a three-horse sport, although there have been instances that involved four horses in a team. “Races begin with up to eight athletes riding bareback around a track at full speed. Once around, the riders barely slow as they leap from their horses to a second horse to continue the race. The teams’ handlers are tasked with catching their first powerful animal under the risk of disqualification. After a third chaotic changeover, the riders race toward the finish line, topping speeds of 40 miles per hour,” the Native America Travel post says.

The main participants in a team are:

  • The horses, of course
  • Riders
  • Holders, who basically hold on to the second and third — and fourth, in some cases — horses and wait at a designated spot for the exchange. The Holder’s job is to steady the horse and support the Rider in making that all-critical leap correctly.
  • Muggers, whose job is to grab the horse as it is coming in for the exchange — probably at speeds of 20-25 mph. The Mugger basically jumps in front of the horse to do so, and his job is equally important because if the horse gets loose, it would result in an automatic disqualification for the team.

“An adroit relay rider can pull one horse up short, slide off, take a few running strides, swing up onto the next horse, grab the reins, and gallop away. A team that makes two such transfers smoothly might win the relay by ten lengths, no matter who has the fastest horses. But that’s the ideal race,” the National Geographic special says. To make the game even more of a challenge, if any of the Rider’s other teammates touch him, the team is automatically disqualified, according to the rules.

The race, as you can imagine, has a lot of moving parts and that means it can end up being chaotic. Regardless, it is described as “sublime” by some. “The wrecks and the excitement all happen when you’re switching horses because another horse from another team could run into you. You could run into another team, and you could fall off your horse. And they don’t have [a] saddle, and they’re riding bareback, and they’re riding full speed,” Real Bird explains in the Wyoming Public Media post.

The National Geographic piece describes a racer saying that the trick to the Indian Relay is to ride right up close to the next horse, bounce off, take two strides, hop onto the next horse from behind and be off. “Like in the movies. It was fast,” the piece adds.

“You embrace skills and a passion that have come down from your ancestors; you learn the skills from your elders and make the passion your own; you become proficient, then expert, then generous with your expertise; you care for your animals smartly and lovingly; you pass the favor along to younger kin. You make your family proud and whole. That’s the ultimate Indian relay,” the National Geographic piece concludes.  

Video Source: Emerald Downs’ YouTube channel