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Racing Horses, Preserving Heritage

by Ruohan Huang (United States)

February 2023

Write the World Review

Audio: "Racing Horses, Preserving Heritage," read by Ruohan Huang

Hooves pound the dirt track, and traditional feather headdresses wave atop riders’ heads. Dust swirls into the air. The crowd gathers nearby—safely out of the way of stamping hooves—cheering in excitement as bareback riders thunder by.

This is a tradition. A heritage.

A dangerous, exhilarating sport, passed down from generation to generation—this is an Indian Horse Relay.

“Where we’re from, with our traditions, horses are sacred to us. We ride for our ancestors that rode that [same] path,” explains Jewel West of the Pine Ridge Reservation relay team. From spring to fall, across the US Plains, teams of Native Americans travel to various horse relay competitions. The goal: to demonstrate their superior horsemanship, to preserve their heritage, and, maybe, win a big purse.

Many consider Indian Horse Relays to be America’s first extreme sport. Five teams, each representing a particular tribe, family—or both—arrive to race. Each consists of four experienced team members and three expertly trained horses. In the course of the half-mile track, bareback riders can reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. Agility and precision make or break a relay as a rider finishes a lap and makes an “exchange” to a second—then a third—horse. Winners of “heats” advance over three days that culminate in a “championship” relay. This is the critical day for which teams train all year around.

“The sport is very dangerous,” remarks Lonnie Wright, Indian Relay Race Coordinator at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo (Wyoming). According to Wright, each member of the team is at risk— from the “holders” who must calm and ready waiting horses, to the “mugger” responsible for catching the finishing horse, to the rider who risks slipping between horses while mounting the next “fresh” horse. “We like to think of it [the relays] as being for warriors, because each job requires you to be fearless,” states Joseph Fast Horse, Oglala Lakota rider for the Dancing Warrior team. “It requires a lot of courage.”

Beyond the physical stress of the sport, there is a critical mental component. That is, to make your family proud. “It’s definitely a family thing,” explains Wright. “It’s not uncommon to see teams made up of three generations of a family.” Typically, grandparents are the horse owners, their children take responsibility for relay operations, and grandchildren step in as needed, preparing for their role in the future.

Tribal pride and heritage are also central to the relays. The stands erected at these events are painted to denote different tribes for those who come to cheer on their team. In addition, riders dress in the traditional garb of their heritage in a colorful display of tribal pride. Frequently, relays even offer cash prizes for eye-catching costuming. Such components add to both camaraderie—and competition—between teams. “There might be fistfights at the barn afterward,'' admits Brian Beetem of the Bad Nation team. “But at the end of the day, you shake hands.”

Despite strong emotions around the relays, unity and preservation of heritage keep teams and families coming back year after year—and the crowds come too. Events featuring the relays frequently sell out as locals and tourists gather to be part of the celebration of indigenous people and the sport that ties them to the generations that came before.

“These are expert horsemen, going back hundreds of years,” Wright says of the relays. “There’s a lot of pride around horsemanship. It makes sense that they would want to show off those skills.” But beyond the powerful connection to horses, family, and athleticism, there is the prize money. According to Northwestern News, one in three Native Americans report a median income of about $23,000 a year, a figure that falls below the national poverty level for a family of three or more. For Native Americans living on reservations, the prize for winning a single championship can be as much as $15,000. Such a windfall can go a long way to sustaining a family and associated relay expenses.

For those with an appreciation for both horsemanship and history, taking in an Indian Horse Relay comes highly recommended. In the words of Calvin Ghost Bear, President of the Horse Nations Indian Relay held in South Dakota: “The heart pounding, the hooves, the adrenaline, the crowd, the excitement—you aren't going to get that anywhere else.”

Works cited:

Allaire, Christian, ‘Scenes From America’s First First Extreme Sport.’ Vogue, 14 Mar. 2022, https://www.vogue.com/article/canterbury-indian-horse-relay-race.

Redbird, Beth, ‘What Drives Native American Poverty?’ Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, 24 Feb. 2022, https://www.ipr.northwestern.edu/news/2020/redbird-what-drives-native-american-poverty.html.

Website: ‘Horse Nations Indian Relay.’ https://horsenationsindianrelay.com/, [accessed 5 Nov. 2022].

Ruohan Huang, age 14, lives in Washington, USA. She is originally from China, a nation with diverse cultures and a rich history. This is also the source of her appreciation for heritage and tradition.

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Ushing Mya

11/24/23, 4:42 PM

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Fatima Ismail

10/4/23, 10:28 AM

I'll like to see more of your writing

Fatima Ismail

10/4/23, 10:26 AM

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dont care

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Andrea

9/29/23, 2:03 AM

Andrea

9/29/23, 2:03 AM

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Lola

9/17/23, 8:43 AM

Powerful. Spreading the truth some don't think about, some don't have to worry about. A great and strong piece.

9/16/23, 2:41 AM

9/16/23, 2:41 AM

9/16/23, 2:41 AM

Aisha Yaakub

8/25/23, 10:35 PM

Excellent and amazing

8/17/23, 7:00 AM

Absolutely beautiful poem! The words were picked meaningfully and used it a descriptive way. Very relatable.

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