A test of bravery, connection to culture: Indian Relay Racing brings Upper Plains Tribes together in sporting event
“More than 400 years ago, the horse was an integral part of Native American’s daily lives and aided in a tribe’s survival,” explains Nancy Harrison of the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association (PIHRA). “The animals were imperative for successful hunts and were crucial for victories in battle.”
As time passed, the importance of the horse-rider relationship has continued, passed down from generation to generation, through oral history and competition events.
“Today, Horse Nations intensely compete with each other throughout the summer in the sport of Indian Relay Racing,” Harrison continues.
“Indian Relay Racing has a very long history,” Harrison says. “Since there were no iPhones or video games 400 years ago, they had horse games.”
“The Horse Nations did a lot of competitions,” she continues, noting that they competed in events ranging from suicide races, which involved running down the highest hill as fast as they could, to relay races.
“Indian Relay appears to have developed independently in different tribes, leading to competitive relays between the nations and America’s first extreme sport,” Harrison notes. “Today, Horse Nations compete against each other, not in the spirit of warfare, but for the native pride and ‘bragging rights’ of individual Nations.”
“Indian Relay Racing provides intense excitement for both fans and competitors,” Harrison says. “It provides a feeling spectators can’t get from any other sport.”
Indian Relay Races pit members of the Horse Nations against each other in a display of both courage and horsemanship, and the event connects teams to historical and spiritual elements of their culture.
In each race, at least five teams compete at a time. Each team includes four people – three who are positioned at the edge of the track and one who rides.
“Wearing traditional regalia, six Native American warriors ride bareback around the track at breathtaking speeds,” Harrison explains. “After each lap, riders leap from one galloping horse to another.”
“We have three horses – a starter, a middle horse and an anchor,” says Dustin Kruger, a member of the Silver Mountain relay team. “The anchor horse has to have speed to win, but the first horse has to be really fast, too, to get the lead.”
The “mugger” waits to catch an incoming horse while the rider dismounts and leaps to the next horse.
“A good exchange is really important,” Kruger says. “Exchanges win or lose the race.”
Training to race
Kruger started relay racing when he we 11 years old on the Crow Indian Reservation.
“My buddy talked me into riding relay for him, and I loved it,” he says. “After that, I kept going. I couldn’t get enough of the fast horses. It’s such an adrenaline rush.”
In 2012, Kruger’s team won the world event, and his friend won in 2013. Hard work throughout the year helped them reach the top.
“We don’t train at a track. I train in the hills,” Kruger explains. “I want to build the horses’ leg muscles and increase their strength, but if we practice on a track, the horses can get a little too excited.”
By practicing off-track, he says the horses remain calmer during the event, making exchanges easier.
“Relay racing is exciting, and it’s really intense,” he says. “There’s a lot to think about. We have to worry about if someone’s coming up behind us, if we’re going to get run over and other things. It’s wicked.”
Kruger has been involved in Indian Relay Racing for 11 years and rides in 20 to 30 relays a year.
Fun and for the future
Kruger notes that Indian Relay Racing is exciting, but it’s also important for youth and their culture.
“It’s intense and really fun,” he says, “but I’m also trying to teach our youth about Indian Relay Racing.”
“If they’re involved in something, kids stay out of trouble,” Kruger explains. “Indian Relay Racing keeps our young people busy and keeps them sober. They’re not doing crazy stuff. When we stay busy doing Indian Relay Racing, we don’t have time for other stuff.”
PIHRA says, “We dream of Indian Relay Racing developing as an industry to provide economic opportunity on the reservations of the Plains and elsewhere. We dream of these young Native American athletes becoming role models for their brothers and sisters – and for all Americans.”
Learn more about PIHRA and Indian Relays Racing at letsrelay.com.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.