Video: It's been described as America's first extreme sport. “It’s where the human becomes the baton,” says Jeanette Sassoon, a director of the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association.
What is an Indian horse relay? We asked many people that question, and they all had trouble describing what’s been called America’s first extreme sport. The simplest explanation?
“It’s where the human becomes the baton,” says Jeanette Sassoon, a director of the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association.
Riding bareback, a jockey must leap off his horse and onto a new one every half mile. In a two-mile race, riders must make three exchanges with the help of their teammates. Amid the chaos, all members must demonstrate excellent horsemanship. But with so many variables, plenty can go wrong, from flipped riders to loose horses running the track.
Spectators witnessed dramatic heats between the top teams in the country at Emerald Downs racetrack in Auburn last weekend. In honor of the Muckleshoot Tribe’s acquisition of the racetrack, it hosted PIHRA’s opening race of the season, which will culminate with championships in Billings, Mont., in September.
Last weekend’s competing teams hailed from several tribes, including the Colville Confederated Tribes, the Crow Nation and the Blackfeet Nation. One Blackfeet team from Montana, Awasapsii Express, boasted the youngest rider of the competition, 16-year-old Robert Gray of Browning. Like many of the competitors, Gray grew up in a family of riders.
“I got to the age and I was like, ‘Heck, I want to do this!’” he said. Gray is now one of the most competitive riders in the country.
The origins of the sport have been disputed, but tribes in the Northwest have been racing horses in some capacity for more than 100 years. Now PIHRA is leading the push to create a more organized sport, introducing safety regulations, developing competitions and managing payouts. The races at Emerald Downs – the first in Washington state – reflect that effort.
“What’s happening here today is bringing the past to the present,” Sassoon said. “It’s a very, very powerful expression of the Native American culture.”