Indian Relay Racing on Tap

Indian Relay 3Outside, over 150 horses grazed under the watchful eye of White Man’s Dog… It seemed odd that two sleeps ago these horses were content to belong to the Crow. Now they were Pikuni (Blackfeet) horses and seemed equally content.


By some accounts, the first sport in the American West was horse stealing, by one Indian nation from another. It was a method by which young warriors and hunters sharpened the requisite skills for living in nature, for survival against the beasts of the forests and the plains and against other human beings.

By other accounts the first sport was horse racing, among the various nations that gathered to celebrate the coming of spring each year, and the hibernation of Cold Maker as the Pikuni might have described it, the time when Cold Maker called off the snows and winds in an annual truce.

The nations would gather in the valleys for food and games. Horse racing ruled, one nation against the other. In the melting snows and warming suns of those faraway times the Crow, Shoshone, Blackfeet, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho presented a harbinger of what would become Indian Relay Racing.

Horses were necessary, magical and spiritual in the lives of those First Nation peoples. They transformed them from trudging tribes, traipsing from the winter camps to their summer lodges, into the masters of the plains, disappearing like the wind when necessary into the surrounding hills and hunting the sacred buffalo from the backs of the descendants of animals Cortez and his Spanish forces brought to the Americas centuries earlier.

The horse and the First Nation peoples were allies in daily life among untamed hills, mountains and valleys, where animal and man in this instance became partners in a ritual nearly as old as Cold Maker himself.

Come with us into the valleys of those long ago times for a look at what was – altered, of course, by the immense change over the years, change that seemed imminent from the time the Pikuni first spotted the endless floods of Napikwans and the iron horses they called trains, and began to see the buffalo disappearing before their very eyes.

“Indian Relay is sport done mostly by Indians who live in northwestern United States,” says the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association.

Nonetheless, the Sioux peoples had racing of their own as well and it is at the behest of the Mdewakanton community of Mystic Lake, in cooperation with Canterbury Park, that Indian relay racing is being included as part of the final three racing cards of the season this week.

Today’s form of relay racing by some accounts is 100 years old or older and is a means today for young Indians to connect with their tribal heritage and customs. It is also an astonishing sport, viewed by the participants themselves as something akin to “organized mayhem,” particularly during exchanges, when a rider changes horses and is assisted by a mugger, who stops the horse, a setup man and a holder in charge of the rider’s next horse – three horse exchanges to a race, all ridden bareback.

The exchanges sometimes result in a chaotic scene immediately in front of the grandstand where the races start and end. Relay racing has become a popular part of many rodeos and pow wows in the northwestern states.

Nine teams will compete this week at Canterbury, including representatives of the Sioux and the Sho-ban. Two races are scheduled each day on Thursday and Friday. One race, with all nine teams competing, will be conducted for the championship on Saturday.

Most of the teams are Crow: Black Eagle, Charges Strong, G Town Boys, Holds the Enemy, MM Express, Old Elk Relay, Plain Feather, War Man and White Buffalo among them.

Kendall Oldhorn, a Crow from Two Leggins, Mont., once competed himself and has handled just about every job associated with relay racing in the years since. Now he is the head of race management and team relations for the PIHRA.

“You will see just about everything out there,” he predicted.”Horses rear up, try to get away. Riders fall off, get back on. I’ve seen it all.”

Seeing it all includes a five-year stint in the U.S. Marines for Oldhorn, who will alternate between his native tongue and English during conversations with anyone who converses in both.

The word for describing this type of racing might differ in the tongue of the Sioux, the Blackfeet, the Crow or the Sho-ban, but it means much the same as it does in English.


This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

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