Nonstop action, amazing athleticism at Indian relay

If you weren’t one of the 5,000 people thronging the grandstand at MetraPark in Billings on Sunday, take my advice: you’ll want to be there next year for the finale of the All Nations Indian Relay Championships.

It’s a spectacle like no other, with all the crazy bravado of a Mountain Dew-fueled extreme sport, complete with frenetic announcers, blaring rock music, a giant instant-replay screen and screaming fans.

At the heart of this sport, though, is something beautifully simple—nothing but horses and riders and a half-mile dirt track. And the athleticism on display is amazing, unlike that involved in any other sport.

At an Indian relay, the rider is the baton, springing onto one rambunctious pony, racing around the oval track at breakneck speed, then leaping to the ground and up onto a second mount as quickly as possible, a ritual repeated one more time before a final dash around the track.

The thing is, it’s rarely as simple as that description might make it sound. Each rider has three helpers on the ground, one holding a remount, one trying to control the horse from which the rider has leapt, and a third attempting to hold the last remount in a steady position.

In a five-man race, that means there are 20 people and 15 horses all crowded around the starting line, and as one announcer bellowed into a microphone, “These horses are hot-blooded!”

This is not like a regular horse race, with mounts and jockeys waiting in a chute for the starting gun. It looks more like the start of a wild-bronco competition, except that the horses are not contained before the gate opens. They are loosely gathered at the starting line, stamping and rearing and kicking and running in tight circles, occasionally slamming into their handlers or each other.

The riders can’t jump aboard their horses until the gun is fired, and when it finally is, it’s a miracle if more than half the horses are pointed in the right direction. And that’s just the start, which is relatively uncomplicated compared to the two remounts in each heat.

Team

John Warner

In case you were wondering why each rider has a three-man team…

Ideally, a jockey dismounts fluidly, hits the ground running, takes a step or two and vaults onto the back of the next horse. That does happen, but more often than not the dismount turns into a sprawling dive into the dirt or a confused sprint after a rebellious horse.

One rider Sunday flew off his horse, rolled into a somersault and bounded onto his horse in what looked like one continuous motion. In Hollywood, with a trained stuntman, that might have involved a few dozen takes. After the riders get up on their horses, they are sometimes fortunate enough to grab the reins immediately, but more commonly they simply grab the horse around the neck, hang on for dear life and then struggle to find the reins.

Did we mention that there are no saddles? And no helmets or facemasks or chest protectors or much of anything at all but T-shirts and shorts, stocking feet and a bandanna or two, and maybe a set of shades or ski goggles. One rider had a GoPro camera attached to his bandanna. I would love to see that footage.

Like hockey fans waiting for a fight or NASCAR fans awaiting a crash, the crowd roared every time a jockey or handler hit the dirt or was thrown by a horse, but it seemed as if there was even more enthusiasm when everything went smoothly and a rider hardly slackened his pace in the transition from one horse to another.

Also unusual, in our athlete-worshiping world, was the modesty shown by the riders. They might jump up and down at the starting line, but more to limber up than to incite the crowd, and a top finish usually involved nothing more than a raised fist or a prolonged whoop, though the winner of the final race did toss his quirt high in the air as he crossed the finish line.

I saw none of the chest-thumping or adulation-begging one sees at so many other sporting events. The riders usually contained their pride until after the race, when dozens of relatives would pour out of the infield stands to greet their victor. Even then, most of the winners took their hugs and kisses and high-fives with an admirable humility.

Women's

John Warner

In the women’s one-lap race, it was a close finish.

This was the third All Nations Indian Relay Championships, and the first one in Billings. Event coordinator Kris Keck said next year’s event is already scheduled for Billings (Sept. 22-25), and the sponsoring Professional Indian Horse Racing Association hopes to make this its permanent home.

Sunday’s finale, following three days of preliminary competition, involved lots more than the relay races. There were fancy dancers, drummers and singers, remarks from Mayor Tom Hanel and various other Indian and Anglo dignitaries and a reading by Crow poet Henry Real Bird, a former Montana poet laureate.

Under the grandstand and in the parking lot outside, there were food and beer vendors and booths selling elaborate bandannas, high-dollar Western clothing, cowboy hats and glitter-encrusted purses, flip-flops, hats and belts.

In addition to the preliminary relay heats, there was a women’s competition—a single-lap race involving no relay—and a children’s relay around a very short track, with the kids mounted on Shetland ponies. Who couldn’t watch that all day?

It was MetraPark General Manager Bill Dutcher who pegged Sunday’s crowd at somewhat more than 5,000 people. He said the grandstand seats 6,200 people, and he estimated there were no more than 1,000 empty seats.

Kenneth Real Bird, announcing the final race, sprinkled his remarks with snippets of history and expressions of Indian pride, at one point saying the horse Indians of North America were “better than the Cossacks or the Mongols.”

It would be hard to argue with that, or with the sentiment he shouted out just before the starting gun on the last race: “These young Indian men, they’re cravin’ that championship, the glory!”

And glorious it was.

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