For Crow relay team, it starts with a love of horses, family

CROW AGENCY — When the River Road Relay team gets together for a practice, it’s all about the horses.

The human beings involved in an Indian horse relay race certainly get a workout, and occasionally a few scrape and bruises, but at practice the horses are the focus of their intense and loving attention.

At a training session last month at the racetrack and grandstands in Crow Agency, on the Crow Indian Reservation, four River Road teammates held their horses close, stroked their necks, ran their fingers through their manes and leaned in to whisper their encouragement or to offer soothing words.

“You don’t ever get panicky with them,” team captain Cody Brown said. “If they feel your heart pumping, they’re going to know. They’ll know you’re nervous. If you aren’t nervous, they’ll follow your lead. … As long as you’re comfortable with the horses, and calm, you won’t ever have a problem with them on the track.”

That kind of patient work is needed, because once a real race starts, things can get chaotic, with five teams — each consisting of four people and three horses — crowded onto a dirt track in front of grandstands packed with loud, enthusiastic fans. Under those circumstances, horses can get balky, inclined to buck, rear and run off in any direction. So practice is a matter of getting to know them.

“They all have their certain ways, these horses,” said Timothy Birdinground, who helped Brown form the team. “You learn what they like and what they don’t.”

At the practice session on a hot weeknight in Crow Agency, the River Road Relay team was preparing for the Horse Nations Indian Relay Champion of Champions event, set for this Friday through Sunday at MetraPark in Billings.

The championship is the culmination of a summer-long series of more than 20 relay races in eight states involving a variety of Indian tribes. Teams that compete in two accredited races qualify for the Champion of Champions, and any team that wins a sanctioned race gains an automatic berth, with entry fees waived.

Calvin Ghost Bear, president of the Horse Nations Indian Relay Council, which sponsors the championship, said 36 four-man teams are already entered in the finals, and he was hoping to have 42 teams — including several from Canada — signed on before registration closed.

Last year, according to Bill Dutcher, MetraPark general manager, the four-day finals drew 14,600 fans. The grandstands there seat 6,200, and with standing room you could squeeze 10,000 people onto the grounds, he said. For both of the two years MetraPark has hosted the finals, the opening day, Thursday, has been hit with hard rains. This year, the three-day event starts on Friday.

“I think three days is going to be perfect,” Dutcher said, adding, “It’s really a neat event. I’ve just been giving it rave reviews.”

In horse relays, the rider is the baton. He starts in a standing position, jumps onto a horse and races around the track. Back at the starting line, he dismounts on the fly and then attempts to jump on a second horse, and then a third after another dash around the track.

Tristan

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Timothy Birdinground’s son, Tristan, sporting a River Road Relay T-shirt, keeps a close eye on the practice session.

The terminology varies, but assisting the rider is the setup man — Brown on the River Road team — who tries to control the horses as they come in and take off. The job of the stopper, sometimes known as the mugger, is to leap in to catch the reins of the incoming horses, to get them out of the way. Birdinground is the mugger for River Road. The fourth team member is the holder, or back-holder, who hangs on to the reins of the waiting mounts until they’re needed.

Sometimes the whole thing goes fluidly, each horse and teammate performing flawlessly, with smooth mounts and dismounts, a minimum of drama. But sometimes — quite often, actually — all is confusion and chaos. A horse might stand on its hind legs, kicking its front hooves in the air, or a waiting horse might suddenly decide it doesn’t want to be ridden at all. A rider might take a diving dismount, plowing into the dirt face-first, or miss a remount and go sprawling to the ground — an instant disqualification.

Josiah Bad Bear, who was the rider at the practice in August, was filling in for the regular rider, Darren Charges Strong, who couldn’t make it that night. Bad Bear, 20, who is also a flat-track jockey, has been racing horses since he was 13. The big difference between jockeying and riding in a relay, he said, is the jump-on mounting and the leaping off on the fly. There’s no way to prepare for a relay but by practicing constantly, he said.

“Keep practicing with them,” he said, referring to the horses. “Talk with them. Stand with them.”

Brown said he and Birdinground, who’ve been friends since they were kids, both started out by helping a cousin of Brown’s, who trained flat-track racehorses. Then, as relay racing started taking off, they moved into that, too, working with a team of relay racers for a few years before deciding, a couple of years ago, to break off and form their own team.

Brown said it was Birdinground’s idea. “He said, ‘I think we can be good. We know how to handle horses.’ It wasn’t easy, but we got it going and we’ve done pretty good so far.”

They bought a couple of horses to start off, and then the grandfather of another team member, Laramie Little Light, gave them a third horse.

“People around here are nice,” Brown said. “You have other family members that have horses. They ask you, ‘Do you need a horse? I’ll buy you one.’ You always have a horse around here.”

The team also owes a lot to Lloyd Pickett, a grandfather of Velma, Brown’s wife. He was big in rodeo, winning the national high school bull-riding championship in 1958, but he has become a solid supporter of the River Road team, letting them use his heavy-duty pickup for hauling horses to races.

“He’s like our main sponsor,” Velma said. “Without him we wouldn’t be able to make it anywhere.”

Dust

John Warner

In a scene from the 2016 All Nations Indian Relay Championships, a rider attempting to mount his horse bites the dust instead.

Family is important to everyone on the team, Brown said. Everyone likes to make money — the championships in Billings will offer $50,000 in prize money — but that is not the main motivator, he said.

“If you’re doing it for the money, it’s different, you know?” he said. “You can’t do it for the money. You aren’t going to become a millionaire. You have to do it for the love of the sport, for the love of the horses, for what it does for you, what it does for your family, what it does for your people.”

Velma seconded that notion. “It really keeps the menfolk in our community busy,” she said. “This sport lifts up our men. And the horse is really connected to our history. I think it’s what our men need. I’d rather have them addicted to horses than anything else. It’s pretty good medicine.”

That passion for horses is being passed down to the next generation. Brown said that between him and three other members of River Road, they have nine children, all of them boys. All of them compete in the kids relay races held during the relay finals, with the boys mounted on Shetland ponies and miniature horses.

The boys are always coming to practice, “and they each come with a friend,” Brown said. They can’t wait for practice to end, when they are allowed to mount the big horses for their cooling-off walks around the track. Birdinground’s wife, Anna, said her three boys are as crazy about horses as their father is.

“My boys are outside all day,” she said. “I can’t keep them in,” not even when she buys them electronic devices: “Horses win all the time.”

Brown said the River Road team is successful — it took first place at a sanctioned relay race in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, in July — because everyone gives it their all. If he can’t make a practice, Brown said, Birdinground almost surely will, and if they’re both busy they’ll just call the other team members and let them know which horse needs to be walked, which needs to be galloped, or anything else that needs doing.

Ghost Bear, director of the relay council, said he’s had many opportunities to watch Brown, and he likes what he’s seen. “Cody Brown’s a very respectable, honorable young man,” he said. “He’s really got a lot of insight into what he’s doing and how he’s preparing his team. I’ve been appreciative of how he treats his team and how he treats his horses.”

Brown, for his part, said he learned how to race and how to be part of a team by watching other relay racers from around the country.

If teams do well, he said, “it’s because they were there all the time. They put in the hard work. That’s why they got to enjoy the victories they had. That’s why we’re trying hard. We want to be just like them.”

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