October 1, 2015
The ubiquitous trucks and trailers typical of any horse venue flooded the arena grounds in Billings recently. But there was hardly a saddle to be found.
Bareback jockeys ride three horses apiece in Indian relay racing, getting on and off any way they can.
They somersault between horses, quirts clenched in their teeth. They launch themselves from the dirt to grab a horse's neck, and are frequently still getting a leg over either side as their steed bolts down the track.
There's a starting gun, but no starting gate.
The crowd loves a chaotic start, and competitors like Donroy Ghost Bear of Pine Ridge, South Dakota feed off the adrenaline rush. "I love it," says Ghost Bear, 33, captain of the Lakota War Path team, which distinguished itself in 2014. "It allows me to represent our nation. It's competitive and I'm a competitive person."
Muggers, holders, and catchers struggle to control excited and sometimes rearing or spinning animals.
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Highlights include smooth remounts that put a team in a good position – but colorful mishaps that flirt with disaster work just as well.
Polo-style collisions are crowd pleasers, as is a loose horse that keeps up with the pack on the backstretch, tail in the air.
It's not unheard of for a team member to be drug down the track and nearly trampled while he has a death-grip on the reins to keep the team in the game.
Ghost Bear and others like him qualified for the championships this year. The event itself is picking up speed and is a milestone for the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association which formed a few years ago.
The All Nations Indian Relay Championships pits the best racers from all nations against each other in a single climactic venue.
"We are embarking on a renaissance of the native American horse," says Jeanette Sassoon, a spokesperson with PIHRA. "These horses and riders are reminiscent of the warriors and war horses of yesterday."
Ticket sales at the September event at the MetraPark in Billings topped 12,000 over four days of racing. The grand price for the winning team from Washington was $10,000.
There were 30 teams in all.
Winners from each heat advanced to more and more selective heats until the top five teams raced each other. Every team continued to race, placed in new heats each day with their peers, according to their performance.
A team has four men. No special breed of horse is required, although most are thoroughbred-type.
Where jockeys don't weigh much, it pays to have some body mass if you're one of the people on the ground. Those team members tend to be thickly built like bulldoggers.
It's close to race time and in the Lakota War Path barn, horses are being painted and jockey Lawrence Harvey is getting ready. He's stretching his hamstrings and masking his legs with vet wrap and tape for better grip.
The track is a little muddy, and he's going to try tennis shoes instead of his usual moccasins. He is wearing dark sunglasses as he squares the brim of a Civil War cap, adorned with a feather.
Stalled horses are bridled with a rubber-coated snaffle, and drenched with water from a gun to keep them comfortable. They get a good dose of fly spray on their legs.
Sage smoke drifts from the barn, and Ghost Bear is offered some as part of a ritual known as "smudging."
He fans his chest and face with the aromatic ghostly gray. "Smudging? It's good medicine. It makes people feel better, it makes things go better. It keeps the spirit and acts like a cleanser and it connects us back to our ancestors."
The sport is ancient, and it came about to show horsemanship and bravery. Today, tribal leaders say they hope it showcases Native American culture and is something native communities can take pride in.
The Lakota War Path team raises its own horses, preferring an appendix cross with some paint in the quarter horse lines. They run mares and geldings.
A brown mare named "Boo" is irritated today, and doesn't want to stand for the finishing touches of a yellow grizzly paw on her left hip.
"She'd rather be left alone," says Ghost Bear, scratching the mare's withers. "They've worked hard all season long and they are ready to go home."
Ghost Bear looks for a short back and a long belly in the horses he races, a conformation that gives them extra stretch at a dead run.
"I like the quarter horse for the burst of speed and for the muscling and they just hold up better than a pure thoroughbred. They get their bone density from the quarter horse."
On the road, the horses are maintained with daily rub downs of liniment on their legs and back, good quality hay, sweet feed and puffed oats. They are vetted regularly, and Ghost Bear says recognizing when a horse needs a day off is important.
"I try to think of them like I do myself. After working hard, I get sore. They have the same needs."
The horses get a long rest over winter, pastured and fed well.
"In the off season, we feed them really well which is key. I'd rather see them come out of winter a little heavy, then you are not playing catchup."
After having winter off, the horses get exercised in March.
"It's still cold then, but my boys, they bundle up and wear masks, caps, gloves, whatever they need to. We got a little hill on our property. We start out walking up that. It's like a bench press for a person or a power clean. It builds the horses up."
After legging up the stock, as the weather warms, the horses get a little faster flat work.
"Then we move them to the flat track and start out light."
He starts racing them lightly as three year olds, but aren't competed off of regularly until they are older
"By the time they are four or five, you've got a relay horse."
Ghost Bear points to an eight year old gelding, the only thoroughbred in the barn and the been-there-done-that horse in the group. "He is our oldest horse and he knows his job. He doesn't get excited he just stands there and waits his turn."
Lakota War Path finished second in its heat on the final day of racing Sept. 20. The tightly bunched heat was full of speed, human and equine athleticism, and just enough chaos in the remount area to keep it interesting.
"This is what indian racing should be about every time," boomed the announcer.
Spectators were treated to race highlights recaptured on a giant screen, replays broadcast in brilliant color.
The event included exhibition races and featured entertainers dressed in resplendent headdress.
Loose horses wrangled by two bareback riders fanned back and forth, while a narrator recounted the history of the Indian horse to the score of "Dances With Wolves." Mock battles between tribes were reenacted.
Some of jockeys are only 14 years old. The oldest man on the ground was in his sixties.
The youngest generation competes on Shetland ponies in a confined area set up around cones. There, they learn the skills that will make them future competitors.
Ghost Bear and his team from Pine Ridge travel with six horses and plenty of family. That's typical of every team, he says. "Family is a big part of it, and we have back up people and back up horses."