What is Indigenous horse racing you may ask? Well, Indigenous horse racing, or rather “Indian Relay Racing” officially, has been described as the oldest extreme sport in North America. It promises edge-of-your-seat excitement and offers teams the opportunity to compete for cash and prizes.
This extremely dangerous sport requires competitors to complete three laps on a course while riding a horse bareback, without helmets. If that wasn’t challenging enough, racers must also change horses after each lap with the help of their team-mates. Teams consist of one rider, three horses, two holders and a mugger. Jockeys can reach speeds of roughly 45 kilometres per hour.
There are also four types of events: the Relay Race with 3 horses and multiple heats; the Chief Race where riders begin mounted and have a standing start; the Chief Lady Race which is the same as the Chief Race but with female riders; and the Warriors Race where horses are lined up at the finish line, and the warriors sprint 100 metres and jump on the horses. There are also kids and junior relay teams, starting with children as young as five and six years old. They begin riding relay ponies and race on a smaller scale. By the time the youth reach 13 and 14 years old, they are riding the big horses and participating in the larger events.
The roots of this intense sport can be traced back to ancient times. Riders and horses alike can be seen adorned with bright colours and war paint.
“When you see this for the first time live or when you see a clean exchange, it hits your heart. It puts a lump in your throat knowing that your ancestors had to live this way for survival, for war and for hunting,” explained Levi Morin, track manager and team captain for the River Cree Relay Team of Enoch Cree Nation.
“No race is ever the same. You never know what’s going to happen next. You can have a team just flying, and then they make the wrong exchange and lose it all in a second,” explained Morin. “It gets addicting to watch like any other sport. You get a favourite team, a favourite rider and you really start to follow the circuit.”
When Anita Mackenzie, Manager and Editor of Enoch Echo, saw Indian Relay Racing for the first time this summer, she was floored. “I was absolutely blown away by the athleticism and courage that the riders and everyone on the field demonstrate,” said Mackenzie. “To know this is a traditional sport that has a long history within the nations brings a sense of pride. These teams are keeping the tradition alive and celebrating their culture through sport. It’s adrenaline-filled and exciting.”
Mackenzie also followed the River Cree Relay Team to Walla Walla, Washington, USA, to watch the Championship of Champions event where the team became World Chief Race Champions. “There were 21 horses on the field at any given time, and the track is smaller than Enoch’s. We saw riders go down and witnessed a few crashes. It’s heart stopping. You see these men and women trying to keep these 1,000+ pound animals calm in the midst of chaos. It’s incredible,” explained Mackenzie. “For people who have never seen it, I strongly recommend taking in an event.”
The sport has been popular in the United States for some time, but is relatively new to Canada. In 2017, the Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association (CIRRA) was formed, and the sport was introduced at the North American Indigenous Games and had its debut at the Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada.
On September 1 and 2, the Enoch Cree Nation, located just west of Edmonton, Alberta, hosted the 2018 Canadian Indian Relay
Championships, and this October they hosted seven teams at the Indian Summer Shootout at Enoch Park—the last race of the season.
The two-day Canadian Championships event attracted about 2,500 spectators per day. Given the success of this event and the rising popularity
of the sport, CIRRA is focused on growing the sport in Canada—adding more events and expanding to British Columbia and Manitoba. Looking ahead, Enoch Cree Nation hopes to host the Canadian Championships again next fall.