The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Indian Relay Racing’s third stop from season opener adds heat and might to the games

 For fans of Indian Relay Racing, the sport’s exhibition in High River, Alta during the town’s annual rodeo weekend, Guy Weadick Days, is a can’t-miss attraction.

The relay races require extreme athleticism, as riders complete a lap around the track on horseback before jumping off as quickly as possible onto the next horse.

But for riders, it’s also about the fun involved in bringing back a traditional sport.

Sports Relay3Horseback riders who are competing in the Indian Relay races, which is an extreme sport. Bareback riding and regalia are part of the sport's attraction at rodeo events. Photo: Floyd Black Horse

Sports Relay2One of the riders, Cody Big Tobacco, competes in the rodeo relay races held May 29 in High River. Photo: Floyd Black Horse

“We’ve been riding forever, so it's a part of our nature,” said Cody Big Tobacco, who placed third in the June relay races in High River. 

Tobacco said the toughest part of the race is the exchange. As competitors jump from one horse to the next, some struggle to get back on.

“That’s where you win or lose,” Tobacco said.

Bonnyville, Alta is one of the towns involved in the sport. The town  had a record 22 teams participating at its season opener event for the May long weekend.  

Alberta teams come from reserves and Browning, Montana has players who come in each year.  Emerald Downs in Washington hosts  bigger events that come with $65,000 prizes.

The president of the Canadian Indian Relay Association (CIRRA), Dexter Bruised Head, said the reception from towns and cities has been positive.

“It’s a huge cultural event for our non-native friends; they’re hooked,” he said.“They see one, they have to see more.”

The association has been moving competitions from First Nation communities to big city rodeo arenas. Games in Washington, DC were declared the world’s largest Indian Relay event in history. For Bruised Head, this means seeing more people come out to the shows.

Our teams are entering their third year, so that means more exposure,” he said.

Julie Heggenstaller attended the event in High River with her family and took in the races from the front row.

“We’ve never seen it before,” she said.

Heggenstaller described how flighty the horses were and noticed the agility of the riders.  

“Especially the guy who jumped from the rear up the back,” she said. “You could see him talking to it. The horse was jacked and ready to go but just couldn’t seem to let loose of his energy. ”

Each lap had the spectators banging their feet on the stands before the finish line. One of the historic roots of the sport is how First Nations would chase down a buffalo using multiple horses, and once the animal was tired, they would go in for the hunt.  

“When our people hunted buffalo on horseback, there are many ways in which First Nations honed in on how to do a perfect hunt,” said Bruised Head.

There is also a vision that comes into play involving tribal warriors that would steal horses from nearby camps. So the races resemble activities of hunting, warfare and warrior games that happened on the plains a long time ago.

The races also display a message promoting a healthy, active lifestyle for Indigenous people.  Calgary Stampede First Nations Princess Astokomii Smith, who attended the High River races, spoke highly of the sport.

“It’s very exciting —you definitely have to see it,” she said.

Bruised Head added the relay racers are shown “in a good, honest way.”

“And it’s all culturally based,” Bruised Head said. “We strive to be the best we can.”