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Curly Relay team holder Tim Birdinground, left, grimaces as jockey Garrel Snell makes an exchange during the second heat of Thursday’s Indian Relay Race at the Sheridan County Fairgrounds.Curly Relay team holder Tim Birdinground, left, grimaces as jockey Garrel Snell makes an exchange during the second heat of Thursday’s Indian Relay Race at the Sheridan County Fairgrounds.

Strategy focuses on the exchange

SHERIDAN — Much has been said about the tradition and history behind the Indian Relay Races seen at the annual Sheridan WYO Rodeo but when you get down to the heart of the event, it is a sport rich with skill, strategy and practice.

There are four players on a relay team: the rider, the holder, the mugger and the stopper.

Though the attention of the audience is often on the rider, the other three players are equally key in achieving a win.

The mugger holds the harness of the horse and points its head in the direction it will need to run once mounted, prior to the rider hopping aboard.

The holder keeps the horse still in position for a smooth exchange by the rider from horse to horse.

The stopper gains control of the horse as it slows for the rider’s dismount, also ensuring a flawless transition.

Each relay team has its own strategy and practice rituals, but there seems to be a general consensus among the athletes that the key to a win is in the exchange.

“It’s about fast horses, of course, but it’s more about the exchange,” said Maverick White Clay from team Bad War Deeds. “A fast exchange will win a race.”

White Clay explained that strategy must be utilized throughout the race from a good start standing next to the nape of a still and focused horse to the smooth release with a correct landing.

It would appear that White Clay’s advice was spot on as his team took first place in their heat of the races Thursday night at the fairgrounds, though watching each of the heats shows there is surely more to the event than that.

The race begins with the shot of a gun as the riders fling their right leg over the horse and the holder releases and the mugger directs.

As the rider approaches the first exchange to switch to the second horse, he slows his horse only slightly as the stopper steps forward to help control the speeding animal.

The holder and mugger have already regrouped on horse two for another smooth start and this is the moment the audience had better be alert, because as the rider removes his right leg for a brief moment on the ground the momentum of the horse being dismounted propels the rider toward the fresh horse and in less than five steps the rider is on the bare back of a new animal.

With a small set of defined skills needed to win, practice is often about two things: the animals’ speed and the riders’ agility.

“We usually are galloping at practice; most training is about getting the wind in the horse,” White Clay said. “Some days we practice the exchange as it would be in the race and we try to race the track they will compete on to familiarize the horse with it.”

Tim Birdinground is the holder for team Curly Relay — named for members of the group being descendants of General George Custer — and he said the key is a good starting position and that practice is all about the transition for his team.

Birdinground added a reminder that practice may prevent injury, but there is no guarantee. During rodeo last year, their stopper was run over.

While trying to slow the horse coming in from his lap, he lost control and was brought to the ground but survived relatively unscathed.

Though the team consists of four men, there is one additional athlete essential to the relay: the horse.

Birdinground said the ideal age of a relay horse is between 6-8, and they start training their horses around age 2 or 3.

However, team Bad War Deeds was busy painting an 11-year-old horse alongside their 6-year-old and said the horse can be a success at any age.

Regardless of the focus of the practice, the expertise of the team during the competition or the horse being ridden, the unique sport of the Indian Relay Races is sure to be a crowd pleaser at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo for years to come.

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