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SHERIDAN — Being part of the World Championship Indian Relay Races at the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo is a fun, challenging pursuit that may result in a $30,000 prize, but the racers don’t race for the money.
Or the adrenaline.
Or the fame, even.
They race for the horses.
“It’s all about the horses,” Tee Big Hair, catcher on last year’s champion team Blanket Bull, said. “It’s not what the horse can do for you. You have to assist the horses. You have to be humble and go out there and let them run.”
World Championship Indian Relay racers race because horses are second nature, because horses are the foundation of family tradition and Indian culture, because horses are their glory and their life.
For Owen Chief — rider for the Hoop Dancers out of Wyola in this year’s World Championship Indian Relay Races — being on a horse is second nature. Riding bareback, galloping at 45 mph around a 5/8-mile track, jumping from horse to horse is what he does. Even when he’s not on a race track, he’s on a horse because there is nowhere else he wants to be.
“In my free time? I get on a horse and ride up in the hills and just ride around by myself,” Chief said.
Chief, a member of the Crow Nation, has been riding on relay teams since he was 14. He used to ride on his aunt’s team — Two White Birds — until she passed away. He didn’t ride for three years. He missed the horses so much, he had to ride again.
This year, Chief is riding for his grandfather with the Hoop Dancers. His teammates — two holders who make sure the two horses not being ridden are in position for their relay round and a catcher who grabs the rider’s horse as it comes to the line at a pounding 40 mph — are all family. Many of the other 19 relay teams at Sheridan’s races are the same because they say horses are the foundation of Indian culture and family tradition.
The Indians are still here
“I think they made the relay so people can know that the Indians are still here,” Chief said.
The Indians are still here with their traditions, their culture, their horses. That is why Chief’s grandfather, Mervin White, formed the Hoop Dancers.
“We want to keep our culture alive. We can’t lose it. We can’t lose our culture, can’t lose it,” White said, his worn and wrinkled face creasing with the passion of his words.
White has been coming to the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo Indian Relay Races for 17 years, the longest of any racer. He used to race, serving as a catcher for 15 years and a holder for four, but now he teaches the younger generation.
“I have the young ones do it now because I’m too skinny, too slow for it. The young ones are taking over — my grandchildren, my nephews and nieces. I tell them I’m the team captain, though,” White said.
Before each relay race, the family works together to paint their horses and rider. Even the youngest family member participates, no matter how young. This year, 11-month-old Canon Buddy Takes Horse had his little hands smeared with yellow paint and pressed against Chief’s chest while White said a prayer of blessing and protection over his family and his horses.
Just last year, White began to train his nephew, Sonny Crooked Arm, how to be a holder. The two work together training horses in Wyola, and already, after only one year, Crooked Arm has learned not to flinch when a horse is baring down on him coming around the bend.
“It’s just like another day,” he said.
It’s just another day with horses, another day with family, another day of keeping their culture alive.
About glory, about life
Big Hair, a member of the Crow Nation from Garryowen, Mont., said it is an adrenaline rush to be on the track before a crowd on its feet cheering with excitement. It is an adrenaline rush to take a hit from an incoming horse, but it is not the money that makes him get back on his feet.
“As a fellow rider used to say, ‘It’s partly about the money, but it’s really about the glory,’” Big Hair said. “We try like hell. That’s all we can do, is try like hell.”
And after trying, when the rider gallops his third horse across the finish line, he raises his hands, and his teammates raise their hands.
They raise their hands for the glory of the ride, for the glory of the trying like hell and for the glory of the horse.
“It’s all the horse. They do it for you. They put on the show,” Big Hair said.
Shawn Real Bird, co-director of the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo World Championship Indian Relay Races, echoed the same sentiment when he paraphrased Chief Plenty Coups this way:
“Your soul mate is the horse. You depend on your life for your horse to protect you. You feed your horse, you ride your horse, you sleep by your horse. Your life depends on that horse and how well you keep it…If you are one with your horse, then you will succeed to live another day.”