SHERIDAN — A revolver fires into the air and chaos ensues.
The next three to five minutes are a spectacle — men dressed in Native American clothing jump onto a horse, race around the track at blazing speeds and jump off their horses to do it again.
From the outside, Indian relay racing looks like pandemonium, but there is plenty of thought and effort that goes into crossing the finish line in first place.
Horses have been the lifeblood for Native American tribes for centuries.
Today, the Rides a Pretty Horse relay race team, representing the Crow Nation in Montana, still values its horses in the same manner.
Thousands of dollars are at stake every time racers take to the track. To take home the top dollars, a team needs high-quality horses. That requires extensive training.
Horses featured in the Indian relay races are bred to run. The Rides a Pretty Horse team will travel to all corners of the country to find the right horses to take their riders around the track. Aside from speed and physical makeup, racers also look at a horse’s demeanor before purchase. A horse that is calm and gentle toward humans is a quality trait, according to jockey Darren Charges Strong, as it indicates its ability to be trained.
Channis Whiteman, Rides a Pretty Horse team manager, said a calm horse is especially critical during the transitions, when the rider jumps from one horse to another. The team works with the horses to make sure a horse won’t leave too early or get skittish when a rider jumps on its back.
But because every horse is different, Charges Strong said training varies from horse to horse.
“Some horses, it takes them a bit,” Charges Strong said. “But some of them — they just pick it up right away.”
To be at the top of their game, any athlete — including those on four hooves — needs practice and exercise.
The Rides a Pretty Horse team will work with its horses constantly; frequent rides across a ranch can help strengthen a horse.
Whiteman said providing a high-quality diet for horses also helps boost performance.
Each team can bring up to five horses to a race. They will often rotate each horse depending on its stamina and its conditions.
“After four days of racing, that’s pretty tough on a horse,” Whiteman said.
After observing them in practice and in races, team members determine which horse is best to use during different parts of a race. The Rides a Pretty Horse team goes into every race with a game plan.
Training and maintaining the team’s race horses is a full-time job for the racers and the team. During the summer, the teams will take their horses to races across the country, then train the horses on their ranches on off weekends.
Winter is a crucial time for horses. Because many of the horses purchased are from the southeastern portion of the United States, adapting to the cold plains on the Crow Reservation in Eastern Montana can be difficult, according to the team’s handler Jorden Whiteman.
But eventually, racing will be second nature for a horse. Even when a rider falls off, a well-trained horse will still continue its run around the track as if a jockey is still on its back.
“They are like a car going down the road with no driver — they’ll keep running until somebody catches them,” Charges Strong said.