The Suicide Race at the Omak Stampede Indian Encampment

The Suicide Race at the Omak Stampede Indian Encampment

Jack McNeel

The starting gun fires and a couple seconds later horses burst into view, practically flying over the ridge at the start of a rapid descent to the river. It’s Suicide Race time at the Omak Stampede Indian Encampment.

The Omak Stampede just celebrated its 78th anniversary on August 11 with the usual roping and riding events plus an Indian Encampment adjacent to the rodeo grounds. Omak is situated on the western border of the Colville Reservation.

The four-day celebration includes grand entries and dancing on three days, all under an attractive dance arbor. Roughly 200 dancers registered to take part. Prairie Chicken and Women’s High Step competitions were special events along with the usual dances: traditional, jingle, fancy, grass, and intertribal.

Numerous teepees separated the dance arbor from a large tent housing a stickgame tournament. An impressive number of vendors were on hand, more numerous than many larger pow wows. Blue skies and temperatures in the mid to high 80s made those vendors selling shave ice, water, and pop especially popular.

What really sets this apart from other powwows is the famed Suicide Race which first began a couple of years after the Stampede started, around 1933. The first races were held at Keller, Washington. The race was set up for the horses to race down a mountainside but Keller was flooded when Grand Coulee Dam was built and the race was then moved to Omak.

The Suicide Race remains a downhill event, not as long as the original but equally steep. Elimination heats are begun in advance to end up with 20 horses and riders for opening night. Four races determine the overall winner.

Ed Thiele, treasurer for the Omak Stampede, stressed the cooperation between the rodeo association, City of Omak, and Colville Confederated Tribes and especially the Owners and Jockeys Association. “The Suicide Race is financed $13,000 by us and about the same by the tribe.”

The first three races take place in darkness at the conclusion of the rodeo but lights have been installed and cameras allow the race to be shown in the arena. Many hundreds prefer to line up behind fences to get a closer, more personal feeling for the race which comes down the hillside across from the arena. “The owners and jockeys themselves took the old fence down along the race incline, put a new fence in, and it’s now twice the riding area,” Thiele said. These things also improve the safety.

The race begins 50 feet back from the crest of the hill. The crowds below wait and watch and the tension mounts as the starter stands on the crest, starting gun over his head. He fires and runs to the side. It’s just a second till the first horses appear. By the time they’re visible to the crowds lined up below they’re in full gallop. You can feel the collective gasp from hundreds of throats as the horses thunder over the rim and head downward.

The next 225 feet is a 62 degree slope but must feel like a perpendicular drop to the Okanogan River. The horses don’t slow, strung out now as faster horses take the lead while those behind are enveloped in dust thrown up by the lead horses on this loose dirt incline. There’s not much whip action as the horses seem to run easily and the riders work to keep their horse’s head up so they won’t fall.

At the river they’re checked just a bit to set up for the jump into the water. Water sprays wildly and horses are momentarily lost to sight. Then they line out for the opposite bank, side by side, quirts flailing, trying to gain on those ahead. Many years the river is low and horses race across. Not this year, they’ve got to be good swimmers.

Then it’s up the long sloping dike road, the first two horses side by side, putting everything into that final push to the arena and finish line. The riders are working hard trying to get that last burst of energy to come in first, to complete the final 500 yards.

The river was much higher this year than normal which caused problems the opening night. Dan DeWeert serves as veterinarian for the suicide race and has for the past 10 years. He explained, “The water’s a lot higher so they couldn’t spread out. The horses in front, especially when it’s this high, they can’t push out and the horses behind will run over them. We’ve had races with this many horses where we don’t get anyone hurt.”

This year there were injuries to both horses and jockeys. No horses were seriously hurt but there were scratches and a couple with cuts that required a few stitches. Jockeys weren’t so fortunate. “We lost three cowboys: a broken jaw, broken ribs, and a broken ankle,” DeWeert said. Then the third night another cowboy broke an elbow. “Between horses and jockeys, we’ve lost about half of them,” DeWeert said. Most injuries occurred when horses behind the leaders crashed into them at the river when hooves met flesh. Out riders are there to catch riderless horses or help the injured riders back to shore. The final race contained nine horses and riders.

Not everyone approves of the race and it has come under considerable scrutiny from several animal rights groups, primarily the same ones who oppose sled dog racing in Alaska, hunting, or other activities that may cause harm to animals.

It is a dangerous sport, for animal and rider, but every precaution is taken to make it as safe as possible. The horses are quarter horses and appendix horses. They’re in great condition. Dr. DeWeert begins vet checks about a month before the Stampede. He checks hearts and eyes. They are checked for swimming ability, especially critical this year because the Okanogan River was so high. “One of the horses that won this race two or three different times didn’t even qualify because he couldn’t swim. This is the highest water since I’ve been doing this,” he said.

They are again checked daily during the races, primarily for any sign of lameness.

“I’ve been doing this for ten years and have never put a horse down,” DeWeert said. Ironically, in three of the last five years he’s had to return to his home practice and put a horse down that was injured in pasture.

Dr. DeWeert is highly qualified. Ed Thiele commented, “The vet we’ve been using (DeWeert) knows those horses just about as well as he knows his kids.” He also said the PRCA brought their own vet here last year and after he watched DeWeert take half an hour to examine three horses said, ”I’ve got no reason to be here. The guy knows more about horses than I do.”

Yes, horses have been killed over the years, as they are in thoroughbred racing, in rodeo events, or on trail rides through the hills. It can’t be eliminated. But these are well cared for horses, in excellent condition, racing as American Indians have raced and cared for them for several hundred years. And these horses are athletes. “Even the riders are athletes,” DeWeert added.

This year’s winner was Patch, owned by Kevin Carden and ridden by Tyler Peasley. The winner receives a pair of saddles, buckles, spurs, and money. They also pay day money each day to the top four placers and the overall winner will walk away with several thousand dollars.

This was Tyler’s third win but he has a long way to go to match the record of Alexander Dick. Alexander was Theresa Best’s grandfather and she describes him as “the legend of the hill. He won 33 races, 11 of them in a row.” Her mother’s dad, Frank Swimptkin, was the original landowner of the Stampede grounds. “That’s how much we’ve been involved in it,” she said.

The winning margin was about five or six lengths. Tyler gives much of the credit to the trainer, Preston Boyd. “Preston trained the horse and had the horse in perfect shape. It probably came down to a little battle of nutrition on Sunday. The horse was just feeling good.”

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