Rick Smith video
JonMarc Skunkcap after an exchange in the Indian Relay National Championships.

Watch the Excitement and Danger of ‘Indian Relay’ on PBS

Christina Rose

As the horses round the corner and head for the next relay, you are holding your breath. Will he get on the horse clean? Will the horse be ready? It almost doesn’t matter which team is winning because so much is at stake—every moment the rider and horse are together is a success.

Indian Relay is high-speed horse racing widely enjoyed across the Rocky Mountain West. A film by the same name highlights the excitement and danger of the sport and will be featured as part of PBS’s celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

The film follows the trials and pitfalls of three teams: the Tissidimit Team, Shoshone-Bannock Nation, Ft. Hall, Idaho; the Murray Team, Blackfeet Nation, Browning, Montana; the MM Express Team, Apsaalooke Nation, Crow Agency, Montana.

Riders at the start of the championship race during the Indian Relay National Championships (Rick Smith video)

Each race begins with eight riders who range from teens to adults, running a lap at full gallop, leaping from their horse and just as quickly onto another, and finishing the race at breakneck speeds. The riders have their hearts and souls wrapped up in the horses they call their family, and each recognizes the healing horses have brought to their people.

Indian Relay is no mint julep-Kentucky Derby. This is horse racing, rez style. The horses may be wearing halters with bits, but the impressive amount of control these bareback riders exhibit could only be seen coming from a background where the communication and adrenaline are shared by rider and horse alike.

Kendall Old Horn, owner of the MM Indian Relay Team. (Rick Smith video)

The film is a lot about the horses and riders making it round the track, but the danger is clear. It’s a faster and far more furious sport than the English ever cooked up. People get hurt. Horses get away and run the race alone.

The men are riding bareback at 40 mph, hands in the air like they just don’t care, painted rumps and colors flying, mommas crying with happiness in the stands, while the holders of the next horse in the relay is hoping he can do his job equally well.

The stands are packed, and its moccasins and breechcloths over shorts. This is an all-Native sport. And ladies, for the handsome riders and the power of the horses, the competition, the speed and close calls, I dare you to hold back your cheers until the end.

Zack Rock, MM Express Indian Relay team rider (Aaron Pruitt)

Indian Relay airs on PBS, Monday, November 18 as part of the celebration of Native American Heritage Month.