Colville's Keller Mountain tradition turns to 'Suicide Race'

Jean Johnson | September 08, 2004

Three horses killed in 2004 event

PORTLAND, Ore. – It all started in 1935 when the Anglo publicity chairman
for the Omak, Wash. annual Stampede came up with an idea to put the small
town of fewer than 5,000 on the map. Omak is just across the river from the
Colville reservation. So why not copy the old Keller Mountain race the
Indians used to hold? It’s rough, ready, and sure to draw a crowd.

The idea worked, and boosters now call the event the “World Famous Suicide
Race.” Each year 20 horses qualify and run four consecutive nights after
the rodeo performances are finished. At the crack of the starting gun under
the cover of darkness, riders spur their horses 120 yards to the edge of
Suicide Hill before plunging down the 50 degree slope 210 feet to the
Okanogan River. Once they hit the water they either gallop or swim across
the river the width of a football field to the other side where they sprint
a last 500 feet to the rodeo arena where the crowd waits. It’s all over in
a matter of minutes.

And for 17 of the 300 horses that have raced in the past 15 years, it’s all
over, period. They fall prey to injuries so serious that they’re euthanized
on the spot. That’s why the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS)
opposes the event, calling it the most deadly horse race in the world. The
death of three horses in this year’s Suicide Race hasn’t helped matters.

In the first of the four nightly races that began Aug. 12, one horse
stumbled into a second at the bottom of Suicide Hill. Both were euthanized
immediately. The third horse that died made it to the end of the race, only
to collapse in the arena in front of the crowd.

Despite this year’s deaths, Secretary for the Colville Tribe’s Owners and
Jockeys Association, Pete Palmer disagreed with the PAWS claim. “There are
probably more horses put down on a race track than there are in the history
of the Suicide Race,” Palmer said. “If you look at the horses, you see that
they are the best cared for animals. They are these peoples’ lives, and a
lot of them were raised from colts.”

Palmer continued “the risk that the horse and rider take out on the hill is
no greater risk than they’d take out chasing wild horses. And the race is
one thing our riders use to keep in shape and train. A lot of these are
family horses, kids ride them and team rope off them. They’re just all
around family horses that get a lot of love and attention.”

Still, event organizers have added safety precautions in recent years.

Horses and riders have to pass three tests to demonstrate their ability to
run in the race and navigate the river. First there’s an initial vet check
to make sure the animals are sound physically. Then there’s a swim test to
ensure horses can cross the river – which usually by race time in August is
low enough to run through. Finally there’s the hill test. Riders take their
horses off the hill at a controlled lope to prove that the animals won’t
give way to fear at the brink.

“In the past when a horse balked, it caused one heck of a wreck,” said
Palmer. “Most of the course is fairly wide, but at the top of the hill
there’s sort of a bottleneck. It’s about 50-feet wide where all 20 horses
kind of bunch up.”

Backers of the Suicide Race also maintain a shallow draft hydroplane boat
in the river during the race that can work in shallow waters, pulling
horses to the safety of trailers where they can either be euthanized or
protected until they recover from falls.

“Like this year,” Palmer said, “it’s usually at the bottom of the hill when
the horses hit the river that they have problems. Sometimes they get to
going so fast that they’re pushed by the momentum, and their legs can’t
keep up. Then they can hit the water wrong and lose their footing. Still,
it’s usually the jockey who’s hurt worse than the horse.”

In 2003 a young man got a head injury that required hospitalization, but
other than that, accidents to riders have largely been confined to broken
bones and lacerations needing stitches.

While PAWS spokespeople did not return calls for comment, an Internet
search of the organization’s writings on the Suicide Race revealed sound
condemnation of both the event, and the way it’s managed to keep activists

“Because of all the bad publicity we get from PAWS, we do not allow cameras
down by the river. We have our own press to take photographs,” said Palmer.
“If someone from outside wants to come and shoot the race, we require them
to check in with the press office and get a pass. One year we had someone
go clear over on the side of the river where the horses come down, and
that’s an area that for safety purposes, we don’t allow anyone other than
the veterinarian.”

Rather than discussing logistics of the race, though, Palmer wanted to talk
about what keeps bringing riders from the Colville tribe back each year.
“This year we have 24 riders trying to qualify and only three are
non-Indian. The race is something that’s been in families for generations.
It’s passed down that way, from fathers and uncles to sons.”

Colville participation in the race may have been about tradition, but one
thing’s clear, the original Keller Mountain race was never run in the dark.
Palmer said that having the race at night is pretty much due to logistics
surrounding the larger Omak Stampede. “It’s just when the main rodeo ends,”
she said. “The race starts each night after the events in the arena are

In early days of the Suicide Race riders carried torches and more recently
organizers have installed some lighting along one edge of the hill. Still,
according to Palmer, “the lighting only lights up things a little bit, and
I’ve heard jockeys say that when you come down and break over the hill you
don’t see nothing. Flashes of light, maybe. But going at that speed and
paying attention to what you need to, it’s hard to distinguish much.”

The World Famous Suicide Race at Omak, Wash. then is both a traditional and
non-traditional event for the Colville Indians. Yes, horsemen loved to
compete against each other in the old days. And yes, they stormed down
Keller Mountain on their mounts while everyone gathered to watch. But they
never raced in the dark like they do now. Never flew over the ground when
they couldn’t see where they were going.

Despite the changes, though, the Colvilles keep coming back to the Omak
Stampede and its Suicide Race.