A different kind of horse racing will hit Billings in September when riders representing a dozen different Indian tribes will spend as much time in the dirt as they do hanging on to their speeding bareback ponies.
The All Nations Indian Relay Championships moves to the MetraPark grandstands for 2015 and will showcase the best teams the growing sport has to offer Sept. 17-20.
The relays involve three-person teams. The riders circle the track three times on three different horses. After each completed lap riders exchange horses with the assistance of three other team members.
“It’s all bareback and all the riders are in Native American regalia,” said Gary Fellers, one of the event’s organizers. “The ponies are also painted as they would be traditionally to honor them and the connections the riders have to them.”
The championships punctuate a 16-event series that begins June 12 at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash.
The Professional Indian Horse Racing Association’s relay series is in its third year and expanded to 60 teams in 2015. The teams receive points at each event they participate in and the top 30 teams at the end of the season will qualify for the championships in Billings.
The winning relay team wins a $50,000 purse in addition to champion jackets and belt buckles.
The PIHRA chose Billings to host the championships after the event’s previous site in Sheridan, Wyo., became unavailable for the planned weekend.
Nancy Harrison, media relations for the PIHRA, said Billings will hopefully become the permanent location for the Relay Championships.
“This year, the Wyoming Rodeo Grounds wasn’t available on the date we needed for this year’s event and frankly we were looking for a place that is larger like the Metra,” Harrison said. “It’s such a big, beautiful facility and there’s such a rich history in that area.”
Harrison said the event drew thousands of people last year in Sheridan and the larger population base in Billings will hopefully boost attendance.
According to Fellers, moving the event to Montana makes sense for the competitors as well.
He said the state is home to the most relay events and powerhouse racing teams, most notably from the Crow and Blackfeet tribes.
“Montana is also kind of centrally located for teams coming from South Dakota to the Pacific Northwest,” Fellers said.
The horse relays won’t be the only attraction the event has to offer that weekend.
Fellers said the PIHRA’s board aims to create a cultural event complete with drumming, dancing, and an artisans market.
The PIHRA hasn’t set a start date for ticket sales, but they could become available at the MetraPark box office as early as the second week of June.