Battered, dusty and painted riders galloped, stumbled and stopped around the track in front of a crowd that swung from happiness to sadness to fear and to exhilaration with each change of horse.
The 2015 All Nations Indian Relay Championships brought a herd of sights, sounds and emotions to the crowd attending the third day of races at MetraPark on Saturday.
The festivities began with pairs of painted men wearing feathered headdresses and traditional clothing, some holding war clubs, dancing before the grandstand. Eventually the dancing stopped, and U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke delivered a welcome address by video.
Northern Cheyenne Chief Phillip Whiteman then went on to speak of the “resurrection of the indigenous horse culture” and recalled his ancestor’s encounters with General George Armstrong Custer before declaring, “We are all connected, black, yellow, red, white. We are all one nation.” Afterwards, Whiteman delivered a prayer in his native language, which some listened to while standing with their hats off.
After the national anthem and a flag anthem were sung, the opening ceremonies continued with a shirtless painted riders guiding a herd of horses out into the middle of the dirt arena as loudspeakers projected a deep voice speaking over an orchestral soundtrack.
“Mighty herds of horses. Out of a dream they came…” the voice said. “Flowing rivers of horses, flowing rivers of horses up the coulees and the draws.” As the riders circled the horses, at times yelling, racing, and re-enacting battle scenes, the voice continued. “These horses have a soul. Do them good and respect them.”
Pulling a starter gun from a hip holster and aiming it skyward, event organizer Gary Fellers got the day started off with a bang. Team Rides a Pretty Horse’s Clyde Jefferson burst out to an immediate lead, which he never relinquished, finishing lengths ahead of the second-place finisher Darren Charges Strong Jr., a rider for team Charges Strong. As he passed the finish line smiling, the 21-year-old Jefferson threw his gently used riding crop toward the stands.
In the ensuing celebration, Jefferson’s family came out onto the track, and a family member handed Jefferson the young son of his recently deceased brother, Clyde Nomee Jr., who passed away in an August motorcycle accident. As Clyde held his nephew, LeBron Nomee, a pull on his reins caused the three-year-old horse, Off His Rocker, to buck and dismount Jefferson and his nephew. In the scrum, Jefferson was stepped on before the horse was pulled away. Jefferson was able to get to his feet, pained but not seriously injured.
LeBron escaped serious injuries and even earned some bragging rights with his grandfather. “He got up, he was smiling, showing his grandpa his scratches and everything,” Jefferson said.
Norma Bell Whiteman, the wife of Rides A Pretty Horse team owner Channis Whiteman, described Jefferson as reserved and thoughtful. “Kind of a quiet guy,” Whiteman said. “He doesn’t say much, but I think he thinks a lot.”
Jefferson, who his team owner Whiteman said is “one of the best riders in the nation,” had little to say on the dangers of the sport. “It comes with it,” Jefferson said.
Robert Gray, a rider for Awasappsii Express, was able to win a heat last night, netting somewhere in the range of $1,000 for his team, despite his horse, Caliente, rolling over him Thursday night. Gray was similarly resigned to the risks of the sport. “I don’t even think about it because it makes my back hurt,” Gray said.
Sitting in a picnic chair in barn No. 7 after he concluded the second heat of the day with a third-place finish, Ashton Old Elk, a 22-year old Crow rider from Lodge Grass for team Old Elk Relay, winced as he removed pink spat tape from his shoes. At a Monday practice, Old Elk, who comes from Lodge Grass and is a member of the Crow Tribe, was thrown over the front of a horse. “I went over his head, did a full flip and landed on my back,” Old Elk said, adding that he initially had trouble walking afterwards. Like Gray, Old Elk finds reprieve from his pain through a focus on the competition at hand. “When I go out there, I just forget about it and it hurts after.”
The risks of Indian relay horse racing are not reserved for riders and their teammates. Old Elk's 6-year-old horse Rio Good suffered a broken leg in the day's second heat and had to be euthanized.
“The third turn, he cut in,” Old Elk said. “The horse ahead’s leg hit his knee, so he hyperextended.” Rio Good’s already weakened leg was dealt another blow when it stepped into a divot in the track not long after. “After that happened, his speed changed, he was favoring the one side,” said Old Elk. “I pulled back, but he just bit his bit and went faster. He was seeing all the horses in front.”
Back in the barn with his family, Kenny Ward, one of Old Elk Relay’s trainers, came back distraught and apologized to Old Elk for the horse’s death. “I’m sorry,” Ward said, before stepping into a side stall and sitting down on an overturned white bucket, head in hands. After a few moments, Ward lit a cigarette, still looking at the ground, as other team members came in to comfort him on the loss of the horse the team had purchased two weeks ago.
After it was put down, the horse was loaded onto a trailer and towed by a white Ford F-150 to a spot alongside the chain link fence bordering Highway 87. Children, some of them from Wild Horse Ridge’s Shetland pony racing team, climbed on the sides of the trailer to peer in at the body. Though some tears were shed, Coral Old Bull, an 8-year-old from Pryor, tried to be positive. “It just makes you stronger to win the race for that horse,” Old Bull said. Still, Old Bull and her friends could not deny the sadness of the sight. “Going back to see the horse makes it sad,” she said.
Twila Old Chief, an Old Elk Relay supporter with ties to the team, provided a spiritual outlook on the passing of the horse. “Our belief is if you take care of your animals, they take your place if something’s going to happen” Old Chief said.
“Some of us take it differently,” Old Chief said. Seeing Ashton Old Elk alive and healthy, albeit still nursing a bruised back, Old Chief expressed her relief. “I’m glad you’re safe though. The horse took care of you.” Old Chief said. “They love you that much.”