“Indian Relay, a type of bareback horse racing practiced by Native American tribes in the plains states, blends heritage and danger. For one family, it’s a shared passion that means everything.” V. J. Blue, The New York Times
Excerpt: Holding Tight to a Racing Tradition, Photographs and Text by Victor J. Blue, The New York Times
“Richard Long Feather is searching for his son Jace among the bareback riders as they storm toward the grandstand at the Crow Fair. Stepping away from the rail and onto the dirt of the track, Richard raises his arms above his head as a signal: In one motion, he is telling Jace where to aim and warning Jace’s horse to slow down. Before Jace even reaches his father, he leaps from the back of his horse. Hitting the ground bounding, Jace grabs a handful of mane of a second horse, held by his brother, Jestin, and swings himself onto its back. Jestin slaps the second mount on the rump, and it fires back onto the track. Richard hands off the first horse to a fourth teammate and braces for the next exchange. Dust swirls. The crowd cheers.
This is Indian Relay.
For the Long Feathers, races likes these are both a family undertaking and a deep-rooted passion, a form of competition practiced and sustained by Native American tribes in the plains states. In Indian Relay’s traditional form, one rider completes three circuits of a track, changing his mount after each loop.
Each race features up to eight teams consisting of a rider, three steely handlers and three horses. The competitors ride bareback, using only reins and a whip to stay on. As the rider approaches the starting line for each successive lap, he leaps from a running horse onto a fresh one. It is dangerous, athletic and intensely competitive.
Richard Long Feather, the head of his family and his team, was born in 1963 on the Standing Rock reservation, which straddles the border of North and South Dakota and which is home to the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota to which he belongs. Raised by his grandparents, he spoke only Lakota until he was 5. The first horse he rode was yoked to his grandfather’s wagon as it delivered water and provisions to isolated families…As a teenager, he began entering so-called suicide races — unofficial cross-country competitions on improvised courses. After his uncles recruited him as a rider for their Indian Relay team, he built a reputation as a tough rider and dependable breaker of colts.
As an adult, he and his wife, Virginia, settled their young family near Fort Yates, N.D., where Richard taught his children to ride. The Long Feathers entered their first Indian Relay in 2013… Training for relays is a constant said of the 6 a.m. agility workouts that fill his winter months…Conditioning for the horses starts early, as well. ‘This year we started and there was still three feet of snow on the ground,’ he said. ‘Make ’em jump through those big snow banks. It just builds ’em up.’ In the springtime Jace and Jestin move to the track to train the horses in pairs, working on their exchanges. These split-second handoffs are the key to Indian Relay success. The top relay teams all have quality horses, but every competitor knows a relay is won or lost in the exchanges: If the two transitions are not performed flawlessly, it will not make much difference how fast the horses are…It isn’t just the riders who have to be skilled athletes. The setup man who holds the next mount as the rider circles the track — on Richard’s team, this is Jestin’s job — has to be a great horseman, too. ‘t’s impossible to hold a horse still for longer than a minute,’ Real Bird said. ‘You’ve got to let a horse be a horse.’ And the catcher — Richard, on Team Long Feather — who must stop the speeding horse that arrives has to be fearless. ‘He’s going to get run over,”’Real Bird said, ‘and he’s got to be O.K. with that.’
As post time nears, Richard fills a can with dried sage and lights it. While the boys wrap the legs of the three horses they will run — Cabaret, Mr. Coke Man and Runaway Cal — Richard makes his way from stall to stall, wafting the gray smoke over the horses’ backs, half-singing prayers in Lakota for speed and safety in the race.
Ken Real Bird, a Crow horseman, calls the races at the fair. He has seen the sport grow from a bush-league pastime to a high-stakes competition, with purses worth tens of thousands of dollars. No one knows for sure when Indian Relay began in its modern iteration. The Shoshone Bannock Tribe in Idaho claims to be the originator of the sport, but Real Bird notes that the first Crow Fair, in 1904, had horse racing.
The first heat goes well for the Long Feathers. The exchanges are smooth, and Jace runs hard for second place but is caught at the wire and finishes third. It is good enough to secure a spot in the Sunday’s championship race, but Jace knows it won’t be easy. Teams are getting better every year. ‘Two years ago, you could be good and win anywhere,’ he said. ‘Now, you’ve got to be good just to keep up.’
The Crow Fair races offer unsatisfying results for the Long Feather team: Jace finishes in fifth place, though the family still heads home with a check.
As the sun rises the next day, Richard pulls into his driveway and unloads the horses. Restless after hours in the trailer, they sprint off over the prairie. In minutes, they are out of sight.”