No saddle, no helmet, just a determination to reach the finish line: A glimpse at Indian Horse Relay
“North America’s original extreme sport,” as it’s known in some circles, has taken off in Canada in recent years.
It’s called Indian Horse Relay racing, and Jay Peeaychew knows a thing or two about it.
The member of Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan is enjoying his fifth year as a relay racer. The 18-year-old was introduced to the sport by an uncle when he was just 14, and he’s stayed on track with it ever since.
“It’s a tough sport, it takes a lot of courage and braveness in you,” Peeaychew said.
“To do it bareback, nothing to hang on besides the [horse’s] hair and your own will.”
Indian Relay consists of teams of riders taking laps around a track and switching or “exchanging” horses after every lap. Jumping from one sweaty, muscular, moving animal to another is what Peeaychew likes the most about it.
“The exchange is the best part, I love that part, that gets me,” he said.
He also just loves the feeling of the race.
“Flying through the backstretch, on the homestretch, looking down on the ground, seeing how fast you’re going, feeling the wind blowing your face and passing guys, and getting passed. It’s just the best feeling out there. Nothing beats it.”
Along with the adrenaline rush, Peeaychew says he enjoys the community aspect of the sport.
Peeaychew competed at the Manito Ahbee Festival in Winnipeg in May with the Elite Indian Relay Association (EIRA). It’s the first time the sport has made an appearance at the annual festival celebrating Indigenous arts, culture and music.
‘The Indy 500’ of horse racing
“In It 2 Win It” is the name of Peeaychew’s team, and owner Charles Stone calls the sport a family affair, with all hands on deck.
“There’s a lot of people in the background, from painting the horses, feeding, it’s all teamwork, and it’s family-oriented,” Stone said.
“We’ve probably got at least 20 to 25 people following us within our own group to make sure everything is done and having fun with the grandchildren and spending time with family.”
The EIRA consists of a number of teams with people of all ages, some as young as nine years old.
The dangerous sport was first introduced in Canada at the North American Indigenous Games and the Calgary Stampede in 2017, although it’s been in the United States for decades.
Veteran race announcer Earl Wood from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta says although the sport is relatively new to Canada, it’s been a part of Indigenous life for a long time.
“The element of it has been here since time immemorial,” he said.
“We’ve had connections with these animals. These are our relatives. And they’re every bit as warrior as the warrior who rides them. And with every stride, it’s a stride of reclamation..of claiming who we are as Indigenous people.”
Dolly Dagger is just one of seven horses on Peeaychew’s team. Everyone makes sure they’re cared for all year long.
EIRA president and team owner of Stick Racing, Vern “Stick” Antoine from Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, said the horses are ex-race horses, purchased from chuckwagon drivers in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Antoine has been involved with Indian Relay for the last five years and formed the association two years ago. He compares it to a world-famous race car competition.
“Indian Relay Racing is the Indy 500 of [horse] racing,” he said. “It’s exciting, it gets very exciting.”
With his community behind him and new ones ahead as he travels in Western Canada to attend races, Peeaychew said he is looking forward to the rest of the summer and hopes for another good season.
“It’s a long summer ahead, anything can happen in this game, anything.”