The ‘extreme sport’ of Indian Horse Relay makes a return to the Manito Ahbee festival

When the horn blows, the race starts and the adrenaline kicks in for competitors in the sport known as Indian Horse Relay.

Joseph Jackson, 16, a Plains Cree rider originally from Goodfish Lake, Alta., was first introduced to it when he was 11 and officially started racing when he was 12.

“Your blood’s rushing, it just goes blank for me,” Jackson said in an interview Monday. “It’s just me and the horse and you hear the thunder of the feet, coming in you hear the crowd. That’s the only time you hear ’em.”

The Elite Indian Relay Association (EIRA) kicked off its 2023 racing season Monday at Assiniboia Downs as part of Manito Ahbee. The EIRA races feature a maximum of four teams racing on the track at one time. Each team is made up of a setter, a back holder, a catcher, a rider or jockey as well as three thoroughbred horses.

The rider does three laps around the track, switching horses within the outline of a box drawn out in the track where the riders must jump off one horse and onto another with the help of the rest of their team.

A rider sits on a horse on a dirt track, pictured next to three people while a man in a cowboy hat takes their photo.
‘In It 2 ​​Win It’ celebrates at the finish line during Indian Horse Relay races Monday at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg. (Josh Crabb/CBC )

There are no saddles on the horses, so the competitors ride bareback with a bridle, and riders typically don’t wear helmets. The first rider to cross the line on their finisher horse wins the race for their team.

Vern “Stick” Antoine, a member of Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and president of the EIRA, said the sport is steeped in tradition.

“It’s an extreme sport,” Antoine said. “We’re bringing it back alive.”

WATCH | ‘It’s just me and the horse’: Riders gear up for Indian Horse Relay:

Indian Horse Relay returns to the Manito Ahbee festival

The sport known as Indian Horse Relay returned to the Manito Ahbee festival Monday. Riders from across western Canada took part. There are no saddles, no helmets just a horse, a bridle and a whole lot of adrenaline.

“At first we were one of the fans watching out there and then we were so intrigued with all this Indian relay going on, it got our heart pumping,” said Viola Frenchman, co-owner of the EIRA team called In It 2 ​​Win It from Mosquito First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Frenchman’s partner, Charles Stone, founded the team with his late brother. He said the sport is a family affair.

“It’s been in the US for a long time, in Canada we’re trying to promote it and it’s been good,” Stone said.

“It’s good competition. Everybody’s got good horses. It’s about having fun and respecting the equine. They’ve always been a part of our lives from way back.”

Three people on horses race on a dirt path
The Elite Indian Relay Association (EIRA) kicked off its 2023 racing season Monday at Assiniboia Downs as part of Manito Ahbee. The EIRA races feature a maximum of four teams racing on the track at one time. (Travis Golby/CBC)

That team won the championship in 2021 in their first year of racing.

The EIRA started up five years ago, according to Antoine. The association has 21 teams but only eight took part in Manito Ahbee, where teams competed for $50,000 in prize money.

A man wearing a cowboy hat is pictured on a dirt race track.
Vern ‘Stick’ Antoine is the president of Elite Indian Relay Association. (Travis Golby/CBC)

He said the sport is growing in popularity, with more participants taking an interest in the relay.

“They’ve grown up with horses and they’ve been around horses most of their lives so they’re not scared of the horses,” said Antoine, who said the horses are former race horses purchased largely from chuckwagon drivers.

A boy in a blue muscle shirt holds up his index finger and smiles while standing on a dirt to celebrate winning a horse race.
Joseph Jackson, 16, after winning an event at the Elite Indian Relay Association races held Monday at Assiniboia Downs during Manito Ahbee. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Jackson was a winner in one of the events at Manito Ahbee.

He wore a regalia in the relay made up of a porcupine hair roach and homemade moccasins while riding to victory.

“I love being around horses always ever since I was little and all the new people you get to meet and all the beautiful places you get to come — like this is my first time here and it’s gorgeous here,” Jackson said.

Most of the races are held in Saskatchewan. The next relay is scheduled for June 11 in Poundmaker Cree Nation.

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