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Indian Country's Kentucky Derby: Exciting And Dangerous Relay Race Grabs Hold of Tradition

Photo of rider changing horses.
Russel Daniels for KUER


It’s called America’s first extreme sport. It’s certainly old … and extreme. Each summer on the Fort Hall Reservation in southeastern Idaho, Shoshone Bannock tribal members gear up for Indian relay. KUER's Mountain West News Bureau reporter Nate Hegyi attended the event early this month with photojournalist Russel Daniels.  


Photo of rider on horse.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

Trevor Beasley, 30, of Fort Hall, Idaho, warms up his horse before the Chief Race. The Chief Race is a short sprint where the jockeys wear headdresses and team jerseys. Like most relay teams and riders, Beasley, who races for the Ba Kia Dah team, prefers thoroughbred horses such as As Thunder Rolls, his brown mare.  

Photo of two riders and horses.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

Dallon Yokohama, left, and Trevor Beasley, race side-by-side in the last stretch of the Warrior Race, in which jockeys sprint 50 yards on foot before leaping onto the back of a bareback horse and racing one lap around the track. Beasley, 30, first began racing back in 2000. Now he owns horses and manages the relay team Bah Kia Dah — a term his great-great-grandfather used for cowboys.


Photo of participants at trailer.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

Trevor Beasley, 30, and his children, Alaiya, 9, and Traestan, 3, rest after an afternoon of racing. Beasley’s left hand has two broken fingers, injuries from relay racing. He has also been kicked in the back by a horse and has busted his ankle while racing. The sport is tough on horses, as well. They are occasionally injured and even die on the track. A spokeswoman for the Humane Society said in a statement that her organization does not have a position on Indian relay specifically, but that “any sporting event that endangers horses and puts their lives at risk is one that should be held accountable, and work to remedy the causes.”

Photo of riders leading horses.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

The Boogie Boys Team, front, Coby Team, Cedar Ridge Team and Buckskin Relay Team, back, horse handlers bring the relay exchange horses onto the track for the Indian Relay Race. They act as a pit crew for the jockeys, holding secondary horses in place and grabbing incoming animals.  

Photo of youth participants preparing for the race.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

From left to right, Evin Broncho, 13, Dreson Ball, 12, Bryan Ball, 5, and Tay-a Osborne, 16, meet up before the racing begins. The Treaty Days Indian relay races on the Fort Hall reservation in southeastern Idaho bring out Shoshone and Bannock families. The local tribes say that the sport first began at Fort Hall more than a century ago. But its origins stretch back more than three centuries, when tribes such as the Shoshone and Bannock first climbed onto the backs of horses reintroduced to North America by the Spanish. It’s a relationship that has survived forced assimilation and the loss of their land.

Photo of spectators on fence.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

Local youth watch the relays from on top of the livestock fencing at the Fort Hall rodeo grounds. The Fort Hall event is a smaller series of races where most of the participants are from the Shoshone-Bannock community. But as the sport has gained popularity in recent years, reservations and state fairs across North America are hosting relays. In 2018, 38 teams from across Indian Country competed in the Indian relay championship races in Walla Walla, Wash., where winning teams earned upwards of $50,000.

Photo of young rider.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

Evin Broncho, 13, of Blackfoot, Idaho, pulls ahead in the Youth Straightaway Race. She began racing a couple of years ago and loves the sport’s speed. “I just have a connection with my horse,” she said. “It feels good when you’re running.”

Photo of two riders in youth race.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

Dreson Ball, 12, left, and Dontay Jay, 13, of Fort Hall, Idaho get turned around at the exchange during the Youth Relay Race. “It’s just fun to ride horses,” Jay said. “[It feels] kind of nerve-wracking but you get used to it.”

Photo of youth race.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

A young rider falls off at the starting line of the Youth Straightaway Race during the Indian Relay Race on July 3. Younger riders and teens race smaller, mixed-breed Shetland ponies.

Photo of two riders in women's race.
Credit Russel Daniels for KUER

Raedeyn Teton, left, and Jessica Broncho, race side-by-side in a Straightaway Ladies Race, in which a rider races a single lap around the track atop a bareback horse. Traditionally, only men participated in the relay races. But in recent years, more women have taken up racing.



Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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