'Extreme sport' of Indian Horse Relay makes return to Manito Ahbee festival

'In It 2 Win It' celebrates at the finish line during Indian Horse Relay races Monday at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg. (Josh Crabb/CBC  - image credit)
'In It 2 Win It' celebrates at the finish line during Indian Horse Relay races Monday at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg. (Josh Crabb/CBC - image credit)

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 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.

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."

Travis Golby/CBC
Travis Golby/CBC

"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 U.S. 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."

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.

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.

Travis Golby/CBC
Travis Golby/CBC

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

He wore 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.