How Indian Relay Works

Most of us will be unfamiliar with the titular sport at the heart of the new documentary Indian Relay, which premieres tonight, November 18 on Independent Lens on PBS at 10 PM [check local listings], and while the film itself certainly makes the sport vivid, a quick primer is in order. First, watch see this excerpt from the film for an intro to the rules.

Zack Lil Munce Kyle in relay race

In the sport of Indian relay, the rider is both the commander and the baton.

The rules are fairly straightforward: Teams consist of four people and three horses. A team’s rider makes three laps around the track, changing to a new horse at the beginning of each lap.  Two teammates stand at the edge of the track both holding and calming the waiting horses for the incoming rider. The fourth teammate’s job is to catch the arriving horse while the rider dismounts and leaps onto the next horse. [From Native American Times.]

Via the Missoulian:

With the sport comes a whole set of lingo – besides the rider, there’s a mugger who catches the rider’s horse when he dismounts, the set-up guy (or exchange holder) who holds the fresh mount, and then a back holder with the next fresh horse.

After the rider gallops off, the back holder passes the fresh horse to the set-up guy, while the mugger passes the horse he’s just caught to the back holder.

Relay requires participants to not only be fearless but to be agile athletes as well, with balance, stamina, and strength all important attributes in riders.

Indian relay is a tradition that dates back at least as far back as the 1900s, if not earlier, in the Rocky Mountain state tribes.

Riders now have their own organization, the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association (PIHRA), that aims “to make it easier and safer for contestants to compete in Indian relay and racing competition.” The association’s guiding principles are “safety for the horses and riders, sharing the excitement of Indian Racing with as many as possible, providing economic opportunity on the reservations, and encouraging those involved to reconnect to their traditional culture and relationship with the horse.”

For more on Indian relay, watch this clip from the film:

About Craig Phillips

ITVS Interactive Editor, based in San Francisco.
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