“North America’s original extreme sport,” as it’s called in some circles, has caught on 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 the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan is enjoying his fifth year as a relay runner. The 18-year-old was introduced to the sport by an uncle at the age of 14 and has stayed true to it ever since.
“It’s a tough sport, it takes a lot of guts and bravery on your part,” Peeaychew said.
“To do it bareback, nothing to hold on to but that [horse’s] Hair and your own will.”
Indian Relay consists of teams of riders who complete laps of a track, changing or “swapping” horses after each lap. Leaping from one sweaty, muscular, moving animal to another is what Peeaychew likes 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 racing.
“Flying down the backstretch, on the home stretch, looking down at the ground, seeing how fast you’re going, feeling the wind blowing in your face and passing guys, and being passed. It’s just the best feeling out there. Nothing beats it. “
Besides the adrenaline rush, Peeaychew says he enjoys the community aspect of the sport.
Peeaychew competed with the Elite Indian Relay Association (EIRA) at the Manito Ahbee Festival in Winnipeg in May. It is the sport’s first 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 behind the scenes, from painting the horses to feeding them, it’s all teamwork and it’s family-oriented,” Stone said.
“We probably have at least 20 to 25 people following us within our own group to make sure everything is done and to have fun with the grandkids and spend time with the family.”
EIRA is made up of a number of teams of people of all ages, some as young as nine years old.
The dangerous sport was first introduced to Canada in 2017 at the North American Indigenous Games and the Calgary Stampede, although it has existed in the United States for decades.
Veteran race announcer Earl Wood of Alberta’s Saddle Lake Cree Nation says that while the sport is relatively new to Canada, it has been a part of indigenous life for a long time.
“The element of it has been here since time immemorial,” he said.
“We had connections with these animals. These are our relatives. And they are warriors as much as the warrior who rides them.”
Dolly Dagger is just one of seven horses on Peeaychew’s team. Everyone ensures that they are looked after all year round.
EIRA President and Stick Racing team owner Vern “Stick” Antoine of Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan said the horses were ex-racehorses purchased from chuckwagon drivers in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Antoine has been with Indian Relay for five years and founded the club two years ago. He compares it to a world famous racing car competition.
“Indian Relay Racing is the Indy 500 of [horse] “Race,” he said. “It’s exciting, it’s going to be very exciting.”
With his community behind him and new ones ahead as he travels to western Canada to compete, Peeaychew said he’s looking forward to the rest of the summer and hoping for another good season.
“We have a long summer ahead of us, anything can happen in this game, anything.”