Robin Daniels from the Mistawasis First Nation stands proudly as his team is honoured at the Canadian Indian Relay Race Championships Sept. 30 in Exhibition Park.
Tradition and teamwork charged into Lethbridge this past weekend on the bare back of a thoroughbred.
The sounds of indigenous drums and throat singers radiated through the grounds as races took place Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
Fans were treated to multiple displays of traditional dances and food between heats while teams from Indigenous reservations across Canada geared up for the first annual Canadian Indian Relay Race Championship at Exhibition Park.
Relay teams are made up of a jockey, two horse holders and a mugger, the person who catches the horse during the intense exchanges.
The races begin with the riders jumping onto their first horse and riding a lap around the track.
Once the lap is complete, the rider quickly dismounts and jumps onto the next horse to complete another lap.
Dexter Bruised Head, President of the Canadian Indian Relay Race Association (CIRRA), has been involved with horse racing since he was a young child. His family has been involved for even longer.
“Going back to the 1900’s, my grandfather was one of the first Calgary Stampede race champions. He really set the course for the rest of the generations to follow in his footsteps and be involved with horses,” said Bruised Head.
Growing up on the Blood Reserve Bruised Head originally found himself successfully competing as a rodeo cowboy for many years before retiring.
As the sport of relay racing began to grow he found the best way to be involved was to help grow the sport from behind the scenes.
In his capacity as CIRRA President, Bruised head has worked hard to increase the number of teams participating.
According to the long-time race supporter there are 18 active teams who take part in Canadian events. As the sport develops and finds its way to main stage arenas, Bruised Head anticipates the number will continue to rise.
This weekends event featured teams from Treaty 6 territories, Lone Wolf of the Piikani Nation and Okan Warriors of the Siksika Nation. Young Money and the Carlson Team of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Montana rounded out the weekend.
Kyri Jackson, member of the Lone Wolf team, took her place at the starting line for only the second time this past weekend.
Tightly grasping her horse Cherokee’s reigns, the young rider raced her way to a first place finish in the championship run.
“Today was my second race but it was Cherokee’s first. I was nervous he wouldn’t be a good choice for the race but, he was amazing,” said Jackson.
The humble champion says there is nothing in the world that compares to the sensation of racing.
“It’s a real rush. Feeling the horses power is just incredible. It feels like flying,” said Jackson.
Hailing from Goodfish Lake, Alberta, Jackson got into the sport because of her family.
Her cousins have competed in horse racing events for many years. At the beginning of this summer, they recognized a talent in the youthful teen and brought her on to their relay team.
Jackson thanks her family for bringing her aboard the team and knows events such as this go a long way in helping the indigenous population find new passions to focus their attention on.
“Things like this keep people involved in good stuff and not in things like drugs and alcohol. It’s really good for our communities,” said Jackson.
Bruised Head mimicked the sentiment and spoke to the positive influence racing has on the youth.
“Young people want to represent their communities by racing. There is a lot of discipline required to train and race horses. It really becomes a deterrent for mischief. I believe that every one of these kids is going to grow up to be a great young warrior,” said Bruised Head.
Riders not only train their body extensively by dieting and working out, but they work vigorously to gain trust and build relationships with the horses.
After the success of this weekend’s festivities, the future for the sport looks bright for the southern Alberta community. A deal was signed between the CIRRA and Exhibition Park to host the championships in Lethbridge for the next five years.