Indian Relay sport giving youth a 'chance to become something'

A traditional Indigenous sport is growing in popularity in Canada with young horse riders who are finding a new purpose in life.

Young men are finding purpose in the extreme sport that's growing in popularity

Tyson Head, right, helps rider Dylan Singer warm up before an Indian relay event in Saulteaux First Nation in central Saskatchewan. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

At a recent race in Saulteaux First Nation in central Saskatchewan, spectators packed the white wooden stands, even in the pouring cold rain.

On the track, the rule is those riders who dare to jump on one of the thoroughbreds have to make three laps bareback. Each time they cross the finish line, they have to meet their teams and exchange horses. Sometimes the animals bolt. Other times, they won't move.

"It's exciting. It's fast. It's fun," said Tyson Head, captain of the TK Farrier team. "Anything can happen out there. It's completely chaos."

Head's team members exercise their horses before race time. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Indian Relay, as racers call it, is the extreme horse racing sport that has been taking place in the United States for decades, and only recently started spreading north of the border after being introduced at the North American Indigenous Games and the Calgary Stampede in 2017.

Since then, the Canadian Indian Relay Racing Association has been holding weekly events in different western Canadian communities from the spring to the fall. 

The second annual Canadian Indian Relay championships will be held Sept. 1-2 in Enoch Cree Nation, Alta.

The origins of the race are unclear, but the association says it pays homage to those who roamed the plains on horseback hundreds of years ago.

Singer, who is part of Head's Indian relay team, paints his horse. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Head, who is the reigning Canadian champion from Mistawasis First Nation, said, "You've got a bunch of nations all running together and becoming as one."

"It's nice to see. Everyone is chasing the Indian Relay."

You've got a bunch of nations all running together and becoming as one.- Tyson Head, reigning Canadian champion from Mistawasis First Nation

At the race in Saulteaux First Nation, the jockeys wear regalia — some with painted faces and others in headdresses. They take off to the beat of powwow music blaring from the announcer's booth.

Riders have to exchange horses three times in Indian relay bareback. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Most jockeys competing in Indian Relay are under the age of 35.

Head is also training the next generation to take the lead and has a system.

"You say, 'Hey you want to ride a horse? Get on it. Let's see. Let's see what you can do,'" Head said. "If they're no good, you don't hurt their feelings. Maybe try a quieter horse, and that's just how it is. Give the youth a chance to become something."

It's easy to lose the lead, so teams have to get their horses moving quickly out of the gate. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Head helped Cory Jackson, 23, speed to the top and win at the Indigenous Games. Now Jackson is helping youth in his community of Whitefish Lake, Alta.

"I feel proud teaching all the boys back home how to ride," Jackson said. "It keeps them out of trouble. At least, they're working with their horses and you know they're going home every night … At least, I know they're safe."

But the heart-thumping, nail-biting heats — there can be three to six teams per heat — can be dangerous.

Racers cross the finish line at the Indian relay event in Saulteaux First Nation. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

'It means everything to me'

Jackson's cousin Kal Jackson, 19, is on crutches after being run over during an exchange with a horse.

Still, the injury hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for the sport.

"This is what we signed up for, and you have to pay the price," Kal said. "It means everything to me. I'd die doing this sport."

Jockey Kal Jackson, 19, is on crutches after being run over by a horse. He plans to get back on as soon as he heals. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Racing steered Kal and many other young riders from the wrong crowd, helped them find a purpose and reconnect with their culture.

"It's something that I can do until my bones start aching on me," Kal said. "They're our brothers and sisters — the horse."

The extreme sport is giving the next generation goals to aspire to. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Head shows riders not only what it takes to become a winner, but what it means to properly take care of their animals by trimming, feeding and exercising them.

A chance to become 'somebody'

"It's a good inspiration having the youth do something with their time instead of getting in trouble or getting steered the wrong way," Head said.

Wherever he goes to compete, the youth follow.

"They're always here," Head said. "You can't even leave them home because they'll find a ride here!"

A young rider celebrates after finishing his race. Organizers hope the passion continues. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Head said he's proud of their transformation. 

"I've seen a bad kid. He was in a bad route and then all of a sudden bang. He's one of the best riders here," he said. "That's what I like seeing. The youth coming from nowhere to [becoming] somebody."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: