Indian horse relay provides 'exhilarating' spectacle for riders, fans

By many accounts, the sport of Indian horse relay has a 500-year history on the Great Plains.

And for the past six years, the high-speed bareback relay-style horse racing has been drawing crowds to Canterbury Park in Shakopee.

Derek Brown, right, paints one of his father Tim's horses.
Derek Brown, right, paints one of his father Tim's horses before the Indian horse relay at Canterbury Park in Shakopee on Saturday. Derek now lives in New Mexico and works as a professional artist.
Evan Frost | MPR News

More than a dozen top Indian horse relay teams from tribes across the country competed at Canterbury over the weekend. Only one team from Minnesota took part — the Brown Bois, led by 54-year-old Tim Brown of Minnesota's Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.

Brown competed with two of his sons, Derek, 31, and Chandler, 25. A new friend joined the team at the last minute because Brown's third son could not attend. Dan Jones, of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, said he was happy to help.

"I think it's really good that something like this is brought to a public platform to show that we are still here, and we still exist and our culture is really rich and beautiful," Jones said.

Each Indian horse relay team is made up of three horses and four warriors, one of whom is the rider. The riders are in full regalia, riding bareback and exchanging horses without stopping.

There was a packed grandstand with some 10,000 people on Saturday night at Canterbury to watch the races.

Tim Brown competed in traditional garb, bare-chested with a knee-length breechclout, moccasins and a headdress called a roach, made of porcupine hair and deer hair, with two golden eagle feathers.

Brown had the most dangerous role on the team. While the three other men secured the horses, Brown rode them in the relay, racing a mile on one horse, then jumping from that still-galloping horse to another. Then, it was around again and onto another horse and another lap, to complete the 3-mile relay race on the Canterbury track.

Tim Brown, right, stands for a photo with a racehorse jockey.
Tim Brown, right, stands for a photo with a racehorse jockey after the Indian horse relay at Canterbury Park in Shakopee.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"It's amazing — I mean, when you're running full-out on a horse there's just no other feeling in the world, it's exhilarating," he said. "And these horses, these thoroughbreds are built for it, built to run."

Indian horse relay races have historically been more popular in the western U.S, but race coordinator Andy Vig of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community said he has watched the crowds grow every year for the past six years since the competition first came to Canterbury.

"It's great exposure for what we do a lot of times on the different reservations that people don't get to see," Vig said. "This showcases the horse culture amongst the tribes."

The teams wore different colors and designs to represent their various tribes. The Brown Bois spend time before each race painting yellow designs on their three horses.

Chandler Brown walks a horse while its paint dries.
Chandler Brown walks a horse while its paint dries before the Indian horse relay at Canterbury Park.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Tim's son Derek Brown explained how the process always feels like more than a sporting event.

"When you put special designs on your horses, they could be special things from a dream or old songs — those designs were intended to guarantee, maybe victory in war, to intimidate an enemy," he said. "So when I paint those designs I'm thinking about those things."

The Brown Bois finished in last place during their race, but the thrill of the relay left Tim Brown covered in dirt from head to toe and grinning.

"It was great," he exclaimed after the race. "My horses did the best they could do and nobody got hurt."

Brown vowed he and his team will be back next year.

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