The Native American version of the thoroughbred race world is alive and well in the mid west and signifies the role the horse has played in Native American history. Many centuries ago, horses left behind by the Spaniards gave the Native Americans a whole new lease on life. In many ways the relay races celebrate this victory.
Teams compete against one another. Four people and three horses make up each team. One rider makes three laps around the track, leaping off his existing horse and onto the next, a new horse each lap. Two team members hold the other two horses, and a mugger, or catcher, stops the oncoming horse so the rider can hop off one horse and onto the next.
Riders are bareback, holding on with their legs on powerful thoroughbreds or quarter horses that gallop top speed around one lap. Unlike traditional thoroughbred races, "jockeys" are not wearing helmets and don't stay on the horse. They must leap off, often at a run, as the galloping horse is caught, then they must leap onto the next bareback horse and go! It's risky and dangerous, but these riders make it look easy.
Horses are often painted in "war paint," a symbol of the race's origins when Native Americans rode their painted steeds bareback at flying speeds across the plains.
Thoroughbreds are used, as are Quarter Horses. The Pendleton Relay in Oregon boasts a 440-yard track that surprises some teams. Most relay teams race on tracks that are five-eighths of a mile, or 1,100 yards. Thoroughbreds are used for longer tracks, but Quarter Horses (who are short distance sprinters) are most often used for the shorter tracks.