The controversial race held immediately after the four-day Omak Stampede rodeo has been an important event for Native Americans in northeastern Washington for the past 80 years.
Mad Max, ridden by Fran Marchand and owned by his father, George Marchand, broke its back Aug. 13 while coming down the steep, 175-foot hill, the Okanogan Chronicle reported. On Aug. 14, Red Whiskey, owned by Bronson Peterson, broke its leg and had to be euthanized.
Ernie Williams, spokesman for the Suicide Race Owners & Jockeys Association, which runs the race, appeared saddened. “A horse is a part of the native community. We’ve lost a total of 24 horses in 80 years. It’s just like a person, you lose a part of your family,” he said.
Williams said both horses were buried after traditional ceremonies and prayers.
The course begins with a 50-foot sprint, then descends a steep, ruddy 175-yard slope known as Suicide Hill. Plunging into the Okanogan River below, the horses swim 300 yards and then run up the dike on the other side and into the arena. This year, some riders completed the race in a record-breaking 34 seconds.
The race has been criticized by animal welfare groups for many years. But Williams steadfastly and proudly defends the race. “We call it a rite of passage,” he said. “It’s traditional, it’s cultural, it’s a proof for the young men to prove their manhood. They are very serious. It’s a family event. We’ve always been affiliated with the horse. All our riders participate in various races, suicide races, all over the United States.”
According to a 1993 article in The Seattle Times, “the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, filed criminal charges in Okanogan District court charging Suicide organizer ‘Cactus’ Jack Miller with the drowning of two horses during last year’s Stampede and for conspiring to unlawfully injure other horses for the sake of amusement.”
“PAWS justifies its ability to file criminal charges on a statute that lets humane societies act as officers to enforce the state’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals law.”
The Okanogan District Court ruled in favor of the race saying PAWS did not have jurisdiction in Okanogan County. City officials also determined it was within Washington state’s law of “normal and usual course of rodeo events.”
Kay Joubert, spokeswoman for PAWS in Lynnwood, said, ”We are disheartened they continue to run this race to the detriment of horses and riders.”
In recent years three horses died in 2004, and one horse died during qualifying rounds in 2012.
Fifty-three riders, entered the qualifying races held in the weeks before the official competition this year. Most are youth from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The horses have to pass a veterinary check, a swim test, and a test on the top of the hill to ensure they will go over the edge without hesitation. The top 20 riders are chosen to race.
To prepare, Williams says, the riders go into sweathouses, and the horses are bathed in Indian medicines. “To be on this hill, you have to become one with the horse. … We pray, and it’s actually like we’re getting ready to go to war. This is the only weekend out of the year we get to play cowboys and Indians.”
Williams estimates that more than half the horses are bought out of kill pens and says some of them were discarded by the thoroughbred racing industry. “At least we give them a little more extended life here,” he said. Others are wild horses, rounded up and broken on the reservation.
Before each race, a veterinarian designated by the Owners & Jockeys Association checks the animals’ fitness. “If they think they’re sore, they pull them out for the safety of the horse,” he said.
On Sunday afternoon, three were eliminated, leaving a total of nine horses for the final run.
This year’s statewide drought has had a profound effect on the Okanogan River water levels, affecting the speeds of this year’s race. John Clemens, spokesman for the USGS Washington Water Science Center, says this year’s water flow levels on the race’s opening day, Aug. 13, are half of what is considered normal. Compared with last year’s flow, it is more than two-thirds lower. The water temperature at the start of the race was 78 degrees.
“In the old days the water was high and we never touched bottom,” Williams said. “We swam all the way… Right now it’s so slow it’s more of a skipping race than a swimming race.”
He attributes the speedy 34-second race time to low water levels and the “faster, smaller, lighter-boned” horses being bred today.
State and federal animal cruelty laws do not apply to animals in rodeos. Rodeos are not monitored by any regulatory agency, and there is no official data on the number of horses and riders killed or injured in this race.
“It’s the only allowable race like this in the whole United States because it is a cultural event held on cultural grounds, and we highly respect our horses,” Williams said.
“I think it will go on forever,” he said. “I hope it does. … We have people come from overseas, Japan and everywhere to watch this race.”
For more information
The Omak Stampede & WWorld Famous Suicide Race website
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