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Suicide Race

The Suicide Race, also promoted as the World Famous Suicide Race, is a horse race held every year, during the second week of August, in Omak, Washington as a part of the Omak Stampede, a rodeo. Held for more than 70 years, the race is known for the spectacle of more than a dozen horses and riders racing down Suicide Hill, a 225-foot (69 m) slope at a steep 62-degree angle to the Okanogan River.[1] Though the race has its inspirations in Indian endurance races, the Omak race is the 1935 brainchild of furniture salesman, Claire Pentz. The race has provoked serious concerns among animal welfarists and animals rights groups.

Contents

Description

The riders consist of both cowboys and Indians, as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, whose 1.4 million-acre (56,000 km²) reservation borders Omak, consider the annual race a tradition that extends back to the tribe's days as horse warriors in the Wild West.[1]

The course starts at the top of Suicide Hill, where riders have 50 feet (15 m) to get their horses up to full speed before charging down the hill and into the river where they either gallop or swim across the width of a football field to the other side, then sprint a last 500 yards (460 m) to the rodeo arena where the crowd waits.[2] In August the river is often low enough for the horses to run across. Most riders wear helmets, and all are required to wear life jackets.[1] Horses and riders have to pass three tests to demonstrate their ability to run in the race and navigate the river: there is an initial veterinarian exam to make sure the horse is physically healthy, a swim test to ensure horses can cross the river, and the hill test where riders ride their horses off the hill at a controlled speed to prove that the animals won't give way to fear at the brink, which can cause a dangerous pile-up.[2]

Tribe members view the race as spiritual and the ultimate demonstration of the rider's ability to become one with the horse, where their riders pray in sweat lodges to prepare for their races and adorn their horses with sacred eagle feathers.[1] Most of the riders are from the twelve Colville tribes.

History

The race traces its roots to Native American endurance races through a river basin in nearby Keller, Washington from the late 1800s.[1] The creation of the Grand Coulee Dam flooded the valley in 1933, and in 1935 Claire Pentz, a white furniture salesman and publicity director for the Omak Stampede, came up with the idea of the Suicide Race to promote the Omak Stampede.[1] Early on, racers often drank heavily before the race and carried wooden clubs to beat other jockeys and horses.[1]

Animal abuse controversy

The event is controversial among animal rights groups, including the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and Humane Society of the United States, who are against the high level of danger posed to the horses. In the previous 25 years, for example, at least 21 horses have died.[1] In 2004, three horses died after hurtling down the mountainside; two were euthanized due to a collision at the bottom of the hill and a third collapsed and died in the arena. Other common injuries resulting in death are broken knees, legs, necks and pelvic bones. Dr. Louis Enos, an equine veterinarian who has witnessed the Suicide Race firsthand, has called it "violent, abusive, with no conscious caring or understanding for the horse." Keith Dane, director of equine protection for The HSUS, states, "The Omak Suicide Race is an extreme example of cruelty to animals for entertainment, with no regard for the lives or welfare of the horses. There is nothing humane about this event, as the risks of serious injury and death to horses are very high." [3]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Nick Timiraos, The Race Where Horses Die, The Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2007.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jean Johnson, Colville's Keller Mountain tradition turns to 'Suicide Race', Indian Country Today, September 7, 2004.
  3. HSUS: Omak Suicide Race


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