WRITTEN BY ERIKA SHULTZ / ASSOCIATED PRESS
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WHITE SWAN, Wash. (AP) — Teams from around the Northwest, including Washington and Oregon, took part this weekend in the 18th annual Heemsah Memorial Wild Horse Race at the White Swan rodeo grounds on the Yakama Nation.
Leon “Stinky” Heemsah, a Yakama-enrolled cowboy, started the competition in 1995 after 46 years of racing with his brothers. He retired after a string of injuries, including breaking seven ribs in Omak, breaking his arm in Pendleton and cracking his ankle in Reno.
“I got all busted up,” he said.
During the race, three-man teams — a mugger, a jockey and a shank man — attempt to saddle and ride an unbroken horse, aided only by a lead rope. Several teams compete at once with the goal of crossing the judge’s finish line.
“To be honest, I think my uncles are crazy,” said Karen Cunningham, one of the organizers.
During the two-day weekend event, cowboys and cowgirls also competed in wild cow races, ranch bronc riding and colt races for kids and teens. Several hundred people attended.
Throughout the years, the Heemsah Memorial Wild Horse Race has helped keep Leon’s family of 14 siblings together, as well as honor his late siblings and mother.
“This is put on for them,” Leon said. “They loved the rodeo.”
At the beginning of the festivities, cowboys and cowgirls removed their hats and bowed their heads in tribute to the horse racers and organizers who have died. A tribal song reverberated across the dusty arena, and cowboys from around the Northwest raised their hands to the sun-filled sky.
Casey Heemsah, 29, another organizer, said there has been a decline in wild horse races in the past 10 to 15 years due to pressure from animal activists. The St. Paul Rodeo in Oregon canceled its wild horse race after horses collided.
Casey said changes have been made over the years to help protect the animals and the riders. He believes wild horse racing is an important part of Native American heritage, and important for their future.
“It helps keep kids grounded and out of gangs,” he said.
Attendee Emery Benson said native tribes have been breaking untamed horses for centuries, using them for transportation to sustain their livelihood.
“It’s an excitement that brings us life,” he said. “We are horse people.”
There are so many wrongs in this so-called “wild horse race” it is difficult to know where to begin. What is really disturbing is the comment that teaching youngsters this abusive event “keeps kids grounded and out of gangs.” So brutality with animals is acceptable over brutality with humans?
If you people are an example of “horse people” I would not want to be a horse around you. And please do not tell me I do not understand you and your relationship with the horse. I understand it alright. It is called savage.
Come on. Is this all you know? Can’t you elevate your thinking even a little? Is there no one among you with any vision?
Kindness, respect and gratitude for the horse is the tradition we should be handing down.
Why not start a new tradition — say, a tradition of horse whisperers. Demonstrations of this are highly moving and beautiful. People pay to see these types of demonstrations. Some have been known to make themselves rich and famous doing it. There are also millions of horses in America, and millions of horse owners and caretakers. People would come far and wide for help communicating with their horses and to heal their problems with them. This would also command enormous respect.
Teaching people what it is to be good to a horse elevates the spirit and heals. It also teaches that the way to resolve issues is not through abuse, bullying, lashing out and inflicting pain, but with cooperation, kindness, respect and mutual trust.
Horses are known for reflecting thought, character and emotions back to humans. When you see a horse who has been brutalized — broken, dispirited, feeling powerless, full of distrust and pain — you are seeing the characteristics of the person who committed the brutality.
This is why horses are so healing. And this is why a lot of people feel “frightened” around them. You cannot hide who you are from a horse. But if you have the courage, horses will teach you the virtues you need to overcome just about anything.
This is the future of man’s relationship with the horse. Kindness, respect and gratitude for the horse is the tradition we should be handing down.