Yakama cowboys maintain wild horse race tradition

Yakama wild horse race. AP Photo.
Yakama cowboys trying to control an untamed horse as part of what they call a ‘wild horse race’.

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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.

10 thoughts on “Yakama cowboys maintain wild horse race tradition”

  1. Who is talking about ‘trashing a tribe’???? Yakima “”Cowboys”” is what it says & that includes these asshats that think wrestling a YOUNG (2-3yr) horse who is scared, not broke of course & basically running for it’s life to be stopped by whatever means by 3 BIG GUYS (usually) while they put a saddle on him to ride ? distance. Yep dumb & stupid! I have been to many rodeo’s, not lately cause quite frankly I’m sick of what I see. The horses in the races (in an arena by the way) that I have seen are young & NOT 1200/1400lbs.!!! It wouldn’t matter anyways….it is a STUPID, STUPID EVENT! Btw….I can’t tell you how many people I have spoke to that will not attend a rodeo, actually I was quite surprised, at first!
    NO, these are not ‘cowboys, trainers, or horsemen” of any kind whatsoever … this is a stupid event just like the wild cow milking!
    As for a flank strap on horses…there is nothing traditional there either. Back in the day they got on horses to ride the buck out of them. The ‘flank strap’ quite frankly does the COMPLETE opposite! These horses when ‘done’ either end up in smaller rodeo’s, match racing, ‘tripping’, etc…..just about anything else to be USED & ABUSED ….then it’s off to slaughter. Why, cause there is slaughter available (disposal) & there is an abundance of horses to use & abuse…..ugh… & they call that ‘entertainment’?


  2. Horses can carry 20% of their own weight, by the look of the horse, and the size of the men that were making an attempt to ride this small horse I would say the the two men were were well over the weight ratio.


  3. A twelve hundred pound horse being chased by three men how does this become cruelty. the mugger covers the horses eyes to calm it, the jockey and flank man try to saddle the horse, try to get on and inevitably get bucked off. It seems like people forget that these are not really big puppy dogs they are horses. I do not agree to biting the horses’ ears but be realistic if this horse get really mad he could quite easily kill anyone hanging on to the end of a rope. For the short time rodeo horses (8 seconds) work look at them they are well fed and healthy looking as these are stock contractors livelihoods it is in their best interest not to put his stock in harms way. Perhaps you consider it more appropriate to send the unbreakable horses to auction let the meat buyers get them.


    1. That is where all these “well fed” rodeo horses end up once they are older. Besides what’s the “sport” in forcing a horse? Real Horsemen are the ones who can win a horses trust without force and brutality!


    2. Shelley, I think you do not understand how much these wild horses are terrified. They are too scared to fight back and just want to escape. They are very sensitive and need to be treated with kindness and gentleness. Also I doubt any of them weigh over 900 pounds. I have 5 wild horses I’ve rescued and they need love and understanding. and are all very sweet and not aggressive..
      As for rodeos horses that bucking strap hurts and makes them buck and cattle prods are used on them sometimes too. And yes, most end up going to slaughter and some of the Yakima horses go to slaughter also.


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