WHITE SWAN, Wash. – Teams from around the Northwest took part last weekend in the 18th annual Heemsah Memorial Wild Horse Race at the White Swan rodeo grounds of 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,” Heemsah 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 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.”