Horse Collaborative “He Feels Your Heart Pounding Through Them Reins”

Following the Indian Relay Race Championships in Billings, MT

Anna Carroll

The five Indian Relay teams process onto the racetrack and a roar goes up from the grandstand. Eighteen Thoroughbreds are full of fire beneath the hot afternoon sun. Their coats gleam with painted stripes, lightning bolts, dream catchers, and bear claws. As drums beat a steady rhythm over the loudspeakers, they toss their heads and snort. Their hooves strike the dirt in perfect cadence to the music. Like dancing partners, the muggers step lightly alongside them. The teams are Grizzly Mountain, Starr School, White Calf, Good Rider, and Brew Crew. They represent the Lakota, Pikuni, Blackfeet, and Colville Indian Nations.

The “muggers” for team White Calf hold their three A-team horses by the bridle and walk in a tight circle around Little Muncie Osborne, their rider. Muncie is twenty-four years old with a slim and wiry build. He has a white bandana tied across his forehead. He wears sneakers, cargo shorts and has two stripes of yellow vet wrap bound above his right ankle. The only flashy part about him is his team jersey—black with neon stripes on the chest and a white horse galloping on the back. Unlike the other riders prepping on the track, Muncie does not bounce or swing his arms. He walks calmly near his horses and teammates, focused and silent. He stares at the ground and ignores the commotion around him. His green reflective sunglasses make his expression inscrutable.

Read up | What exactly is Indian Relay?

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This is the last day of the All Nations Indian Relay Race National Championships. After the heat finishes, the season will be over. Team White Calf has had one win and one loss since the start of the Championships three days ago. If they win today, they will take a second place National title back home to Browning, Montana.

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The announcer’s voice booms.

“Now who’s ready to watch some RELLAAYYYYYY?”

The vibrations shudder through the earth and air as 5,000 people cheer and stomp. Between horses, riders, and spectators, the thudding of heartbeats is palpable.

A bag of flour is hurriedly poured across the track to re-emphasize the white start line. One mugger from each team brings a start horse forward. From team White Calf, Sam leads Rio into the second position. He is a tall bay with a white blaze, who chomps the bit and eyes his competition warily.

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The officiator barks for the horses and riders to line out. Muggers spin their horses and their riders skip alongside. Every rider must have his feet on the ground when the gun goes off. The race starts when every horse seems to be nose to nose. Amidst the chaos, a sorrel gelding from Grizzly Mountain rears up and almost tips over. There is a collective gasp. The other horses and muggers jerk away to avoid the flying hooves. Grizzly Mountain’s mugger is air born for a few brief seconds, then the horse crashes down half an inch from his head. Shouts rise, then settle. The muggers circle back around. Horses twist and occasionally body slam into each other. Each rider has a hand on his horse’s mane and is keeping as close as he can, getting ready to fly, listening, waiting, shaking—

The gun cracks.

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Pandemonium erupts. The line of horses and riders lunge forward. Muncie is a yellow blur as he springs aboard Rio and thunders down the track. Other riders, less lucky in their start, grapple to swing on their horses as momentum jerks their bodies into the air. One rider is still clinging to his horse by the neck as they go around the first turn.

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Muncie is in third place. His strategy in the first lap is to stay right on the heels of the horse in front of him. Rio is reliable for his front speed and his end speed. Muncie knows this and gallops onward, intent on holding his position. As the horses and riders start to come around for home, Scotty Osborne holds Blackfeet Snowbound ready for the exchange. He blows into the horse’s nose, sharing his scent so that the horse will know him when he comes back around for the final exchange.

There is a hush as the field thunders in.

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Muncie gallops Rio straight towards Sam, who is standing with the defensive stance of a basketball player. Feet spread apart, hands out and ready. In Blackfeet, Muncie shouts the word for stop.

“Sokapiyiit!”

Rio slides to a halt and Sam grabs for his bridle. Muncie has already leapt from Rio’s back and is running to Snowbound.

He shouts the word for “go,” and Snowbound knows his command. Muncie meets his grey horse in the perfect instant, grabbing his mane as he explodes forward. He turns Snowbound sharply to the left to avoid a rider hanging from rearing horse. By the time Snowbound reaches for his second stride, they are a single moving body.

This feat of efficiency makes the crowd roar in enthusiasm. The teams are spread out around the track. One rider doesn’t quite make his jump back at the exchange and his thoroughbred takes off to race his own race. He runs loosely without his rider around the track.

All eyes are on Muncie. He is taking the lead inch by inch.

The announcer shouts over the loudspeakers.

“Neck and neck around this final bend…this is a true horse race ladies and gentleman!”

Muncie comes back into the exchange zone screaming hot and in second place. Snowbound gallops Muncie within two feet of their anchor horse, North Dash Delta, and then jerks to a stop. With his riding crop held between his teeth, Muncie leaps from Snowbound. He takes one step and then flies aboard North Dash Delta, who takes off before Muncie has even closed his fingers around the reins. The other riders in the field have yet to dismount as Muncie leaves the exchange commotion behind him. North Dash Delta gathers himself up and the two of them streak past the grandstand, leaving every soul in the world behind them.

As the bay horse runs at a blistering pace and sends dirt flying behind him, Muncie’s legs are loose and easy. They make their lap around the track.

“Oh my ladies and gentleman can you believe this? What a win Team White Calf is about to pull off!”

He is leaning forward and in the lead by ten strides as they come around the third and final turn. The crowd is all adrenaline and commotion. Supporters run along the chain link fence as Muncie and North Dash come towards the finish line, whooping and shouting them home. Not a single horse in the field can be seen behind them.

Goose bumps go up on the arms of more than a few spectators as they watch this fearless display of horsemanship come to an end. As some competitors are accustomed to doing, Muncie does not brashly point at his competitors, throw his hands into the air, or draw attention to himself.

“Win or lose, it’s about our horses and our family.”

He brings North Dash Delta back up the track, his hand resting lightly on his horse’s neck. Muncie sits easy and relaxed as the horse jigs. His expression is still. White Calf’s victory is a much-deserved win. He, his horses, and his muggers, pose for the winner’s photograph and then head back to the barn.

Behind the scenes and in the aftermath, Muncie shakes hands with people who offer congratulations. Scotty Osborne, Muncie’s uncle, is happy about the outcome. “I’ve told Muncie ever since he started doing this. If you win, you don’t brag. You cross the finish line and act like you’ve been there a thousand times before.”

Taya Osborne interrupts Scotty for a second. “I’m gonna give Snowbound that rub down, eh?” He nods and then turns back to me.

“It’s the effort of this entire family that makes White Calf work,” Scotty says. “Make sure you write that down. We go out and race, but we could never do it without the help of everyone on our team who work so hard behind the scenes. Win or lose, it’s about our horses and our family.”

He wants it to go on record. His parting thoughts are about more than just horse racing. “The thing I want you to understand,” he says. “Back in Browning, there is a lot of drinking, you know? And in relay, anything can happen. Sometimes you get hard luck. But no matter what happens, I always remind these boys who ride—be the relay riders that set an example for our youth back home. Don’t drink. Stay humble. Be horsemen but also role models.”

All images by Anna Carroll. More photos of the Indian Relay Race Championships can be viewed here.

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