Horse News

Tradition Keeps “Suicide” Horse Race Alive

By Sara Dover of CBS News.com

“It’s just one of these microcosms of cruelty that exist in the world”

Warning: The above video contains content some may find disturbing. Video garnered from YouTube of the 2011 Omak Suicide Races in Washington State, in which some horses running down a steep hill stumble and fall.

(CBS News) This weekend, as it has for nearly 80 years, the rodeo in Omak, Washington will attract thousands of residents and tourists to its city to watch up to 20 jockeys and their horses sprint down a steep embankment and into the water.

Fans of the “World Famous Suicide Race” call it an adrenaline-pumping tradition that brings the community together. Animal rights activists and others, however, cringe watching the stallions plummet into the river down a 210-foot-long, 62-degree slope called Suicide Hill, the dust kicking up behind them as onlookers cheer.

Organizers of the Suicide Race are used to defending the tradition shared with the Colville Native American tribe. An estimated 23 horses have died since 1983, according to the Humane Society of the United States, including one this week.

A six-year-old thoroughbred named Little Big Man, owned by Jerry Ford and ridden by Jason Muesy of the Spokane Indian Reservation, broke his leg while struggling to keep his footing in the water during a qualifying race. He ultimately went under water “and surfaced downstream,” according to a statement by the Suicide Racers Owners and Jockeys Association.

But the association determined the course was safe and continued with qualifications and a race on Thursday night.

Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society, likened the Omak Suicide race to dogfighting and cockfighting – both of which are in the United States but attract tourists in other countries.

“It’s just one of these microcosms of cruelty that exist in the world,” he said.

Participants in the Omak Suicide Race ride down a 62-degree slope to the Okanogan River August 15, 2004 in Omak, Washington.
(Credit: Jerome Pollos/Getty Images)

The Suicide Race dates back to 1933, when two Okanogan County stockmen began a rodeo as a way to attract business to their town. The race, inspired by Indian endurance races in the neighboring Colville Indian Reservation, was a way to drive more people to the rodeo show.

The evening Suicide Race remains the main attraction of the four-day festival that takes place during the second week of August, attracting people from as far away as Israel. Defenders of the race generally respond to critics with two arguments: the event is a tribute to the area’s Native American heritage that brings the community together and the race is safer than people think.

The Owners and Jockeys Association said it was “traditionally done as a rite of passage” and “a demonstration of our young warriors and their horses’ ability to become one.” Horses are adorned with paint, feathers, and other Native American symbols. There is an opening prayer before the race.

Ronda Lemmon, a registered nurse, is one of 120 volunteers and feels passionately enough about the rodeo to have dedicated her time toward it for over 20 years. “The Colville tribe is very sensitive and very concerned,” she said. “Their horses are like family.”

City officials also maintain the event is important for community building and deny it’s a form of animal abuse. Omak City Administrator Ralph Malone insists the horses are cared for with respect and must be “willing to go down the hill they go down independently” in order to be sent down it carrying a rider.

“[The race] has been a part of my life for 50 some years. While yes, there is risk involved with it … they are extremely valuable animals,” Malone said. “Proper treatment of them is taken very seriously. We did lose a horse during practice this year and everyone’s saddened by it. However, if you compare this particular race even to other forms of horse racing, I don’t think you find it significantly worse or different.”

But not everyone agrees. Dr. Heather Evergreen, an equine veterinarian in Monroe, Wash., who witnessed a 2006 race, wrote on behalf of the Humane Society that “if they truly cared about their horses … their horses would be at home safe in their paddocks eating their dinner, not here tied to a horse trailer awaiting significant trauma, injury, or even death.”

Animal activists also doubt the fact that horses are ever “willing” to go through with the suicide race. Horses are big powerful animals with thin legs that buckle and break as they’re charging down a steep hill, Pacelle described.

“There are people who do extreme sport. Ultimately it’s their choice,” Pacelle said. “It’s not the choice of the horse and they’re forced to participate.”

The Humane Society said it doesn’t have access to official death records, but reached the count of 23 deaths from media reports over the years. It is unknown how many horses died during training, the practice trials or after the race.

A Wall Street Journal reporter witnessed a horse break its back and be euthanized in 2007. According to the Humane Society, two horses died in a collision and third died after the race in 2004. In 2002, one horse drowned in a practice run and another was euthanized after a collision.

In her testimony, Evergreen wrote the Suicide Race has obvious risks: the risk of running full speed with a large group of horses, the risk of landing the initial jump off the top of the hill, going down the steep hill, and the possibility of drowning in the water – like Little Big Man.

Lemmon, the volunteer, still insisted that the race is a lot scarier than it looks. She said horses are thoroughly prepared and that there are rescue boats and ambulances on both sides of the river and in the arena.

There are only 15 participants this year, Lemmon said; some jockeys pulled their horses from the race because the river was a little high.

Over the years the Humane Society has approached local council members and tribal leaders in an effort to make the Suicide Race history, but without much success.

While the Suicide Racers and Owners Association insists the race “has never been about stardom, money or glory,” Humane Society’s Washington State Director, Dan Paul, said he believes “economic benefits to the region” have “likely trumped these officials’ interests in the welfare of horse.”

“It took us a long time to end cockfighting, it’s taking us a long time to end seal-hunting,” Pacelle said. “Just because [organizers] are persistent doesn’t mean animals need to be hurt needlessly.”

Organizers said they are set on keeping their tradition just the way it is – name and all.

“It’s definitely intense, that’s all I can say,” said Lemmon, who is one of 150 volunteers who help organize the rodeo. “I get excited every year. I literally get chills every time I see it, when I see it.”

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17 replies »

  1. Those bozos in Omak are continuing a ridiculous race that has no place in this modern world….I have protested this race in previous years, writing to people in Omak, Washington several times to no avail. They are dead set on perpetuating this monstrosity. What losers.

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  2. Can’t bring myself to watch the video.

    This quote seems to apply to the Omak organizers and attendees who support putting horses in danger for no justifiable reason: “Was there ever any domination that did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” ~ John Stuart Mill

    Now that we know that registered nurse Ronda Lemmon is so pumped with adrenaline that she can’t see the suffering of the horses, is it fair to ask whether she sees the suffering of her patients and feels any pity, kindness, and compassion toward them?

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  3. This is a barbarism I did not know about. The percentage of horses who have died to total participants seems very high. Any one entering this race may lose their horse. How sad and cruel. It will be a tough fight to stop this. As is the fight to stop the abuse of horses at Calgary and Cheyenne rodeos and Charreadas. I see this as blood sport and this is why people go to watch. What a shame.

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  4. 62 percent degrees downhill? Geez, I thought Teton Pass was steep…and that’s only 10 percent. If I’m all for modern medicine and traditional medicine has pointed to a more favorable outcome–yet I refuse traditional medicine citing my want for modern medicine–how does this make me look? I know people learn new things every day–that’s life. But when you refuse to see what your actions mean to others–you ARE the problem.

    This horse race is asinine. Science has shown the weakening of tb bones by all the inbreeding…are these horses any stronger physically than they were decades ago? And even if some of the horses live through this disgusting race–what kind of shape of they in afterwards? Mentally and physically?

    By the way for the one who lost his horse this past week, I am sorry for the horses sake BUT NOT YOURS. You made the choice to ride. The horse didn’t have a sayso. What kind of help was offered to the horse while he flayed around in the water. YOU LET HIM DROWN! He had a broken leg! The least you couldda done was shot the horse do he wouldn’t suffer. And you couldn’t even do that.

    Is there really no compromise that you feel comfortable with? We get Omak or we bust? I’m smelling the mentality as BLM with their hardheadedness…

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  5. Didn’t they used to throw buffalo off of cliffs to kill and eat them? why not horses? They are barbaric! The Human Society should intervene and remove all the horses from the area, period and never let them have horses again. Obviously they have no feelings or respect for the animals nor do they have any understanding of equine behaviour. Of course a herd animal will follow one dummy off the side of a cliff!! Anyone who gets excited about watching this kind of race needs his/her head examined, I’m ashamed of the human race…..And as a Nurse Practitioner and long time horse owner, this “RN” should maybe think about another career.

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    • No white man by the train loads shot bison from moving trains. Considering how many animals there were at the time it wouldn’t have been difficult…

      Instead of seeing less abuse I’m seeing more and more by the day. Is it just that I’m learning and becoming more enlightened or has our society really gone that far downhill in the past couple of years…

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      • It supposedly began in 1933..right after the Great Depression so how can it be “tradition”..sounds more like greedy corporste Euro or American to me than any Native American..

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  6. Too bad these morons dont leave the horses in the pastures & run this”race” themselves – certainly makes more sense than this idiocy! Isnt it amazing the brainstorms (or some storms) that people come up with. Following tradition? Somehow I doubt it. Seems to me all those years ago when this supposedly became a tradition – the Indians horses would have been more important and necessary to their way of life and they wouldnt have wanted to endanger them like this. This sounds more like our modern day fruitcakes coming up with something “new & different”. Oh yeah, it also brings in cash!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Does seem like theres more cruelty now – is it because people are bored with their everyday life?
    So its the coming thing to torture animals & small children? Cant be bored, can we?

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  7. I can’t believe that people find this sort of thing entertaining. It is so cruel and it needs to stop NOW!! Have some empathy as to how these horses feel being made to do this. This is not how they want to live their lives. They value their lives just like we do so who are we to choose the way they spend their lives.

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    • That’s a great suggestion! Let the riders fall off their bikes and drown…or break their necks…but leave the horses alone!

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  8. The horses become one with their owners/riders.. Then how come the horses get injured or killed but not the owner/rider? Bravery or stupidity? Mankind seems to excel in the latter of the two. This is no better than the bull fights in Spain or the games(?) In the colluseum. Barbarians is mankind..

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  9. It so hard to stop an Native American tradition. To them they don’t look at it like us. As abuse to aniamls. So it will continue Maybe if a hunam would be killed then it would stop! GRRR!

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