A Thrilling Look at America’s First Extreme Sport
Nov 15, 2019
Alexandra Lazarowich via CBC
Alexandra Lazarowich first attended the Calgary Stampede in 2017. That year the stampede, which bills itself as “the greatest outdoor show on Earth,” held the first-ever Indian Relay race in the event’s history. For Lazarowich, who is indigenous herself, the bareback horse race was thrilling to watch—and not just because of the extreme nature of the sport.
“It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen 75,000 people cheer for young indigenous men,” Lazarowich told me. “The crowd was so loud, my chest was vibrating. It took my breath away. It was at that moment I knew I had to make a film that captured that feeling.”
At the event, Lazarowich met two horsemen, Allison RedCrow and Cody BigTobacco, who are both from the Siksika Nation in Alberta, Canada. She decided to follow RedCrow and his relay team for the year leading up to the 2018 race, in which BigTobacco would compete as a jockey for the first time. In the resulting short documentary, Fast Horse, the men assemble a team of thoroughbreds, tame and train them, and finally compete at the Calgary Stampede, where they face the best riders in the Blackfoot Confederacy. The film is poignant and thrilling in equal measure; the camera moves from intimate verité scenes of BigTobacco training to POV shots on the backs of his galloping horses.
As the film depicts, Indian Relay is a dangerous and high-stakes game. Lazarowich described it as “the X Games of the horse-racing world.” It demands mastery of horsemanship and a taste for adrenaline. Four teams race bareback on thoroughbreds along a quarter-mile track, with jockeys jumping off one horse and onto another once per lap. The area where the fast-paced horse exchange happens—known as “the box”—is a scene of bracing chaos. Riders must jump off a galloping horse and onto another while dodging other teams’ horses in close proximity. “It's for a good reason that they call this ‘North America's original extreme sport,’” Lazarowich said.
Indian Relay is the modern incarnation of an ancient Blackfoot tradition of horsemanship competition. “It goes back to the arrival of Spanish horses on the Western Plains,” Lazarowich told me. “Once they redomesticated Spanish horses and mastered riding, the Blackfoot emerged as one of the great ‘horse nations,’ and their skills blew away the European pioneers they encountered in later years.”
For many First Nations peoples today, Indian Relay is both an opportunity to connect with ancestors and an invigorating hobby. As BigTobacco put it in the film, “Horses are something that keeps us out of trouble.”
Where BigTobacco and his team live, Lazarowich said, “poverty is a reality, and many young indigenous people struggle to find their way. Working with horses provides a focus and a sense of involvement in a deep cultural tradition.” The filmmaker was careful to point out, however, that Indian Relay is a passion, not a living.
“I wanted to make a film that created a hero, sparked adventure, and gave hope to a new generation of young indigenous kids who are growing up and facing [challenges],” Lazarowich said. “To me, the film says a lot about the strength and the love in our communities, and I hope it offers audiences another take on what it means to be indigenous in 2019.”
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.