By: Randy Tucker
The Spanish conquistador Coronado is credited with bringing the horse to the tribes of the Great Plains in 1542 when a handful escaped his forlorn quest for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. The ponies that first ran wild in the high grass of Kansas more than four centuries ago became an integral part of the life of the nomadic tribes of the plains.
The thrill of hunting buffalo at full gallop, moving your family with the seasons, and the intricate art of "counting coup" are all attributable to the horse.
At first, they used the obsidian-tipped lance to hunt bison, or the short but deadly accurate small bows with arrows just a few feet long to bring down the giant beast.
With the advent of trade, the hunters among the indigenous people of the plains moved to muskets, rifles, and eventually the handgun in hunting buffalo. Muskets were hard to handle at full gallop; the bow was much more effective. Shorter weapons found their way west after the Civil War and were easier to handle. The .45 Colt and similar powerful handguns became the preferred method of hunting.
In Hollywood, you only see handguns in gunfights on Main Street at high noon, and they’re never depicted in the hands of an Arapaho, Oglala, or Cheyenne hunter. But that’s just Hollywood.
A glimpse of that ancient way of life can be seen at rodeos and independent events across the west each summer in Indian relays. Young men riding bareback on horses at full gallop with just a handful of mane or a halter to hang onto while competing inside the concrete and steel barriers of rodeo arenas against up to six other teams at the same time is a splendid sight to see. It requires incredible balance, strength, and agility just to stay on a horse in these conditions, and the athletes that do this are special.
One of the best is 26-year-old John Redman of Ethete, Wyoming. Redman, or “Johnny Red” as many of his friends and fans call him, is a natural on a horse. One observer described Redman’s style of riding as "stuck to the horse with Velcro." But it isn’t Velcro, but talent that keeps Redman atop a horse at full speed as he competes with other men in arenas across the Mountain West.
“I got started when I was about 10 years old,” Redman said. “My first relay race was in Lander during the Pioneer Days rodeo. I was 11 years old, but I was racing horses at 10.”
An Indian relay race is a team event. There are three horses, one rider, and three men on the ground that gather, hold, and catch the fleet-footed equines.
There are several divisions in each relay with an open class race, a flat race, ladies’ race, and a Chief’s race.
“I was doing flat races at first,” Redman said. “Kids race on ponies – there are relays with kids on Shetlands.”
Redman won his first prize money as a 10 year old.
“By the time I hit relays, I’d already won a couple of horses,” he said.
When asked his favorite kind of horse, Redman was quick with an answer and a wide grin, “A fast one,” he said.
The relay circuit is similar to a rodeo circuit with events across the nation.
“We race all over the western part of the U.S.,” Redman said. “We run in Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Minnesota, Nevada, and Oklahoma.”
It’s an arduous schedule for a team and six horses to travel via truck and trailer.
“I do most of the driving,” Redman said.
Perhaps the most important man for Redman is his catcher.
Dwight Timbana, also of Ethete, is the catcher and set up man for the team, a position that often gets Timbana knocked to the ground and run over by the sprinting horses.
“There are different jobs that they have to do. One guy sets up the horses while I get off and on,” Redman said. “I have another guy, the holder, who stands in back and holds an extra horse. It’s a team sport; it’s not all just me.”
There are three horses in a relay, and naturally the last, or anchor horse, that crosses the finish line first is the winner.
“It’s NASCAR with horses,” Redman said.
As is the case with every sport, there is far more time spent in preparation than in performance. Training the horses on the relay is the most important aspect of the sport short of the actual competition.
“The way I train my horses is kind of a weird way,” Redman said. “I’ll exercise them on the track, then take them in the hills and do intervals, then take them swimming to do some low-stress work. My team helps me out quite a bit.
"There’s a lot of stuff that I do with these horses that I did with Chico (Her Many Horses) back in high school track. If these horses really wanted to, they could jump. These horses are athletic.”
Redman was a three-sport athlete at Wyoming Indian and a standout football player and hurdler for the Chiefs.
Redman and his team usually take six horses to every venue so they have a full backup team in the event of injury or illness.
Redman has a sponsor in Katherine Minthorn of Pendleton, Oregon who provides a semi-truck and trailer with living quarters for the team and room to safely transport six horses on the long roads between events.
“When I was running my own team, I had my own sponsors,” Redman said. “The Casino was my biggest sponsor. It’s a really good situation. This way I’m not having to do everything. I don’t have to have a full-time job and support my horses and my team, buying hay, feed, and the entry fees, stalls, all of that. Shoeing itself costs a lot of money. (My sponsor) has a nice place in Oregon. We have a pretty good setup here, a good team, and good horses.”
In a parallel to NASCAR, people enjoy the speed of the event, but many come to watch the wrecks.
“I’ve had plenty of wrecks," Redman said. "I’ve run over everybody on my team a lot, especially Dwight, it’s just part of the game.
"It’s just like any other sport – you have to have a lot of support and good help. You have to have a lot of dedication and put a lot of time into it. What you put in is what you get out of it, the same as any sport.”
The relationship between man and horse is a key component of the sport.
“These horses are hard to keep in shape and keep fed. All the traveling is tough on the horses. You get to know them and it’s a long season,” Redman said.
From April to September, relay teams drive thousands of miles between events just to compete. The road miles are the hardest part of the sport at times.
“Is gets pretty tiring and stressful,” Redman said. “I pick up work in off season, but I plan on doing this as long as I can.”
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.