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Native Sun News: Behind the scenes with Indian relay racing team

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Ashton Old Elk, rider for Old Elk Relay, and his pony give it their all during the Indian Relay at the Crow Fair. Photo courtesy Tommy Robinson

Behind the scenes with Indian Relay Racing
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

CROW AGENCY, Mont. –– Relay racing is now a major Indian rodeo event. Yet, media coverage of this wild melee is normally limited to an amazing photo of the winning team, colorful and bold. This article examines what goes on behind the scenes.

Recently, Ashton Old Elk, age 24, jockey and trainer for the Old Elk Indian Relay Racing Team, shared his views on what it takes to field a competitive team. Interviewed on Sunday, Aug. 16 at the Crow horse barns, he responded to questions while engaged in more important task: bathing his team of three top thoroughbreds, preparing for the championship heat – a $15,000 purse, provided by the Crow Tribe. Later that day, his team placed third out of field of twenty.

The Old Elk team, with the support/sponsorship of Leroy Whiteman, Northern Cheyenne has been chasing a national title since 2005. Generally in the money (placing second or third on a regular basis), they were successful in 2013 at the Sheridan/WY Rodeo winning it all, but that was a year before the sport was formally organized and sanctioned. So, they have another championship in mind. The team includes Ashton; brother, Shawnley Old Elk; brother, Joe Reed and uncle Esley Old Elk.

Whiteman emphasizes that Indian Relay requires the participation of the entire extended family, who all get involved, providing financial and critical moral support.

“That is why the sport is possible,” he explained. “Even if you win, there isn’t much money to be realized, the expenses being so great – acquiring horses, feed, travel, entry fees, etc. Everyone is there, helping and watching out."

"The other teams offer cooperation and support, wishing each other safety and luck. It’s a unique Indian thing,” said the veteran Indian relay racer.

Ashton has been jockey for 13 years, going back to the Lodge Grass Park where he and young companions mounted ponies, racing against one another for fun, an eye to the future. That is where the young Crow athlete learned about "exchanges” (gracefully and quickly leaping from one racing steed to another), the key to relay race victory, generally accomplished in three seconds or less.

The Old Elk racing legacy was started by uncle Esley Old Elk in 2005 when Shawnley was the jockey, now a member of the four-man team required in the sport which includes the jockey, a mugger, catcher and holder, all essential.

Depending upon the track, three laps ranging from one-half to 7/8 of a mile are raced, using three different horses. Thoroughbred running horses are favored, although appendix bred (quarter horse-thoroughbred cross) are often included in the mix. The Old Elks pride themselves for using Crow bred horses, sometimes including a Cheyenne bred horse, provided by Whiteman.

Training, they explain, is the key.

“I live with these horses,” Ashton said. “It is a daily thing. Sweet feed, oats and good quality hay are very important. They have to be fed on a regular routine, breakfast, lunch and supper. They count on me for that, greeting me each day.”

“While they are eating, I muck the stalls and do other work to keep them up,” he said. “I’m here dawn to dark.”

Ashton maintains a regular training schedule. Each of the seven horses is religiously exercised, going several times around the Crow track, 7/8 of a mile, the rate determined by their condition.

“Usually in the evening when it is cooler,” he explained.

“But sometimes I work them in the early morning when the air is thinner. That builds up their lungs. Then I take them to the nearby river, letting them stand in the cool water, good for their legs,” he said.

Several of the seven horses in Old Elk’s current string were determined problems, given up on by other trainers.

“I give them a chance to be a horse,” said the young trainer. “Do something besides run races. When they get used to that and to me, they calm down.”

Esley concurred.

“The horses depend on us. They reflect our attitude. If we are calm during a race, they will be too. If we are nervous, they will be too.”

That was entirely evident as the young jockey bathed his horses who stood quietly, entirely at liberty as he reassured them in a friendly tone.

“We are friends,” he smiled.

It is necessary, Old Elk says to have a stable of seven horses against the odds of injury. While a team of three is necessary for each 3-4 heats of competition, the horses can be exchanged.

“A thoroughbred horse will run good one day, not so good the next and then be faster on the last heat,” he suggests. “That is why we rotate horses for each heat. They are all good runners, but some have better days than others. Just like people.”

Before each race, the selected horses are prepared with prayer and painted with the handed-down Crow symbols: lightening and an arrow. “This is for protection,” said Esley. Ashton, the epitome of a warrior at 6 foot and 150 pounds, prepares as well, donning protective paint, bandana, a single eagle feather, buckskins and moccasins.

“We like to look good,” he teases. And they do.

“There is no doubt in my mind that they will win the National Championship one day,” said Leroy Whiteman who has fielded two national champion teams during his career. “They have what it takes. I believe in them.”

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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