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Omak Stampede Begins in Washington State

Horse lovers and animal welfare supporters continue to protest the Omak Suicide Race

6-Aug-09

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The Omak Stampede and Suicide Race have drawn ire from the public for yearsOmak, Washington is a remote town in northern Washington, on the border of the Colville Indian reservation. The town is known for its annual rodeo, the Omak Stampede, and the controversial Suicide Race that runs with it.

The Stampede began in the 1930s as a way to help the town's local economy and bring a major event to the area. It attracted many top riders, and today is still a thriving rodeo. However, the event is most notorious for the dangerous horse race that has been an annual tradition since 1935.

The Suicide Race begins at the top of Suicide Hill, a steep, 225-foot plunge into the river below. Riders take the hill at a full gallop, then run or swim their horses across the approximately 150-foot width of the river. Once they've made it across, horses and riders race the final 500 yards to the finish at the rodeo arena. Horses that successfully complete the race return the following night to do it again until the final race during the day on Sunday.

The race has drawn criticism due to its dangerous nature, particularly the run down Suicide Hill. In the past 26 years, at least 21 horses have died in the Suicide Race, and countless others have sustained injuries. No riders have died in the race in the past several decades

The Humane Society of the United States has a video on their website documenting the race and the opinions of several equine veterinarians who have attended. Warning: the video does contain some graphic footage.

Supporters of the event say that it is an important historical event with ties to the region's Native American culture. The majority of the participants are members of the nearby tribes, which have a long equestrian history. Participants say that running the Suicide Race is a spiritual experience and that it demonstrates the ultimate bond and trust between horse and rider. In a letter published on the Omak Stampede's official website, Hank Raymond of the Colville Confederated Tribes said:

Horses do die, but it’s not like we are prodding them with electric prods and shooting them through the skull with a nail gun to make McD hamburgers. No, we raise horses like our children and teach them how to survive a very strenuous existence. The horse [sic] too are very proud of what they do, every horse that finishes the race are champions.

In addition to the historical and spiritual ties, the town of Omak continues to support the controversial race because of the annual economic boost that comes with it. The rodeo is said to bring more than $6 million to Omak each year, and is the only major tourism event for the remote town of less than 5,000 people.

Though the race draws protests from around the globe, town officials tend to disregard the criticism. In a 2007 Wall Street Journal article, former Omak mayor and race supporter Dale Sparber explained that he'd set up his email to automatically delete any incoming message with the words "suicide race" in the text.

Race organizers have put some safety precautions in place. All horses must be tested before the race to show that they will gallop off the edge of Suicide Hill without balking. A stopped horse at the top of the hill could cause a dangerous pile-up. They are also tested swimming ability. Veterinarians examine each horse prior to the race to make sure they are fit to compete. Riders must wear life vests and some opt to wear helmets as well.

This year's races begin at 7 pm local time tonight and continue through Sunday.

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Reader Comments

Jax    Spokane, WA

8/27/2010 10:00:01 AM

I have attended this race many times as a child, and returned this year for the first time in 8 years. It's awesome. They have really changed it as far as safety, but the thrill of the event remains in tact. They should never stop it. Horses are put on this earth to ride either for leisure or for the thrill of the speed. Leave it alone..find something else to protest

Tina    Spokane, WA

10/7/2009 11:19:46 AM

I actually attended the event this year for the first time. I felt like many people that in this day and age, it is crazy to put the horses through this type of event. But once you see it in person... it is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen! The talent of the riders and horses, and speed of the event is incredible. I can understand how someone would want to keep this tradition alive. The horses train for this and go through multiple vet checks to make sure they are capable and healthy. Yes there is danger, but I believe animals can have the same desire to push themselves and compete the same way that humans can!

joe    berkeley, CA

8/26/2009 11:10:48 PM

It appears that some Native Americans are as insensitive as most rodeo cowboys.

Ugh, indeed.

none    omak, WA

8/13/2009 4:48:11 PM

It was actually started by a white guy who owned a shoe store in the 1930s. It's being said to be a spiritual thing to keep it going. Otherwise, PETA would have shut it down years ago...Omak actually has about 8,000 people. Okanogan has about 4,000

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