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River Road's Tristan Birdin Ground explodes off the starting line during the first heat of the World Championship Indian Relay Race Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

SHERIDAN — July 14, 2018, is a day firmly embedded in Coty Brown’s memory. It was the worst day of his life, but also the best.

It was the day his grandfather passed, Brown said, and he was ready to pack up his horses at the Sheridan County Fairgrounds and return home to Crow Agency to grieve with his family.

“But my team, my bros, my brothers, they said ‘You need to finish what you started,’” Brown said. “And we did.”

That evening brought the birth of a new World Championship Indian Relay Races team: the River Road Team, for which Brown is a captain and one of two holders.

“I still rewatch the video sometimes,” Brown admitted. “It isn’t just my best Indian Relay memory; it’s the best memory of my life. And it all happened here in Sheridan.”

For Brown, returning to Sheridan each summer is like a homecoming. The River Road team travels all over the Indian Relay circuit, Brown said, but the summer just isn’t the same without a stop in Sheridan.

“This is the one all the relay teams want to win,” Brown said. “You can win other competitions, but you can only become a world champion in Sheridan. Sheridan is the daddy of them all.”

During the relay races, riders in Native regalia change horses multiple times while riding bareback at breakneck speeds around the stadium. Teams, including representatives of Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux tribes, compete for $50,000 in cash and prizes.

The River Road team, like the other relay teams competing this week, comprises four members: A rider who mounts and rides the horse; the two holders who restrain the horses; and the mugger who is in charge of catching a horse moving at full speed. That difficult job falls to Tim Birdin Ground.

“It’s pretty intimidating when you see the horse coming right at you,” Birdin Ground said. “It just takes practice, I guess. Once you make it a routine, it’s easier for the horse and for you.”

Indeed, practice is key for all the members of the Indian Relay team, especially the equine ones, Brown said.

“We start in January, when there’s 2 feet of snow on the ground,” Brown said. “We ride them and walk them for a good month before we work them up to trotting. We start them up slow, and then a couple months before our first race, we get into a full workout. We’re pumping them up with supplements from March to September so they get the nutrition they need.”

The relay season lasts through September, and is an all-consuming activity even during the offseason, Brown said.

“We don’t go off on vacation,” Brown said. “We need to continue to watch the horses and feed them and take care of them. There is no downtime. We keep ourselves pretty busy throughout the year, but we wouldn’t change it for anything.”

In just the five years they’ve competed with River Road, both Brown and Birdin Ground say they’ve seen a notable increase in interest in the relay races.

“It’s just getting bigger and bigger,” Brown said “We’ve competed in Dodson, Montana, which is in the middle of nowhere, and the stands are packed. There have been people at some of our previous races all the way from Kansas. Every person is so grateful to us for coming and providing an amazing night of entertainment.”

The interest in the event has also lured more teams than ever before, according to event co-organizer Lonnie Wright. Two months before rodeo, the maximum number of 20 teams had already signed up for the event. River Road is one of nine Montana teams competing, alongside six South Dakota teams, two Washington teams and one team each from Wyoming, North Dakota and Idaho.

The field of competitors has become so crowded River Road almost didn’t compete in Sheridan this year, Brown said. It was only after another team dropped out just a week ago that they were able to sub in last minute.

“I’m glad to be here,” Brown said. “I enjoy the competitiveness of it and the crowds, but I especially enjoy being here with my crew and my family.”

Family is a key part of the event’s appeal to both Brown and Birdin Ground, and they hope to honor their ancestors through their performances.

“We do it for the fun, but we also do it for where we come from,” Brown said. “We do it for the pride of the people who passed before us, because they had horses too. We follow in their footsteps.”

While the team celebrates the past, relay racing also allows them to look forward to a brighter, healthier future.

“We do it for them,” Brown said, gesturing to the young children running around the horse stalls, playing with water guns and gently stroking the horses’ muzzles. “So many guys our age on the reservation are just lost in their addictions. This gives us a purpose, and it lets us be here for our kids.”

Birdin Ground agreed.

“It keeps me alive,” Birdin Ground said. “It keeps me away from drugs and alcohol and keeps me busy all season.”

“We love this, and we do it for the pride of our nation,” Brown said. “We ride hard for our people and our kids.”

 

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