Isn't there a law against harming horses this way?
Yes, but not for the horses of the Suicide Race. Washington law prohibits the "injury or death of animals for amusement or gain" and the RCW16.52.205 description of animal cruelty is (1) A person is guilty of animal cruelty in the first degree when, except as authorized in law, he or she intentionally
- (a) inflicts substantial pain on,
- (b) causes physical injury to, or
- (c) kills an animal by a means causing undue suffering, or forces a minor to inflict unnecessary pain, injury, or death on an animal.
Unfortunately, another law, RCW 16.52.185 has been used to exempt the horses who run in the Suicide Race under the clause of "normal and usual course of rodeo events." Oddly, though, there is no other rodeo in Washington State or in the U.S. as a whole that features an event similar to the Omak Suicide Race and the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association has stated that they don’t even consider this kind of event as part of rodeos it sanctions.
Didn't the Colville Tribes boycott the Stampede once?
Yes. In 1999, the Colville tribes boycotted the Stampede and Suicide Race feeling that it "was becoming a matter of money, not an event dedicated to pride and horsemanship." Once Stampede organizers agreed to more than double the Suicide Race purse to $16,000 and move the Indian Encampment to a more favorable spot, the Colville tribes agreed to renew their participation. It's obvious that from both sides commerce, not culture, is the true bottom line of the Suicide Race.
Why do so many horses die?
Horses die from collisions, overexertion and drowning. Broken bones resulting from collisions and mass pileups on Suicide Hill cause the vast majority of deaths. The path starts out wide but due to its steep angle, and the fact that the race is often run in the dark, horses are not able to see that it narrows as it approaches the Okanogan River, creating a bottleneck. Because of the angle of the hill, the depth of the sand on the hill and the speed of the horses being thrown down it, they are not able to stop.
Other times, one horse will lose his footing and begin a series of head over heel somersaults down the hill. Other horses trip over or are hit by, falling horses, causing a massive spill. Additional horses have broken bones on the rocks lining the bed of the Okanogan River; others have drowned in it. These incidences have been well documented over the years. Watch this video of the race from 2006 made by the Humane Society of the United States. (Warning: Graphic and disturbing)
Some people say the horses actually like running down the hill. Why would they do it if they didn't?
Horses are herd animals and therefore, follow the herd. Add on to that the stress and noise caused by the crowds, and the men with whips on their backs. The horses have no choice.
Why do people go to the Stampede?
One of the main reasons people attend the Stampede is its spectacular Indian Encampment and Pow Wow, a traditional gathering featuring a teepee village, dancing, drumming and stick games. It's an amazing opportunity to observe, enjoy and learn about the incredible art and culture of Native tribes. Native People's Magazine named the Colville Tribes Pow Wow "one of West's best."
Did the Suicide Race exist before the Stampede was created?
No. There was once a race called the Keller Mountain tradition that was a long distance cross-country race, which included part of Keller Mountain in its course. When the Columbia was dammed, the course was flooded. The Keller Mountain race was run in daylight and did not include any 62-degree slopes.
Isn't it true that more horses die in regular horse races than in the Suicide Race?
Stampede organizers claim that their death rate is equal to, or less than, that of the horses at Emerald Downs, a thoroughbred racetrack in Seattle. This is blatantly untrue. According to the Washington State Horse Racing Commission, eight out of 5,894 horses died in races at Emerald Downs in 2004. According to the Omak Stampede three out of 20 were killed in the Omak Suicide Race in 2004. That makes the death rate at Emerald Downs less than one half of a percent. The death rate of the Omak Suicide Race is a staggering 15 percent. In addition, the only thing that a thoroughbred race has in common with the Suicide Race is that there are horses and it’s a competition. Normal horse tracks don’t include two steep hills to conquer or a fast, cold river to cross.
I thought the Suicide Race was a Native American rite of passage?
Race organizer's claims that the Suicide Race is a rite of passage is absurd. The Suicide Race was the idea of an Omak furniture salesman and Stampede publicity chair looking for a way to bring people and dollars to the small town. It was not a tradition for the 12 tribes that make up the Colville Confederated Tribes.
A rite-of-passage refers to a ritual or ceremony indicating the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Historically, Suicide Race riders' ages range from 18 to well into the 30's. The 2004 winner, Montana Pakootas, was 29 years old and had been racing since he was 16. The 2001 Omak Stampede and World Famous Suicide Race Official Souvenir Program featured an article on "jockey" Casey Nissen, celebrating his 25th year participating in the Suicide Race. Another previous race winner, Les Moses, rode in the race for 13 years before he won (Omak Chronicle, 8/15/2004.) Most ride in the race year after year seeking cash and popularity, not cultural fulfillment.
Even if the event was adopted by Omak community members as a “new tradition,” animal cruelty has no place in the traditions of a modern society. Dog fighting, for example, is a “sport” that has been taking place in cultures around the world for hundreds of years. Yet this gruesome tradition of forcibly training an animal to savagely perform for entertainment is now condemned publicly in all 50 states. In 2007, federal legislation was enacted to ban this form of organized animal cruelty.
Aren't the Omak Stampede and the Suicide Race two separate events?
The Omak Suicide Race is an integral part of the Omak Stampede. It is prominently featured on their web site, www.omakstampede.org, their logo, their letterhead, their official merchandise and more.
In the past, Omak Stampede, Inc., has also told sponsors their money would not support the race but a report in the Seattle Times (6/7/1995) quoted Jan Canfield, the Stampede's Office Manager as saying, "While these companies have never been specifically Suicide Race sponsors, the money they have contributed has typically gone to sponsor the Stampede as a whole - including the race, Canfield said."
What can I do to stop the Suicide Race?
You can write letters, send e-mails or make phone calls. Educate others about the race. Corporate sponsors, government and the media all know that one letter speaks for more than the person writing it- it speaks for the people of the community. Letters to the editor, to your local and state officials, to corporate sponsors and to the City of Omak, can make all the difference in the world.