by Marcia Mueller
In the last few years more information has been reaching the public about the abuse of animals in entertainment. Most of the coverage has involved cruelty to elephants and other wild animals in circuses, as well as the unnatural lives forced on dolphins and whales in SeaWorld. Other animals are the objects of abuse also, including horses, although there has not been as much attention paid to them. One example is the Omak Suicide Race in Omak, Washington.
Known as the “deadliest horse race in the world,” the Omak Suicide Race was begun in 1935. The race is usually touted as a celebration of history and tradition of the local tribes.
The race itself takes place over the course of four days, during which riders run their horses down “Suicide Hill,” a 210 foot, nearly vertical, slope and into the Okanogan River. They must swim across the river (about the length of a football field) and then climb a 500-foot slope on the opposite bank.
The event causes many injuries and death for the horses, which include heart attacks from stress and exertion, ripped tendons, and broken bones from collisions and falls. Some of the horses drown because they are unable to swim with their injuries or are too weak to stay afloat in the crush of animals tumbling into the water. An observer described a typical scene: “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.” http://www.paws.org/about/paws/history/omak/faq
The source of the horses is similar to that in horse tripping rodeo. They are the victims of our careless, throwaway society. It is estimated that many of the animals are bought from the local “kill” pen. Some are discarded from the thoroughbred race industry. Others are wild horses rounded up and broken on the Colville reservation. Thus, after the torture of the race, they can look forward to slaughter.
The race is advertised as a celebration of culture and tradition, suggesting that it is a Native American custom and rite of passage. That claim has been questioned by some who say the “tradition” was started in 1935 by a local furniture store salesman and a member of the rodeo publicity board to attract more visitors and money. However, members of local tribes do participate, and most riders are youth from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. According to Ernie Williams, spokesman for the Suicide Race Owners & Jockeys Association, “To prepare, the riders go into sweathouses, and the horses are bathed in Indian medicines. This is the only weekend out of the year we get to play cowboys and Indians.” http://animalsnorthwest.com/2015/08/18/two-horses-die-in-omak-suicide-race/
Animal rights groups have deemed the race animal abuse and have attempted to stop it. Yet while the suicide race results in injury and death that would ordinarily constitute cruelty, the law exempts the horses under the clause of “normal and usual in the course of rodeo events.”
(Interestingly, no rodeo in Washington State or in the U.S. has an event similar to the Omak Suicide Race, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association won’t even consider this kind of event as part of rodeos it sanctions.)
Whatever its source, this “tradition” needs to end. It should not be used as an excuse for raising money or “playing cowboys and Indians.” For some horses it is not a suicide race. It is murder.
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