The Suicide Race — A Cowboy’s Dream, A Horse’s Nightmare

Suicide Race

Every year the lives of several cowboys and their horses are put on the line when they compete in The Suicide Race. If you ask a cowboy, he would probably say that the thrill is worth the risk, but does anyone ask the horse?

The Suicide Race is the feature event of the Omak Stampede in Washington state involving over a dozen horses and their riders. The event begins with racers charging across flat ground, reaching full speed before plunging down a precipitously steep slope towards a river, which they must then ford before galloping on to the finish at a rodeo arena. If that doesn’t sound perilous enough already, the event takes place in the darkness of night. The event’s morbid name is more than just a marketing gimmick — at least 21 horses have died in the past 24 years of this race. If you were a horse, would you want to compete in The Suicide Race?

Believe it or not, some people do enjoy participating in this type of race. The closest human equivalent to The Suicide Race that I can find is Cheese Rolling, where people in England chase a rolling block of cheese down a hill that’s just as steep as the suicide slope in Omak. Not surprisingly, chasers of the cheese frequently end up with broken bones. Luckily for humans a broken limb doesn’t require euthanization! Nevertheless, the risk of serious injury does not deter these folks from pursuing a “cheesy” trophy — to them, the excitement is far worth the risk. They make the choice to run down the hill. What choice does the horse have?

Choice is a key factor to enjoying a risky situation. Not everyone perceives danger in the same way; what looks scary to one may seem exciting to another. Earlier this summer I decided to climb a steep bluff at Sleeping Bear Dunes and then run back down to the beach. Most of my relatives joined my eager quest, but my wife and uncle thought we were all nuts and kept their feet on flat ground. If I had somehow forced my wife into tackling the bluff, she would not have enjoyed the experience the way that I did.

We can apply this concept to dogs as well. During hikes in the woods my dog Haven doesn’t mind “balance beam” walking on fallen tree trunks, even if they’re as high as my shoulders. My other dog Beacon, however, doesn’t feel as sure-footed and refuses to walk a log that’s only inches off the ground. He’s certainly physically capable of walking on tree trunks - in fact, dogs can climb trees — but Beacon and even Haven would be terrified if we dragged them up into a tree! I’ll bet that some horses would feel the same way about plunging down a steep embankment.

Several animal welfare groups are speaking out against The Suicide Race, claiming that the event is a cruel experience for the horses. 21 deaths in 24 years is a very harsh statistic, although cowboys of the Omak Stampede argue that horse track racing is little different. I agree with them on that point - the well-known Barbaro was only one of many horses that have died from racing.

Do the horses enjoy it? If they could talk, would they say that the thrill of racing is worth the risk? That’s a very difficult question to answer with any factual certainty. Plenty of humans willingly participate in activities with deadly consequences. A friend lost two of his cycling teammates this summer due to separate racing accidents, yet nobody questioned whether the victims were loving every minute of the event before the accident. People can easily communicate our thoughts and feelings to each other; it’s obvious to us that pilots love flying and mountaineers love climbing despite the inherent dangers of their hobbies - they say so.

With pets, however, we have to be careful to ensure that they are enjoying the activities that we provide for them. If I take my dogs running, they run; if we go swimming, they swim. If I trained them for dog fighting, they would do that, too. Such is the loyalty of dogs, horses, and many of the other animals under our care as domestic pets. It is our responsibility to decide how much is too much based on our limited abilities to communicate with other species. I’m sure that most horse owners would say that their horses love to be ridden, and that most horse racers would claim that their thoroughbreds enjoy the sport of racing.

What’s important is that we allow horses to race, not force them to race. I think the PAWS site about The Suicide Race says it best when addressing a FAQ that asks if the horses like going down the hill: “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.”

Since most people I know wouldn’t sprint down a hill at full speed for a hunk of cheese, I have to believe that most horses wouldn’t gallop down a steep embankment to swim in a river, either. After all, who is the decision-maker that enjoys taking such risks? The cowboy. It’s actually the horse who’s just along for the ride.

For further reading, here are two other articles about The Suicide Race:
The Wall Street Journal - The Race Where Horses Die
Indian Country Today - Colville’s Keller Mountain Tradition Turns to “Suicide Race”

Some selected videos of The Suicide Race (be warned that these may be disturbing):
The Wall Street Journal video report
International Fund for Horses video page
Progressive Animal Welfare Society video page

Photo: International Fund for Horses

15 Responses to “The Suicide Race — A Cowboy’s Dream, A Horse’s Nightmare”

  1. Donna says:

    True cowboys, would NEVER endanger his partner-horse for a “thrill”. I see no cowboys in that picture. Just foolish self centered thrill seekers.

  2. G in INdiana says:

    They should just substitute ATVs for the horses. Same thrill, no animal in danger. Just the idiot future Darwin award winners…

  3. Heather says:

    The horses didn’t choose to enter, so that’s not suicide… that’s murder.

  4. Lynne says:

    Excellent suggestion, G. And Heather, exactly right. This ranks right up there with the animal abuse inherent in rodeos, circuses, sled racing, dog racing, horse racing, on and on. I visited a friend’s barn just yesterday and petted a foal and a large draft horse while there. Looking into their big brown eyes I wondered how anyone in their right mind could abuse such a magnificent being.
    I don’t understand these people any more than I understand someone like Jeffrey Dahmer.

  5. Lynne says:

    Excellent suggestion, G. And Heather, exactly right. This ranks right up there with the animal abuse inherent in rodeos, circuses, sled racing, dog racing, horse racing, on and on. I visited a friend’s barn just yesterday and petted a foal and a large draft horse while there. Looking into their big brown eyes I wondered how anyone in their right mind could abuse such a magnificent being.
    I don’t understand these people any more than I understand someone like Jeffrey Dahmer.
    Here’s a suggestion: if the horse is injured and has to be killed, the rider has to be killed as well. Think that would alter things?

  6. catmom5 says:

    I agree that this is a barbaric and asinine way for horses to be hurt or killed so their “owners” can have an adrenal rush ~ or whatever they get! ATV’s are the perfect answer ~ the idiots can go kill themselves without hurting any animals who would IMHO choose NOT to run off a steep cliff. I also agree with the comments about rodeos, circuses, dog racing, horse racing, etc. At what point do we become compassionate enough to NOT “entertain” ourselves at the cost of animal injury and death?

  7. purringfur says:

    Must be some of the middle schools or elementary schools are closed today???
    You are right… no real cowboy would endanger a horse in this way. They enter events such as cow penning, ranch sorting, barrel jumping, reining, etc. to prove the prowess of their horses. These “cowboys” above should just have a foot race with one another — over the cliff!

  8. Bridgett says:

    This is exacting the mentality that keeps me away from rodeo’s and other “cowboy” sports. The jerks are living a dream of a lifestyle that never really existed and harming and/or killing animals to do it.

  9. nora says:

    The beautiful, gallant and enduring horse who will go until they drop and die of exhaustion or injury and suffer in silence to please his owner- rider is one of the faithful beasts of burden that we have built this now SAD society on. Anyone who would take a horse and run him at night into the darkness and to his possible death should be horsewhipped and thrown off a cliff if they want a thrill!!!! I grew up loving, training, showing..PRACTICALLY WORSHIPPING Horses and this activity is SICK!

  10. Goody 4 Paws says:

    I have seen “suicide hill.” How about they forget the horses. Shoot, let ‘em forget ATV’s as well. Let’s see just the humans run wide open down that hill into the river. If they would do that JUST ONE TIME, that’d be the end of the suicide race. Cowardly sickos. That’s all they are.

  11. Peace2us says:

    Just when I think there might be a glimmer of hope for humanity I see a story like this. What is the point of this supposed “race”? How could anyone subject a horse to such cruelty?

    Now I have to go back and re read the story about the cat rescued from the pipe to make myself feel better.

    GOODY: I like your idea of having the humans run on foot over the hill.

  12. Peace2us says:

    Okay, so I just read some of the articles about the race. The recurring theme of those who support it are: “It’s tradition” and “we love these horses”. One horse owner said he, “cried his eyes out” when he had to euthanize his horse due to injuries received in the race.

    I’m sorry but anyone that “loves” anything would not subject it to such risk. Would any of these people put their children on their backs and rush down that hill?? I seriously doubt it and the reasons are obvious.

    As for “tradition”- well that’s just a poor excuse for refusing to evolve towards a more civilized society.

  13. Anony says:

    People actually *breed* horses for this race. I recently saw a yearling at the slaughter feedlot who’d been bred for the Suicide Race. Thank God the poor baby horse was adopted out, instead, and missed both the race and slaughter. Imo, that’s the only race the horse should be winning — the race for a new, safe life with sane, protective owners.

  14. Jenny Bark says:

    I agree with what everyone has said 100%. Real men take good care of their familys & their animals, period. They arn’t men their very sick things pretending to be human. Their should be a law that sick things like that can’t pretend to be men or human. It’s murder.

  15. Stud Horse 101 says:

    There are some horses that love the thrill and excitement of this legendary race. It’s just you panzy ass beezy’s who don’t talk to the horses that would love to run down this “World Famous Suicide Hill”. Plus it’s not even that steep. I know of plenty of horses that you can not hold back on this ” World Famous Suicide Hill ” because they don’t want to slow down they want to put the pedal to the medal and hall ass scaring the living daylight out of these brave NATIVE AMERICANS that ride these horses. Plus you white folk should of never stolen our land.
    White people such sissy’s.

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