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