Omak, Washington is a remote town in northern Washington, on the border of the Colville Indian reservation. The town is known for its annual rodeo, the Omak Stampede, and the controversial Suicide Race that runs with it.
The Suicide Race begins at the top of Suicide Hill, a steep, 225-foot plunge into the river below. Riders take the hill at a full gallop, then run or swim their horses across the approximately 150-foot width of the river. Once they’ve made it across, horses and riders race the final 500 yards to the finish at the rodeo arena. Horses that successfully complete the race return the following night to do it again until the final race during the day on Sunday.
The race has drawn criticism due to its dangerous nature, particularly the run down Suicide Hill. In the past 26 years, at least 21 horses have died in the Suicide Race, and countless others have sustained injuries. No riders have died in the race in the past several decades
The Humane Society of the United States has a video on their website documenting the race and the opinions of several equine veterinarians who have attended. Warning: the video does contain some graphic footage.
Supporters of the event say that it is an important historical event with ties to the region’s Native American culture. The majority of the participants are members of the nearby tribes, which have a long equestrian history. Participants say that running the Suicide Race is a spiritual experience and that it demonstrates the ultimate bond and trust between horse and rider. In a letter published on the Omak Stampede’s official website, Hank Raymond of the Colville Confederated Tribes said:
Horses do die, but it’s not like we are prodding them with electric prods and shooting them through the skull with a nail gun to make McD hamburgers. No, we raise horses like our children and teach them how to survive a very strenuous existence. The horse [sic] too are very proud of what they do, every horse that finishes the race are champions.
In addition to the historical and spiritual ties, the town of Omak continues to support the controversial race because of the annual economic boost that comes with it. The rodeo is said to bring more than $6 million to Omak each year, and is the only major tourism event for the remote town of less than 5,000 people.
Though the race draws protests from around the globe, town officials tend to disregard the criticism. In a 2007 Wall Street Journal article, former Omak mayor and race supporter Dale Sparber explained that he’d set up his email to automatically delete any incoming message with the words “suicide race” in the text.
Race organizers have put some safety precautions in place. All horses must be tested before the race to show that they will gallop off the edge of Suicide Hill without balking. A stopped horse at the top of the hill could cause a dangerous pile-up. They are also tested swimming ability. Veterinarians examine each horse prior to the race to make sure they are fit to compete. Riders must wear life vests and some opt to wear helmets as well.
This year’s races begin at 7 pm local time tonight and continue through Sunday.