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Recalling the world famous suicide race

Writer's rodeo dreams ended with a nasty Shetland pony
by: Self-portrait Sports Editor John Brewington

When I was young I had fleeting thoughts of riding in a rodeo. I didn't have a horse, but had ridden on some on a family visit to Montana when I was 5. I enjoyed it immensely. I raised some rabbits and chickens, but they were pretty darn tough to rope. Still, I watched Westerns and liked the idea of riding my horse out in the wild countryside. Monument Valley and Montana were always bouncing around my brain.

My interest in riding broncs may have waned one day when my dad took me along on a visit to a friend's farm. We were there so our big boxer dog could have a 'date' with the female boxer that resided at the place. While they were getting to know each other, Dad asked if I wanted to ride the Shetland pony out in the pasture.

'Why shur,' I said in my best Western drawl. I think my dad already knew what was going to happen.

They put a bridle on the little pinto pony and told me to hop aboard. I was about 10 at the time. I jumped up and threw my right leg over the pony. There I was sitting on the little Shetland thinking what a treat this was. Then pandemonium ensued. The horse took off on a quick trot and I tried to tighten my grip with my legs. I was still hanging on, but the little horse headed right for an apple tree with low-hanging branches. Yep, that purposeful dash scraped me right off. Apparently, the horse wasn't so child friendly and it wasn't done with me. It started chasing me around the tree trying to bite me. I vividly remember the gnashing big white teeth. I was nimble enough to avoid getting bitten, but the sound of my dad's belly laugh still rings in my ears 50 years later.

I would ride horses later, but every time I got on one I thought of that little Shetland. I wondered what he would have tasted like barbecued.

My thoughts of a rodeo career were heartily consumed by those gnashing teeth.

I still did enjoy going to rodeos and went to more than a few over the years. I've been to Pendleton and a few others around the Pacific Northwest.

Perhaps my favorite rodeo memories, though, were at the 'Omak Stampede and World Famous Suicide Race.'

Before my last year in college, I got an internship at The Omak Chronicle. Omak is a small Western town, about 100 miles north of Wenatchee in Washington state. I headed over there in my old beater after finishing my junior year. I arrived just before the second crest of a three-stage flood of the Okanogan River. I walked into the office to find the editor, John Andrist, down in the basement trying to salvage annual books with editions of the 100-year-old paper. He was wearing knee high rubber boots and there was enough water to almost top them.

The flooding finally ended and I spent much of the summer doing flood stories.

A welcome diversion would come in August with the rodeo. I still didn't know what a suicide race was, nor why anyone would want to ride their horse in it. I don't remember it even being called 'World Famous' in those days. I was pretty sure no one in China, South Africa, or Argentina had heard of it. I wasn't from that far away and I'd never heard of it.

The race involved cowboys and Indians riding their horses off a really steep bluff above the river, skidding down the sides of the cliff, swimming the Okanogan River, and then racing into the stadium in front of about 14,000 people. It was a big deal to most everyone and there was a lot of money involved, even in those days. These days, the website indicates the race is all Native Americans. The winner of the race that year was a young cowboy I'd met earlier in the summer. He'd taken an immediate dislike to me-something that happened a lot in those days-and I spent most of my time trying to be places he wasn't. I think maybe he was some kind of horse whisperer that got the same feeling that little Shetland had for me.

I actually had a good time during the four-day rodeo. I spent some time in the Native American Village, learned a few gambling games, and saw a lot of rodeo.

No one died in the suicide race, but one horse didn't quite make it. One cowboy got kicked in the head while riding bulls, but I did manage to get a grip on my boss and pull him out of the arena when a bull charged. The whole show was fun and I didn't have to ride a horse once. I didn't have to hear my dad laughing at me either.