The Suicide Race, also promoted as the World Famous Suicide Race, is a horse race held every year, during the second week of August, in Omak, Washington as a part of the Omak Stampede, a rodeo. Held for more than 70 years, the race is known for the portion of the race where horses and riders run down Suicide Hill, a 62-degree slope that runs for 225 feet (69 m) to the Okanogan River. Though the race was inspired by Indian endurance races, the actual Omak race was the 1935 brainchild of a local Omak business owner. The race has provoked serious concerns among animal welfare and animals rights groups.
The course starts at the top of Suicide Hill, where riders have 50 feet (15 m) to get their horses up to full speed before charging down the hill and into the river where they swim across to the other side, then sprint a last 500 yards (460 m) to the rodeo arena where the crowd waits. In August the river is often low enough for the horses to run across. Most riders wear helmets, and all are required to wear life jackets. Horses and riders have to pass three tests to demonstrate their ability to run in the race and navigate the river: there is an initial veterinarian exam to make sure the horse is physically healthy, a swim test to ensure horses can cross the river, and the hill test where riders ride their horses off the hill at a controlled speed to prove that the animals won't give way to fear at the brink, which can cause a dangerous pile-up.
The riders consist of both cowboys and Indians. In particular, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, whose reservation includes East Omak and the rodeo grounds, view the race as remniscent of their traditions as horse warriors.
Many Tribal participants view the race as spiritual and a cultural-preservation administrator for the tribes has stated that it is the "ultimate demonstration of the rider's ability to become one with the horse." Riders who embrace the spiritual elements of the race pray in sweat lodges and place sacred eagle feathers on their horses.
The suicide race was created in 1935 by Claire Pentz, the white publicity director of the Omak rodeo, in an effort to promote the rodeo. The race is rooted in nineteenth century Native American endurance races, which were held in on the Colville Indian Reservation in a valley near Keller, Washington which was flooded when the Grand Coulee Dam was built in 1933.
Animal abuse controversy
The event is opposed by several animal rights groups, including the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), In Defense of Animals, and Humane Society of the United States, who are against the high level of danger posed to the horses. In the previous 25 years, for example, at least 21 horses have died, including three in 2004 and one in 2012.
- Nick Timiraos, The Race Where Horses Die, The Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2007.
- Jean Johnson, Colville's Keller Mountain tradition turns to 'Suicide Race', Indian Country Today, September 7, 2004.
- "Omak Suicide Race", PAWS web site
- "Stop the Omak Suicide Race", In Defense of Animals
- Humane Society press Omak video
- Dininny, Shannon, "3 horses die in Omak's Suicide Race - Animal rights group renews its criticism of long-running event", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 13 Aug 2004, online
- "Horse dies in Omak qualifying race", 6 Aug 2012, Spokesman-Review.
- Official website, Omak Stampede