Indian Relay is a form of bareback horse riding traditional amongst the Blackfoot people
22nd November 2019 by Will Stewart
Film maker Alexandra Lazarowich is a documentary film maker with a passion for making films about indigenous communities. Indian relay is a chaotic form of bareback horse riding that requires skill and courage. Fast Horse tells the story of Siksika horseman Allison RedCrow and his dream to bring a team to the Calgary Stampede.
MadeGood – Please give me some background on yourself as a film maker. Is this a typical example of your work?
Alex – The films I often make are about indigenous peoples, I try to make work that represents a modern interpretation of what it means to be indigenous. A part of my practice as a filmmaker to create films the create hope, and with FAST HORSE the hope was to create a film that built up a hero, an indigenous hero because often the story’s that are told are about poverty, trauma, sadness and with this particular film we were trying to create hope and pure adrenaline.
MadeGood – How did you find out about bareback horse racing, and what made you want to make a film about it? Is there a personal connection to it? Were the riders and stables keen to be involved in the film or was it difficult to gain trust and access?
Alex – When my producer Niobe Thompson was first researching this story, for a three-part series called Equus – Story of the Horse, he met a Blackfoot Elder called Thomas Many Guns. Thomas was in a wheelchair, but in his time, he had been one of the great horsemen of the Siksika Blackfoot. When the great flood of 2013 came down the Bow River out of the Rocky Mountains, Thomas’ herds of horses were mostly swept away with his ranch. He told Niobe that with the little time and money he had left, he wanted to make sure the Indian Relay tradition came back to Siksika. This was the task he gave to Allison RedCrow, and he asked Niobe and later Alexandra to tell the story in film. Thomas died in the fall of that year, but before he did, he saw the Old Sun team race its first season. This film is dedicated to Thomas’ memory.
Personally I had known about Indian Relay since I was a kid, I grew up going to rodeos with my family. I knew about it in a very casual way. In 2017 Niobe (our producer) called me and said “Alex do you know anything about Indian Relay?” and I said yes, “Yeah.” and Niobe said “Do you want to come to the first ever Indian Relay race at the Calgary Stampede?” I knew it was going to be a historic moment, and I jumped in a car and drove like 10 hours to make it to the race. I remember standing behind the chutes with our camera operator Aaron Munson filming, and the relay racers were lined up, and I had never seen 75,000 people cheer for a young indigenous man in my entire life. The crowd was so loud my heart, and my chest were vibrating and in that moment I knew I had to make this film.
Alison, Cody and the Old Sun Relay Team were wonderful, we are forever thankful that they allowed us to follow them for an entire year. As documentarians we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people who allow us to interrupt their lives, and we owe a huge debt to Alison, Cody, the Old Sun Relay Team and the Canadian Indian Relay Association.
MadeGood – The racing seems almost spiritual to the people who take part, and there are a lot of eccentricities to it. One of your characters says it has been with them for generations. Please tell me a bit about the history of Indian relay.
Alex – Indian Relay is the modern incarnation of an ancient Plains First Nation tradition of horsemanship competition, which run back to the arrival of Spanish horses on the Western Plains. Once they mastered riding and re-domesticated Spanish horses, the Blackfoot emerged as one of the great “horse nations”, and their skills blew away the European pioneers they encountered in later years. One horseback, the Blackfoot, Sioux, Crow, Comanche, Apache and other horse nations were uncatchable and unbeatable, and you can glimpse those traditions in the modern Indian Relay. This is like the X-Games of the horse-racing world: four teams racing bareback on Thoroughbreds around a quarter-mile track, jumping off one horse and onto another in an insane melée, four times. It’s for a good reason they call this “North America’s original extreme sport”.
MadeGood – Everyone in the film talks about the horses with great respect, and they’re obviously taken care of very well. Is racing good for the horses? To the uninitiated it looks like the horses are under quite a lot of stress, especially with them being whipped constantly.
Alex – I would say that in the Blackfoot tradition, as well as in the modern work of thoroughbred horse racing, riders use horse whips. While these are specialised racehorses (who love to run, and trained to run) they are also trained to respond to the whip. This is the way it’s done in the Blackfoot world, and we’re not here to judge.
MadeGood – Judging by the credits your team was not huge, but it seems you worked with a team of cinematographers, an editor and a producer. Please tell me a bit about how the team was assembled, and what the working dynamic is like, on and off set.
Alex – Our team was not huge at all, we were working in the restraints of a short film budget but we had an incredibly talented team. That was due to many factors: both that Niobe and I had worked with all of our team for many years, and Niobe is a very experienced producer who was confident in the team we put together. We both trusted our crew to do their job at such a high level because of it intensity of the race, working around horses, and working with the relay teams. We put an immense amount of trust in the the skill and talent of our entire crew to catch these incredible moments, which they did! I think anyone who makes documentaries has to be a little crazy, because you never know what is going to happen you are constantly taking risks, and every now and then you get something we like to call movie magic, and it happened with this movie, FAST HORSE has movie magic. And in regards to the post production our editor Sarah Taylor was incredible she is an editor who watches all of the footage, and knows the footage frame by frame. She is so talented, and I think a lot of the films success is due to her skill as an editor.
MadeGood – What are you working on next?
Alex – I am working on an indigenous romantic comedy about my parents and the origins of their love story and I currently work as Series Producer for Season 6 of CBC’s Still Standing.
MadeGood – Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Alex. Sounds like you’re going to be busy, good luck!