Friday Flicks: ‘Indian Relay’ (2013)

Horse Nation’s galloping film critic Amanda Ronan checks out a new Independent Lens documentary that is currently airing on

From Amanda:

Indian Relay, an Independent Lens program airing on PBS, follows three teams from Native American communities during the Indian Relay race season. The film opens on the picturesque North American plains.

The first team, from the Blackfeet Nation based in Browning, Montana, is Team Murray. Myles and his grandmother are the resident hopeful rookies of the season. His grandmother says she wanted “something constructive” for teen Myles, though she admits he’s clueless when it comes to horse training. Myles’s herd consists of three mares and one gelding. His training regimen revolves around picturesque hacks with his aunt.

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The second team, Team Tissidimit, is from the Shoshone-Bannock Nation based in Idaho, headed up by Lance Tissidimit.

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The final team hails from the Apsaalooke nation, Crow agency in Montana. MM Express is the season favorite with rider Zack Rock. Straight out of a “horse movie,” this team literally has it all. A trainer, Kendall Old Horn, with a shady past paired with a rock star up-and-comer jockey. Their biggest rivals are, you guessed it, Rock Racing with Zack’s brother, Luke, in the irons… that is if they rode with saddles. This team appeared overall the most professional. Not only did Zack work on his running mount technique for hours daily, they also used hill work to maintain the horse’s fitness.

MM Express quickly racks up two first place finishes at the beginning of the season, the first by a staggering 25 lengths.

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So here’s what you need to know. Each race is three laps on a 5/8ths track. The rider must switch horses at least twice during the course of the race. The “holder” holds the next horse in preparation for the rider’s running mount, while the “mugger” catches the horse that just ran a lap.

Sound like a recipe for mayhem? That’s because it is. Here’s a little taste.

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MM Express appears unbeatable as the season progresses, but then tragedy strikes. While training, Zack Rock is thrown and trampled resulting in broken ribs, a bruised kidney, and a bruised liver.

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Forced to use a substitute rider, MM Express suffers two devastating losses in the final weeks before nationals, leaving the door wide open for Zack’s brother, Luke, to take center stage.

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After a mere four weeks of recovery, Zack decides he must ride for his team if they want to win at nationals.

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Can Zack recover from his injuries to win? You’ll just have to watch and see!

Indian Relay introduced me to an equestrian sport that I never knew existed. Unfortunately, ignorance may have been bliss. On a technical level, this film didn’t wow me. Though the cinematography was excellent, aided by the High Plains summer backdrop, and the editing was high quality, the “story” left us hanging.

Documentaries like this have to make an emotional connection with the audience. It’s simply the only way they work. And there were so many opportunities for director Charles Dye to do just that! For instance, why was Zack not riding for his family’s team? Is there a longstanding rivalry between him and his brother? When will Lance Tisdimmit hand over the reins to a younger rider and why hasn’t he done so already? All great unasked, unanswered questions!

Purely from a content stance, this documentary was shocking. I’m not going to sugar coat it, I think this sport should be banned. Check out this sequence of images from the helmet cam of a “holder.”

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All I can say is… holy guacamole.

I also found the whole setting a bit condescending for Native Americans. It’s introduced to us as a valid sport, but it felt more like a rodeo intermission sideshow. At one point the teams are at a pre-race rider briefing and the race manager literally says, “We want traditional costumes, breechcloth and moccasins. Keep it as native as we can.” Seriously?!?

On the other hand, you have to admire Zack Rock’s riding. While most of the riders were simply sitting on their horse, legs splayed, that young man is doing a full-out racing position bareback. It is no doubt the reason why he usually wins. Boy got skills. One of the most interesting parts of the film for me was watching him prepare to ride, although again this was only seen in tidbits. He wrapped his entire lower legs in yellow Vetwrap, wet down his pants and rubbed dirt on the horse’s backs all in an effort to have sticky britches.

I give Indian Relay 1 ½ Golden Horseshoes for showing me something new and Zack Rock’s legs and core of steel. The full episode of Indian Relay is available on PBS’s website until December 18.


Here’s a clip:


Go Riding.