By the time the ponies bolted from the starting line on the morning of June 8 in Red Mesa Chapter the temperatures were already in the 80s and climbing. The 16-team race consisted of three relays with each horse running a 12-mile loop around the picturesque red mesas and small buttes of the rural northern Navajo Nation chapter. A few hundred people, mostly family and friends of the teams in action stood on trailers, fence posts and anything they could climb on to try to gauge what horse and rider pair was in the lead coming into the first relay exchange.
By the first exchange, a few elite and experienced teams had separated themselves from the pack. Leading the first leg and favored to win by many knowing a thing or two about the Indian horse-race scene, Edgar Gachupin, Zia Pueblo, and his Zia Pony Express team were looking comfortable with a quick and clean first exchange. "We've been racing for 25 years and it's in our blood, in our tradition," Gachupin said. "We drove five and a half hours to get here from New Mexico because we like the family and community at these races."
But not everybody was firing on all cylinders and in control of their horse. Exhausted from his very first race and with dust filled tears rolling down his cheeks, Reidnez Shiboy sat motionless next to his mother under a canvas canopy after completing the second leg of the race. The eight-year-old boy from Indian Wells was covered from head to toe in dust after taking a fall from his horse just moments before. "I was in the clouds," Reidnez said while looking visibly dazed. "The hardest part was when my saddle was going this way and I was going that way and then I fell off." This would be his last race he emphaticall declared while his mother and other relatives tried not to chuckle. They knew he'd back up on a horse in no time.
"The rules state that if your horse quits on you, you have to take your saddle yourself and make it back to the next exchange," Red Mesa public relations officer Russell Gould said. This was the hand dealt to a few unlucky riders during the latter part of the approximately 90-minute race as temperatures neared triple digits and the sand beneath their boots burned. Some were less unlucky than others as they only had a few hundred feet to run and carry their saddle after being either bucked-off or simply having their inexperienced or young horse quit. Others, like a young man nearing the end of the race, had to run close to a mile and immediately began to vomit and shake after coming through for his team and delivering the saddle for the next exchange. "He had minor heat exhaustion but he'll be fine and emergency services is attending to him now," Gould said confidently.
Team Taylors Flying T of Teec Nos Pos took first and went home with a saddle and $3,000, followed by Zia Pony Express and Starlake Racing of Ojo Encino.