PENDLETON -- First things first: before you die, you must attend a Pendleton Round-Up. If you live in the Northwest, you've no doubt heard of it, but the Pendleton Round-Up truly lives up to all the storied hype.
Picture an entire town, secluded by the parched, rolling hills of Eastern Oregon, wholeheartedly focused on showing you a good time and making you a lifelong rodeo fan at every turn.
I joined the thousands upon thousands of good-natured, rowdy fans in the heat for two days, including Saturday's final, and found myself cheering wildly for spectacularly dangerous and exiting events, some that I didn't even know existed -- wild cow milking? Count me in, I've got to see that.
But more than any bronco that bucked a cowboy through the air or half-ton steer wrestled into the dirt, the event that made my jaw drop were the heart-stopping Indian relay races.
Indian relay races pit a handful of teams against each other, each from a regional tribe, each with one rider, and each with several very, very wild horses. Instantly you're transported back in time, expecting to see these horses break free and race across the plains and lost beyond the horizon.
Just leading the horses onto the track is an outright ordeal; some refuse to budge while others rear straight up and stamp down onto their handlers who must scramble out of the way.
No saddles, no saddle blankets, just bareback riding. Each rider is incredibly exposed and risks great injury, clothed in nothing more than a pair of shorts, perhaps a tank top and moccasins or maybe sneakers. It's next to nothing compared to what fellow rodeo competitors wear.
As quickly as they're led out, and without warning, a sudden and startling gunshot scares not only the crowd, but the pack of horses.
With one fluid leg kick, each rider sails from the ground onto their frightened horse, some more elegantly than others. Half of the horses start the race without their rider and others buck furiously to rid themselves of the man (or lady, there are races for women), on their back.
At break-neck speed, the riders must race one lap around the track. But in a matter of seconds, the pack is already round the bend and that's when things get really tricky.
As each rider approaches their team, without slowing down, they must somehow manage to hop off their horse and mount the next one, all in a matter of one of two seconds. The relay repeats one more time before the horse and rider dash across the finish line.
Writing about this feat of physics and athleticism really doesn't do it justice. You have to watch it. Here are a couple videos posted on YouTube:
Pendleton Round-Up 2010
Pendleton Round-Up 2011
During the women's race this year, one rider was not able to stop her horse. After the race was over, the horse continued speeding around the track for two more laps. Finally and without many options, she bailed off the side going about 25 mph, hitting the ground hard. Knocked silly for a second, she still managed to get up and jog off the track.
If you're still not sold, here's an article from the New York Times about the championship Indian relay races held in Sheridan, Wyoming. You can also read about how some of the Umatilla riders train in the East Oregonian.
Besides the rodeo, the Pendleton Round-Up offers a ton of other events for the whole family. You can visit their website at http://pendletonroundup.com/