Coors, Wrangler, Pepsi: corporate sponsors of the Omak Suicide Race, notorious for the number of horses killed or injured as they’re spurred through the course. Twenty horses have died in the Omak Suicide Race in the past twenty-one years. In 2004 alone, three horses died. Miraculously, there were no fatalities this year. But the race will probably be held as usual in the second weekend of August in 2006. Based on the race’s infamous history, there is a strong possibility that during the four heats over four days, more horses will die or be injured.
As described by Vivian Farrell, the Omak horses are whipped and kicked into performing feats that are antithetical to the way their bodies work. That’s why the race is so dangerous. The following information is taken from Farrell’s posting at http://www.fund4horses.org/print.php?id=573.
In leg one, horses gallop to “Suicide Hill,” and then throw themselves down “an almost complete vertical drop of approximately 225 feet at a 62 degree angle.” In such a sharp drop, horses can’t see far enough ahead to know where to land their feet, due to the blind spot in the front of their foreheads. Indeed, they don’t realize where the ground is. The impact of hitting the ground blindly may damage their vulnerable legs. They also can’t see the horses ahead of them. All the horses running down the hill are handicapped in this way, and collisions and pileups are a foregone conclusion, resulting in injury or death.
In leg two, horses who have survived the first lap (and some may already be injured), immediately plunge into the rocky Okanogan River and must swim across. Hitting the water, they sometimes land sideways, having lost their balance coming down the hill. They may get caught up in the reins or panic. It is easy for a horse to drown here. Farrell explains that horses don’t feel the ground beneath them in the water and tend to panic. They have a problem with breathing when trying to swim. And high blood pressure from the effort of swimming results in nosebleeds. “Because there is no support from the ground and there is little or no resistance from the water, the amount of energy required to move forward in the water is significantly greater than that required to move forward on land….[Swimming] 500 yards is about equal to a one mile gallop.”
In leg three, the surviving horses are must run up a steep hill. Farrell writes that horses in this part of the race may suffer fatigue, cramping and possible permanent muscle damage due to acidosis (buildup of lactic acid and carbon dioxide.) The same thing happens to human athletes when they get a “stitch.”
Farrell says that this race is not only dangerous physically for horses but mentally as well. From long experience, she’s learned that horses are much like humans in that they remember what they have been through and “also what they are about to endure.” They can hear and smell so acutely that the loud noises at the race hurt their ears, and “smelling” the fear in the other horses makes their ordeal that much worse. She concludes that “the tumult of such an occasion as the Omak Suicide Race must be an assault on their senses that is debilitating and petrifying.” The psychological trauma will probably last forever in the survivors.
For more details and what you can do, see http://www.paws.org/outreach/campaigns/omak.php
Background article “The Race Where Horses Die”
Video of the event: