In November 2020, Granta editors Rachael Allen and Josie Mitchell had a conversation with Duane Hall, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, about Colville, a photoessay documenting the bareback horseraces of the community, by British photographer Fergus Thomas. Hall sat with his three-year-old daughter Irene, and talked about racing and how he first met Thomas during the summers of 2015 and 2016.
rachael allen: Could you tell us about the race that’s documented in the photos? How does it work? How do people take part?
duane hall: I guess, for the relay races, I don’t know how it started. I’ve never got to the bottom of that, I’ve never really done the research. But, first of all, it’s a lot of intense training. You’ve got to choose the right horse. You’ve got to get to know the horse. Train him, pretty much raise him up. And then extensive hours to get to know the horse, get a feel for the horse. As well as your teammates. They’ve got to be a big part of it. They’ve got to be there throughout the whole training from start to finish.
And when they get to the races, there’s a sense of adrenaline, a kind of animosity, if you will, and a lot of anxious feelings. You can really feel the horses, when you’re around them, you can feel their spirit coming to life. They know what they’re trained to do, what they’re supposed to do. So they’re on high alert.
When the race starts, you get tunnel vision. You don’t see a lot of stuff. You don’t feel a lot of emotions. You just concentrate on what your job is during the race. When the race starts, it’s like all bets are off. You don’t got no more brothers except for your teammates, because they’re the ones who are helping you throughout the race. It seems, in those short minutes it takes to run the relay race, it’s every man for himself, and every horse for themselves.
The jockey himself, he has the biggest job. The jockey and the catcher. The jockey has to stay mounted. And the catcher has to make sure the horse doesn’t run him over or get away. A loose horse on a track means disqualification. So, if your catcher doesn’t catch the horse, or your outholder doesn’t keep a hold of the horse, and they get loose, then it’s automatic disqualification.
allen: So you have to have a lot of control over something that might not want to be controlled.
hall: No, you have no control. If the horse is going to make up his mind to take off down the track with you dragging then you’re either going to let go or you’re going to hang on. The horse, just like a human, they have a mind of their own, they have their own emotions, their own thoughts. And if they decide this is what they’re going to do, then all we can do is hang on and pray for the best.
allen: Do you own the horses? Who owns the horses?
hall: I don’t, I don’t own any horses. I was fortunate enough to get on a team. One of my good friends, who had been involved in races for some years, one day said, ‘Hey, we need a teammate.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I don’t know what I’m doing but I’ve watched enough, I think I can figure it out.’ And so we went on, and it was quite the experience. I just fell in love with it. And actually, a couple of times, I didn’t tell no one where I was going. I just packed my bags and headed off to a race, and my family was calling and asking when I was coming for dinner and I said, ‘Well, I’m about six hours away so I won’t be home for a few days, I’m running these horses.’ It’s a lot of fun.
allen: Is it dangerous?
hall: It can be. I don’t know anybody who’s been severely hurt, knock on wood. They get run over, they get hit by a horse. But not severely hurt, where they can’t walk or talk, or even die. I have really great brothers who have won the championship several times. It’s amazing to watch them run, they’re really good. I like to be behind the scenes when they’re doing their stuff, so I can watch and learn, and kind of mimic what they do when I get to be a part of it. So it’s all learning, all the time.
josie mitchell: What makes a good team?
hall: A good team? You’ve got to get a good rider, someone who practices a lot, who grew up around horses. And then you’ve got to have someone who’s got enough bravery or willpower to stand in front of a running horse and grab it while it’s running, and stop it. That’s another big part. Also a holder who can keep the next horse calm and ready to run the next lap. The outholder is already tired from a lap, and is catching his breath, and doesn’t usually try any funny business.
But also you’ve got to have the right horses, horses that are willing to participate, learn as they’re training, run and do their best. Horses are athletes also. They pack the rider. They have to listen to the holder, catcher, you know. It’s a big, big picture of what comes down to what you see on the racetrack. It’s so many hours of training horses, of practicing, it’s like a never-ending cycle, where you have to be a part of your horses’ lives as much as they are a part of yours, year-round. I’ve seen some of my friends drive two hours just to practice for an hour, so it’s dedication, lots and lots of dedication. That’s what makes a good team.
allen: Do you work with the same horse? Do you race the same horse you work with?
hall: No, there’s three different horses in a relay race, typically. There’s a horse race in Emerald Downs that consists of four horses because that’s a bigger track. So they divided that up, four horses per race. You start out with your veteran horse. Your veteran horse will, in a way, teach the younger horses, like older brothers teach younger brothers, or dads teach sons, or uncles teach nephews, or cousins teach cousins. It’s the same aspect as a human training for a sport. With the horses, they train the same way as a human does. I think, I’m pretty sure, the younger horses watch the older horses and pretty soon they calm down. They get with the program, but it’s just lots and lots of practice and training.
allen: What does it feel like when you’re in a race?
hall: It’s definitely an adrenaline rush. From the time you start wrapping your horse’s legs, when you start getting prepped and ready to go out on track, you’re calm, you’re taking care of business behind the scenes, getting the horses prepped, getting the teammates ready, or the teammates getting you ready, however it works out. But once you go from the stables, or where your horses are tied up, and start walking out to the track, you get all these thoughts, all these emotions; you get flooded with adrenaline, you’re thinking what’s the best that could happen, what’s going to happen? Your mind has all these questions. But as soon as you hit that track, it’s 100 percent business and adrenaline. It’s really intense. You can feel your veins on fire from your blood flowing just so fast.
I haven’t done drugs, per se. But I drink alcohol quite a bit. The adrenaline rush that you get from the race is like no other high, I believe. I don’t know about harder drugs, but once you hit that adrenaline high, I don’t think there’s anything that can match that. And it seems like it’s a rush the whole entire time. And when you leave the track your hands are shaking and you’re fidgety, and you’re just – whoa, you know.
I never got to experience a whole lot of it. But I grew up around it, watching. But when I did get the chance to try it, I grabbed it and ran with it. I just figured life’s too short to miss out on certain things. And watching my brothers grow up doing it, it just made me want to try it more and more. So I actually had to take time off work a few times to just go do it. Just take off.
Nobody really taught me. I just watched and learned, from being around it. I talked to a lot of my friends who did it for a long time, and asked them what it was like. And, they have teammates, they’ve had them since they were teenagers, or younger, some of them. So they grew up together doing this, and for somebody to step in and take somebody else’s place was a rare opportunity. So then I got the chance with Katherine Menthorne’s team Umatilla, down in Pendleton, Oregon, which is where Fergus first became a part of the scene.
She’d asked me a year before, or one of her jockeys who’s from my hometown said, ‘Well, I need a hand, can you help?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a shot.’ And ever since then, every chance I get, I’m jumping on a team. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of joking when the teams are walking out. If you do something wrong, the other team, or your own teammates, will correct you, they’ll tell you, ‘Hey man.’ When you mess up, they’re your big brother, even though they’re younger than you. Some of them are younger than me, but they’ve been doing it for so much longer than me, they know the ropes so they correct me. It’s amazing how close everyone is, until it’s time to race.