A ll over the West, cowboys and cowgirls are gearing up to compete in everything from barrel racing to bull riding.
It won't be long now 'til rodeo season is here.
One of the great competitive icons of rodeo season, and a sure-fire crowd pleaser, is a heart-pounding suicide race.
Traditionally a fierce challenge to rider and horse, in recent years there has been a drop in the numbers of riders who want to subject their horses to such hazardous duty.
Since 1968, the suicide race has been a integral part of the Elgin Stampede.
Bud Scoubes, who has sponsored the race for several years, says nowadays fewer and fewer people want to run the suicide course. Last year, only two applicants took the challenge.
This year the Stampeders decided to change the name, the course and the concept behind the traditional suicide race.
The new name, the Stampede Challenge, represents what promises to be "more of a horse race an endurance race," Scoubes says.
The Stampede Challenge is something rodeo enthusiasts can experience only at the Elgin Stampede. Scoubes has challenged other rodeos to send a representative to run the race and experience firsthand their new and "softer" course.
The course has been lengthened to almost two miles and is "more horse friendly," he says.
The old course, Scoubes says, had two areas of extreme concern.
For years, the race started at Ed Hug's hilltop home, going downhill. Racers galloped their horses to a terrifying, leg-breaking drop off of a rocky outcrop and down through boulders and thorny brush.
There was also a portion of the race that put riders and horses on paved county road not a good surface for racing horses, Scoubes says.
The new course bypasses the county road and riders will start their break-neck gallop from a new hilltop position across from Hug's through Lavon and Vera Culver's flat, soft fields.
"The folks in the grandstand will still be able to see them," Scoubes says, "as they clear the field and begin to make their way downhill."
Best of all, the fierce competition still ends with an exciting race through Ken and Cheryl Coe's property hurtling down Clark's Creek and the heart-stopping, hazardous river crossing before entering the Stampede arena.
"It doesn't always matter who's in first place coming into the river crossing," Scoubes says. "If you don't hit that river just right,your horse will be swimming instead of running on the bar."
Russ Smith, Summerville, who won the race in 2001 and 2002, says if you don't hit the river just right, you're lucky if your horse does swim.
"Those horses are hot, tired and movin' fast," Smith says. "You hit that water hard and you can end up with a horse tumblin' through the river and you tumbling with it. Or your horse may just decide he's had it."
Smith, who grew up in Elgin, plans to enter, and win, the 2004 Stampede Challenge.
"I'm not enterin' for second," Smith laughs. "You know what ya get for second, don'tcha?"
The entry fee is $100 per rider, which is put into a winner-take-all pot for first place.
"And," Scoubes says, "the purse includes a new saddle valued at $500."
If Smith and his new horse "Lucky" win the Stampede Challenge, he will be the only person to win three times.
As it stands, Smith has the distinction of being one of only four men to win it twice Dick Hibbard in 1968 and 1969, Scotty Hindman in 1972 and 1973, and Scotty Payne in 1978 and 1983.
Smith hopes the course changes in the Stampede Challenge will bring out more riders, saying, "It's a lot more exciting with five or six guys."
With the emphasis changed to endurance, Shirley Hindman hopes it will bring more women to the race. She thinks both men and women may have drawn away from entering because "it's silly to ruin a good saddle horse."
Hindman has the double honor of being the first woman to enter the suicide race and the only woman ever to win it.
Hindman, who grew up in Elgin, now lives outside Walla Walla. She won the suicide race in 1970 when she was 20 years old.
Hindman says the old suicide race course was definitely harder on the horse than the rider.
"The race wasn't too easy to run, though," she says, "and I was very, very lucky."
Hindman remembers turning a corner and colliding with another rider. The jolt caused her to lose her seat and she found herself on the horse's rump behind the cantle.
"I told myself it was not a good time to fall," she remembers, "so I just popped back into the saddle and kept going."
Oddly, Hindman doesn't remember ever being afraid.
"It's really fast. And I was so pumped and pretty competitive," she says.
Hindman admits the suicide race is still considered to be something of a man's sport, "although over the years a few other women have entered."
She remembers causing quite a stir when she wanted to enter the race in its third year.
"I think the men were afraid they'd have to hold back," she recalls. "But they didn't, and I came off the bluff in the lead."
Hindman says the race appeals to any rider who "likes a good challenge that doesn't have an age limit."
Although she cherishes the idea of the rugged days of the past, Hindman supports the change from suicide race to Stampede Challenge.
"Whichever way (the Stampeders) have to go," she says, "whatever they have to do to keep it going, that's what's important."
Story and photo by Mardi Ford