Why can’t we stop the Omak Suicide Race?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2003:

Why can’t we stop the Omak Suicide Race?
by Irene Muschel

The Omak Suicide Race, held each summer in Omak,
Washington, has been openly cruel to horses ever since a rodeo
promoter dreamed it up in 1935. It consists of galloping horses over
a steep cliff and across the Okanogan River as the main event at the
Omak Stampede rodeo–and is staged four times each rodeo week.
Why have horse protection groups not given more attention and
effort to stopping this event?
Four years after the Omak Suicide Race started, a Hollywood
producer chased a horse over a cliff during the making of the film
Jesse James. That happened just once. Public outrage over the death
of the horse led to the American Humane Association monitoring U.S.
screen productions.
Sixteen horses have died at Omak in the past 20 years.
Humans have been severely injured, and in earlier years at least one
rider was killed, but the Suicide Race is still promoted as a
tourist attraction, after a one-year suspension in 1999, and hardly
anyone seems to be doing anything about it.

Last summer I stayed at a hotel in Washington state. In the
reception area there were many copies of a tourist magazine
celebrating the Omak Suicide Race. I asked the hotel receptionist
about it. She responded that the horses were often injured at Omak,
and expressed considerable pain that the situation for the horses is
not getting any better and that the animal advocates who protested
against the Omak Suicide Race were having no effect toward stopping
the cruelty. She further stated that the hotel management would
never take away the tourist magazine because it promoted the area.
When I returned to New York City, I began to explore the
Omak issue. I learned of the varied efforts of some animal rights
groups to stop the Omak Suicide Race. What stood out most for me was
how long this abuse has gone on: more than six decades!
Many of the protest tactics have not changed in years.
Despite the lack of success, no ongoing efforts have been made to
find new ways of fighting this atrocity. Given the many issues that
animal rights groups are working on, not knowing what else to do,
and wanting to at least take some action, it often becomes easier or
at least less time-consuming to stick with familiar ways of doing
things than to stop, acknowledge that nothing is happening, and
change directions.
Protests, letters to the Mayor of Omak, and writing to
sponsors have not worked. The Mayor of Omak told me there was
absolutely nothing he could or would do about the race because it was
on Native American property. I asked him what we would do if a
person was killed on that property. He responded that he would call
the FBI. Pepsi-Cola told me that cruelty to animals is a terrible
thing, but there is nothing the company can do about it, because
the Pepsi support for the race comes from a local franchise, not
corporate headquarters.
Where are the advocates for horses?
I contacted Robin Lohnes at the American Horse Protection
Association. We talked about trying to find a creative new way to
stop this cruelty. She assured me she would look into it and get
back to me. I never heard from Lohnes again.
Some time back there was a conference on horses at the
Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Horse group
representatives spoke about horse slaughter, wild horse roundups,
Premarin, carriage horses, abandoned horses, maintaining horse
sanctuaries, and more. All are important issues. But the Omak
Suicide Race was not even mentioned. The Omak horses should be
included in that circle of caring. Their suffering should not be
ignored.
There are major differences among horse groups. Some are
true advocates for horses and do great things for them. Others are
fronts or apologists for the horse industry. At times it is hard to
know who is doing what.
Imagine all the good that could come about if the leaders of
the groups who focus on horses were to take on the Omak Suicide
Race–creatively and forcefully exploring legal, political, and
social ways of stopping it.
It would help if people would call and let these groups know that
there are many of us who feel that the Omak Suicide Race must be
stopped now.

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