On a recent sweltering, dusty morning in Kalispell, Duane Torn and his wife, Ellen, had positioned chairs in the shade of their camper, so they could watch their many family members compete in the 45th annual National Championship O-Mok-See horse races, which ran from July 24 through July 30 at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.
Ellen, who is 73, had just finished the Pole Bending event, where four riders on horseback in separate lanes race to the far pole, turn around it and then weave through the five remaining poles, spaced at 21 feet, in one direction before weaving in the opposite direction and then galloping back past the start line.
Like many O-Mok-See events, Pole Bending tests the trust between horse and rider, with horses accelerating to a sprint before slowing down to make tight turns around the poles, while the rider shifts the reins from side to side, and uses their legs to guide the horse through the turns.
Ellen was pleased with her time, calling it, “really good, I got a 28 (seconds); I’m up there.”
“That time is very respectable,” Duane told her.
The first official, national O-Mok-See event was held in Helena in 1965, but Duane said he began competing in similarly styled races in 1947. Ellen began racing in 1956, and remembers the accommodations at the first state O-Mok-See, in 1962, as slightly more rustic than the camper they currently drive to events.
“When we had our first state O-Mok-See up here, we slept in the stalls,” she said.
The Torns, from Sun River, west of Great Falls, had three generations of their family competing at the O-Mok-See, and had four generations ride at a recent state event. Two of their granddaughters were lane judges, watching to ensure the horses didn’t step out of their lanes or knock over poles. One of their sons managed the heats, calling out the names of the racers on deck, so they could prepare to enter the arena. Out of the Torns’ 23 grandchildren, nine were racing in the National Championship.
“Every one of them rides,” Duane said. “We taught them all.”
The ubiquity of the Torns’ sons and grandchildren at the event underscored how the O-Mok-See races are more than mere competition; they are a way of celebrating family itself, and of passing on the Western tradition of horsemanship within those families. While the crowd cheered hard for the young men and women racing at top speed around the poles, they cheered even harder for the children in the 7-and-under division nosing their ponies around the poles at a trot.
Debbie McGilvary, whose husband Mike is the president of the Smith Valley Saddle Club, which hosted the National Championship, pointed out how the Event at Rebecca Farm overlaps with the beginning of O-Mok-See, demonstrating the diverse but deep affection for horses and riding that permeates the Flathead.
Roughly 380 contestants rode in last week’s O-Mok-See, with competitors ranging in age from 4 to seniors in their early 80s, according to Bill McGowan of Helena, second vice president of the National Saddle Clubs Association.
The name traces its meaning to a Blackfeet war ceremony known as the “oh-mak-see pass-kan,” or “riding big dance,” where warriors would circle their camp dancing, riding at full speed and singing to build up courage for battle.
“It’s basically speed horse pattern racing,” McGowan said. “We broke it down and did away with the dance part.”
Events range from straightforward racing to the Tomahawk Race, where riders must lean over and pick up the “tomahawk,” which can be a piece of painted garden hose, and deposit it in a barrel 30 feet away before racing to the finish line. Another popular event is the Devil’s Cowhide, where a rider drags their helmeted team member behind the horse on a piece of canvas or cowhide around a barrel and back to the start. The trick is, apparently, to take the turn wide, or risk a collision between the barrel and person being dragged.
During the Pole Bending event, Duane and Ellen chatted up just about every person who walked by, but when one of their grandchildren raced, they were riveted.
“He doing good, grandma?” Duane asked.
“Yeah, he’s doing good,” Ellen replied, before urging her grandson to communicate with his horse as they rounded the poles. “Talk to him, Wade!”
“He lost his hat!” Duane said.
“No he didn’t wear one,” Ellen replied, before congratulating her grandson as he exited the arena. “Good job, Wade, good job!”
Nearly everyone at the O-Mok-See has known each other for years, Duane said, making it especially safe and family-oriented, considering the horses, children and four-wheelers constantly milling in all directions.
“If the little kid’s at your camp, you know where to send them when they’re done playing,” Duane said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
As lunchtime approached, Ellen and Duane’s grandchildren began pulling up coolers for seats, discussing who had performed well and who had yet to race. The expression on Duane’s face was beatific, and he leaned over and told this reporter why he enjoyed the O-Mok-See: “It’s nice to be loved, young man.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.