Downhill battle

You don't have to be drunk to race a horse down a mountain. But Darren Sulin swears it helped him.

"I do seem to go a bit slower since I quit drinking," says the 42-year-old Canadian, whose grin has been missing its front teeth since they were knocked out during a bull ride 15 years ago. "I guess when I was drinking, maybe I didn't hold back."

On this August day at the Redstone Rodeo in British Columbia, Sulin is the first of five racers to ease his horse to the starting line at the top of an unnamed mountain. Only from this vantage point can he truly comprehend the path ahead of him, which involves scrambling 1,500 feet down a steep, rocky trail in less than a minute. In the valley below, the noisy crowd that packs the bleachers looks like a trembling patchwork of little specks. The horses shudder and snort as the PA announcer's voice echoes off the hills.

Every summer across Canada's westernmost province, locals show off their riding and roping skills on the rodeo circuits. At three stops in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region -- a remote swath of grasslands, pine forests and mountains that is home to the six tribes of the Chilcotin Nation -- they hold a separate competition native to the region: mountain racing. The sport strikes some outsiders as animal cruelty. The cowboys see it as tradition, rooted in the long-standing and ongoing practice of wild horse wrangling. Explains Roger William, the winningest racer since events were first organized in 1980: "Water, rocks, dams, trees, trails. That's what these wild horses put you through trying to chase 'em."

The region is one of the last places on earth where wild horses roam free. This is also moose and grizzly country. The Chilcotin people have lived there since their ancestors wandered down from the Bering Strait thousands of years ago. The water of its glacier-fed streams and lakes is clean enough to drink. Its mountains stand tall and icy. According to tradition, they take the forms of ancient chiefs who were turned into mountains by the gods, peaks that remind the Chilcotins of their mortality. The mountain races serve the same purpose; three horses died in recent events, and one rider was seriously injured.

The initial drop at Redstone is the steepest of any of the races, a 31-degree descent atop loose rocks and sand. Still, waiting at the starting line now, Sulin is undaunted by the view. He has won there before. Doug Hennigar arrives next, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The remaining three -- points leader William, defending series champ Jimmy Lulua and up-and-comer Darren Setah -- wait behind a thin veil of trees. At a cue from the judge, the riders gently nose their horses to the starting line, waiting until the last second to point their muzzles downhill, lest they get spooked. One rider takes a final gulp of liquid courage, tossing aside a can of Cariboo Genuine Draft.

Everything about this scene evokes a sense of foreboding. But for men like William, a former chief of the Xeni Gwet'in tribe, mountain racing is more important than ever, a stand against the growing threat to Chilcotin culture. Vast stretches of nearby forest are black and bare from voracious pine beetles or from arsonists embroiled in logging disputes. Tribal leaders worry that a proposed gold and copper mine will ruin a huge piece of historically Chilcotin land and at least one fish-bearing lake. "It's just a rainfall of bad to our people," says William.

A judge sounds an air horn to start the race. The horses leap forward, leaving a plume of dust and cowboy hats behind. Lulua and Setah get the early jump and within seconds lead the pack around the first bend. But as the five riders sprint downhill toward a creek at the foot of the mountain, they bunch at a crossing barely two horses wide. The racers disappear among the trees and brush that clutch the banks of the water. They do not all emerge; Sulin and Lulua have collided at the crossing. Though neither of the cowboys or their horses is seriously hurt, the incident leaves only three men to spur their mounts in a mad dash across a freshly mowed hay field. The finish line, visible ahead, is always the gate of the rodeo corral. As the crowd of 150 hollers its support, Setah -- the youngest of the riders at 23 -- surges past William to win by three lengths.

At the next day's race, the final of the season, the crowd is a little thinner -- partly because of a rodeo dance that lasted until the wee hours. No accidents this time; Setah wins again and clinches the season championship. Sulin comes in last, but he doesn't seem troubled.

A few days later, he offers me a horseback tour of his ranch, a broad landscape of fields and forest marked only by bales of hay and a few modest buildings, including the one-room cabin where he lives. It has a generator for electricity and no running water. Inside, his girlfriend, the mother to their two sons, cooks freshly caught salmon.

As we finish our ride, Sulin's 5-year-old gets frightened when his horse suddenly bucks. "A cowboy doesn't cry when he falls off his horse," Sulin admonishes. "He gets right back on, to ride again."

The three of us climb into Sulin's truck for a jostling ride along a dirt trail, back to the main road where I've left my car. The boy is done crying now. He proudly shows me some small plastic figurines. Among them: a bull, a bucking bronco and a cowboy that looks an awful lot like his old man.

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