Chariot racing brings out competitiveness in Marvin Heyd |

Chariot racing brings out competitiveness in Marvin Heyd

Story & Photos by Gayle Smith
Potter, Neb.
Marvin Heyd heads for the starting gate during the chariot races in Torrington, Wyo.

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For many people, winter sports mean skiing, snowmobiling, and snowboarding, but for a few folks in Wyoming, it means chariot racing. Marvin Heyd, 78-years-old, of Glenrock, Wyo., is one of those competitors who has enjoyed the family-oriented sport since he was in his 20s.

Heyd grew up on an eastern Montana cattle ranch during a time when ranching and farming was just starting to become motorized. “I started riding horses when I was two,” he recalls. “I can still remember riding my horse seven miles to grade school, and seven miles back home after school.” Heyd also remembers feeding the cows hay in the wintertime, and mowing, raking and putting up hay with teams of horses. “I knew how to harness a horse when I was big enough to walk. I’ve known how to drive a team of horses ever since I can remember,” he explained. “I grew up right in that era when tractors and cars were just starting to come out. I can still remember my dad purchasing a brand new Ford car in 1940.”

After a short stint in rodeo during high school, and seven years in the PRCA as a bronc rider, Heyd became interested in chariot racing. “I went to my first chariot race in 1960,” he said. “I saw it was something I could do, so I hooked up some saddle horses and got involved,” he explained.

By 1961, Heyd had made his first chariot and entered his first race in a small town north of Billings, Mont. The time it took to race from start to finish was a lot longer than it is now. “People didn’t run racehorses back then because they were all farmers and ranchers. They just used the horses they had on the place,” he said. “But, it didn’t take too long until that changed. By the 60s, the horses were getting faster and better. It just progressed year after year.”

“When I first started, my chariot was made from a 55 gallon barrel,” he said. Pieces of steel were welded to the barrel to mount the wheels and hold the tongue. “It weighed about 500 pounds when it was finished,” he said. “The chariot I have now is aluminum and fiberglass and weighs about 62 pounds. That’s how things progress through time,” he added. The chariots used today are manufactured in a factory. “They are really precision-made,” he said. “For what they weigh and the material they use, they are pretty stout,” he explained.

Most of the horses that pull the chariots these days are Quarterhorses and Thoroughbreds. “Some of them have come off the racetrack, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. They just have to be able to run to be competitive,” Heyd explained.

It is very important to take good care of chariot racing horses. “You are not going to outrun your neighbor if you don’t take care of your ponies,” he said. “It is important to spend time with the horses and make sure they get exercise. It is similar to training a human athlete. I spend some time with them every day. I take them out and gallop them 1-1/2-miles every other night. They also need lots of grain to build them up. I keep them on a good ration and in good body condition,” he said.

Chariot racing started in the 40s, when farmers and ranchers would bring their children to town for schooling. The parents had to wait for them to finish school each day, so they started racing the horses while they would wait. Back then, they used bobsleds harnessed to their horses. “The event was only held during the winter, because the farmers and ranchers would be too busy during the summer,” Heyd said.

These days, chariot races are still held during the winter, from November through March. Although it seems unusual to race chariots through cold and sometimes snowy conditions, Heyd said most of the racers are pretty good drivers and know whether or not they can see. “Visibility is very important,” Heyd said. If the driver can see 10-feet in front of him, then he can see well enough to race, Heyd added.

“If it gets too dangerous, we just shut them down and don’t run,” he said. “If it gets too cold and miserable, we put it off until another day. The weather can have a big impact on the races. I can remember running in Saratoga when you couldn’t even see the starting gate because it was snowing so hard,” he recalled.

Occasionally, there are some terrible wrecks in chariot racing, but Heyd said it isn’t a dangerous sport. “Most of the time, if there is a wreck, it is because of malfunctioning equipment or getting hung up at the gate. Once, I had a good sorrel team, but they got nervous at the gate. They backed out, broke the tongue off my buggy, and ran away,” he said. “Fortunately, there were people there to catch them, calm them down and bring them back,” he said.

Over the years, Heyd said he has raced on some interesting tracks. Sometimes, a piece of ground is cleared of sagebrush and some soil is removed to make a racetrack. Each contest typically has at least 20 teams, which makes for at least 10 races.

The event is set up strictly on time. At the beginning of the season, the times are usually slower but get faster as the season progresses. “The people setting up the races know the horses and drivers and try to match them up so all the races will be competitive,” he said. “As the races progress, the times get faster. A lot of the races are within a hundredth of a second.”

During the winter, about two or three races are held a month in towns like Gillette, Glendo, Torrington, Saratoga, Rock Springs, and Riverton. Non-profit organizations in these towns typically organize the races and give the proceeds to charity or other non-profit groups. Prior to the races, calcuttas are held so spectators can legally bet on their favorite teams.

As members of the Wyoming State Chariot Racing Association, Heyd and his fellow competitors enjoy promoting the sport as a family event in their home state. “The event has picked up membership, as well as gaining popularity over the years,” Heyd said. “It is a family event for most people. Everyone can be involved,” he said.

Sis Morgan is the president of the Wyoming State Chariot Racing Association. She can reached at (307) 534-6611.

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