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Browning family keeps horse races running in Montana

Posted at 10:11 AM, Jul 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-28 12:47:25-04

GREAT FALLS — In the middle of July, Montana’s ExpoPark holds a series of horse races bringing a few rare weekends of high octane horsepower to Great Falls. A quick glance at any race entry sheet in Montana reveals the Bird Rattler name mentioned throughout - from the jockey to the trainer and all the way to where the horse comes from.

To explain the family’s impact on horse racing in the state, one must rewind back to 1949 when Joe Bird Rattler, the patriarch of the Browning horsemen, became a jockey. From there, he would have five sons, Tim, Harlan, Ed, Nathaniel, and Keith, to help spread the love of horse racing and continue the tradition.

“If it wasn't for the Bird Rattler family, we would not be racing in Great Falls,” Great Falls Turf Club president Sparky Kottke said.

"They're wonderful horsemen. They're beautiful souls. They'll help anybody do anything," longtime friend Craig Wellman said.

Horse racing has existed in Montana since 1806 when Lewis and Clark’s Nez Perce guides staged horses in Lolo. Fast forward to now and the tradition of horse racing has stayed in the hands of another tribe, the Blackfeet Indian tribe where the Bird Rattler’s reside.

“Their family contributes heavily to the entire racing circuit,” long-time family member Wayne Smith said. “Joe Bird Rattler was doing this from the forties on through, and it's just a huge family representation. It brings a lot of pride to the sport and honoring all the past ancestors who did this before us.”

Mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, nieces, nephews, and everything in between are involved in the racing side. Aside from the actual race, the Bird Rattler crew can be seen working the gate, the paddock, as a starter and even more sprinkled throughout the track. The support for the continuation of horse racing has never wavered and neither has their love for the beautiful animal that makes it happen for the family.

“These horses are like kids,” Joe’s son and horse trainer, Harlan Bird Rattler, said. “They get a cut, you take care of it.”

Despite vast family involvement and a tradition of being the household name in the sport throughout Montana, for many reasons beyond their control horse racing has declined. What was once offered over 140 days a year throughout the state has limited the spectacle to just two tracks; one in Great Falls and one in Miles City amounting to only five weekends of action.

“I'd say it's kind of dying out and we're trying to continue to keep it going,” trainer and son Tim Bird Rattler said. “That’s something we love as Bird Rattlers.”

If racing does return to prominence in Montana though, the Bird Rattlers will be right there with a stable of horses and family itching to kick up some dust.

“He's the one that got me involved in all of this,” Tim Bird Rattler said of his family patriarch Joe. “I loved it and I always wanted to do what he did. I started jockey and cleaning stalls and now I'm a trainer. I love it.”