Argentina vs USA: Rodeo Edition
Updated: Jul 19
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Not all the ‘crooked horses’ were as crooked as the first one at the rodeo in South-West Argentina.
I’ve heard of ‘rank’ or ‘mean’ bucking horses in the States. They’re the ones that relish throwing cowboys, the ones that know they’ve won. But, on the whole, rodeo fans tell me that the rough stock are good horses that buck because they enjoy it, and because they know their job. By contrast, Argentinians don’t call them ‘bucking horses’, they’re caballos bellacos: a catchall term for ‘rogue’, ‘rascal’ or ‘crooked’ horses.
It’s possible that I just heard a lot about how good the American bucking horses are because I’m new to the scene, someone who needed convincing. The ‘good horse’ image is seen to reflect well on rodeo. I was convinced – not by people, but by the evidence I saw in the horses I worked with every day. It’s odd, then, that the Argentinian term for ‘bucking horse’ has rankness built into it.
It’s especially odd because the caballos bellacos are no ranker than the bucking horses. They don’t have chutes, but they wait equally patiently when they’re tied to a post in the middle of the arena, awaiting their moment. I suppose calling them ‘bucking horses’ would be inappropriate, anyway. Argentinians don’t use flank straps, so that classic silhouette – heels high, head low – that’s not classic over there.
It’s a whole different sport, a different world. It’s la jineteada (hee-net-ay-adda). You’d think you’d know where you stand because it’s all about a man staying on a horse for eight seconds. But, that’s where the similarity ends. Their ‘bucking horse’ is more of a ‘rearing horse’, and their cowboys wear boinas instead of cowboy hats. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of Pierre Rocha, the bareback champion of 2020. I’m sure he hasn’t heard of Clayton Biglow either.
My very first rodeo experience was an Argentinian one. I went to the annual Fiesta de Caballos (Horse Festival) in El Foyel, a little mountain village in the Andes. To say that the fiesta is about the horses would be missing the point. Like a rodeo, it’s a social gathering garnished with adrenaline. There were children and ponchos and a man with a guitar singing a payada, improvising new verses for every competitor (all of whom he knew personally, I think). El Foyel hasn’t done a census this decade, but when it did, there were 155 inhabitants. I assure you it hasn’t grown much since then. Not all Argentinian rodeos are so quaint, of course. There is a pro circuit, the winners are famous, and the ‘National Finals’ equivalent in Jesús Maria attracts 400,000 people over 10 days each January. There, you’ll find every ounce of production value you’d get at the NFR (almost). The purse is smaller, but the hype is just as big.
Suffice to say, at my little mountain village there were no sponsors, no lights, no grand stands. There were only three broncs and one set of ‘potro’ boots to go around. Bronc riders wear these soft ‘barefoot’ boots so they can safely land on their feet. They’re completely structureless, made from the skin off the back legs of a horse in the style of the Mapuche Native Americans. The spurs are tied on over the top.
The gaucho (cowboy) gets himself ready while a pickup man chases the first bay bronc around the arena. It’s been released from the trailer, but there aren’t any chutes and it’s not halter broke. Eventually he corners it and two guys wrestle with its lead rope until they can tie it to the wooden post in the middle of the arena. The horse starts rearing before the rigging’s even on. Somebody uses their poncho as a blindfold to keep him calm at the post. At pro jineteadas, all the horses wear blinker-masks (caretas) so they can’t see the person on their back until the timer starts. Sometimes, even at the ‘Finals’, you’ll see a man cupping his hands around the horse’s eyes if there isn’t a careta nearby.
They were getting ready for the Crina Limpia ride. For their ‘bareback’ ride, Americans have a stiff wooden handle on the withers, whereas in Argentina there’s only a thin leather strap around the horse’s neck. Argentina does it more bareback, if you ask me. The glove is more like a gardening glove, and instead of rosin to rub into it there’s only water. I’ve seen American cowboys scratch up their chaps with a wire brush for better grip. This first gaucho slaps water onto the inside of his bombacha trousers. No chaps, no cowboy hat, but an image just as iconic where he’s from.
A rodeo without chutes means there’s no platform for the cowboys, either. At their ‘National Finals’, you’ll see men vaulting onto quality bucking horses. Not in El Foyel. Every gaucho in South America can vault; the question is whether or not the horse will let him. The gauchos I saw would stand on a friend’s knee to cautiously climb aboard these ‘crooked horses’.
So, we’re set. One guy holding the poncho over the horse’s eyes, another holding the rope fast around the post, the gaucho on the horse’s back, and two pickup men. The gaucho raises his whip in his right hand. A pickup man raises his whip too, so the announcer can see. Both whips fall at the same time, the timer starts, the rope is released, the poncho comes off, and the horse lets loose.
Big bay horse: fierce, chaotic, mad. This was the first bronc I’d ever seen ever. No films, no videos, nothing. My heart was in my mouth and my jaw was on the ground. At the time I called it, ‘Insanity. … I feel as if I’ve had the wind knocked out of me just by watching.’ (Read it here.) Since then, my heart-rate has skyrocketed watching PRCA cowboys ride NFR bucking horses, plus countless re-runs of the NFR itself, not to mention the Pro Bull Riding which knocks the wind out of me even on YouTube. So, when I watch the video of that very first bronc now, it seems almost – dare I say it – tame?
Although less impressive, my jineteada footage has become increasingly interesting. It’s so different that I don’t even consider El Foyel as my first rodeo. At the time, I didn’t notice that there wasn’t any roping because I didn’t know roping was a sport. We ran barrels (in a bending race rather than a clover-leaf pattern; I lost), but in Argentina, roping skills are seen as completely separate from bronc riding. They’re rarely at the same event. And, it isn’t just bareback and saddle broncs, there are three types: the ‘bareback’ Crina Limpia, the ‘saddle’ equivalent Basto con Encimera, and the ‘southern’ Gurupa Sureña. The last two categories divide the benefits of a Western saddle in two. In the Basto con Encimera, your rigging has stirrups but no swells, and in the Gurupa Sureña, your rigging has no stirrups and no seat. It’s just swells strapped onto an otherwise bareback horse, which has a leather bit in its mouth and a set of reins, like a Native American War Bridle.
So, which one’s more difficult, the jineteada, or the rodeo? The Argentinian friend who took me to El Foyel brushed off my question over the phone. I swear I could hear him shrug.
“El Americano is more gentle,” he said, “Our horses jump higher and buck harder because they’re free. They’re not obliged by any straps.”
Ah, so we find ourselves at the flank strap yet again. Amazingly, my pro-jineteada friend disagrees with the American rodeo for that very reason. Guayito believes this leather strap around the horse’s abdomen irritates the horse into bucking, and that’s my perception too. I still don’t love it, but I accept it because eight seconds isn’t a long time to bear with a tool little more offensive than spurs, bits, or whips (all tools to be used with respect and care, of course). Guayito’s perspective is different, though. He is, in a sense, a die-hard rodeo fan. Far from a fluffy-bunnies guy, he’s coming at this from the belief Argentinian horses perform better because they don’t use flank straps.
Instead, little rebenque whips tell the horse when to buck. It took me a few goes to realise that the horse is being prepped for show-time long before the whip drops. Once the gaucho is on board, somebody starts tapping the horse’s neck with their hand, the pickup man gently rubs the handle of his whip on the horse’s rump. At this point, the horse pricks up its ears and its eyes begin to twinkle. And, the moment the gaucho’s whip touches the horse’s side, the so-called ‘crooked horse’ does exactly what it’s supposed to.
This gaucho wasn’t as lucky as the first one. He stayed on for the eight seconds, but when the pickup men swooped in either side of him, the horse was still rearing like a mad thing. It was galloping faster than the pickup horses, and gaining ground. By the time the gaucho was pulled off the ‘crooked horse’s back, the pickup horses were well behind. The gaucho slid off the bronc’s rump, and crumpled under the galloping hooves of the pickup horses. The one thing that cowboys and gauchos have in common is their ability to get up and dust themselves off, momentarily flicking their eyes heavenwards in silent gratitude, then grinning and slapping friends’ backs as they walk out of the arena.
I wish I had experienced la jineteada in the way that I’ve experienced the rodeo. I wish I knew what kind of jokes the bronc-riding gauchos tell. I wish I knew which words they use to say a horse is ‘hoppy’ or a person is ‘handy’. At the time, I was deeper into it than I thought I’d ever be. Guayito lent me a horse so we could ride through the night to get to El Foyel. We ate breakfast at his friend, the pickup man’s house. Juan, the pickup man, chatted away to me jovially, his blue eyes bright over his thick moustache. I’m sure I’d have learned a great deal about la jineteada, and life in the Andes besides, but what little enunciation he had got lost in the depths of his moustache, and his accent ended up so heavy that I couldn’t understand a single word he said. I didn’t get behind the chutes, but I guess there weren’t any chutes to get behind, anyway.
I left the jineteada with the sense that I had experienced Argentina as it really was. I was the only foreigner there, but the proud, friendly people wanted to show me every aspect of their little village and their huge culture. They were keen to teach me to run barrels, barbecue lamb, drink maté, and finally, how to dance the chamamé. You know as well as I do that it doesn't matter how tough the broncs are or which horse bucks hardest, out of Argentina and the States. Cowboys are cowboys, no matter what kind of hat they wear.
Read my original jineteada piece here
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Previous piece: Goodbye America