Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Read "Night Riders" for Part One
The morning held maté, and dulce de leche on a bread roll for breakfast before we set off on horseback for the rodeo at El Foyel. The Fiesta de Caballos only happens once a year in each town. Guayito had changed his boina for a smart black sombrero, and I could see a shirt-collar peeking out of the top of his poncho. Noelia had already left. She was walking.
I saw her across the crowd at the desfile. A hundred horses marched along the road and up to the arena where the rodeo was to be held. Some of people held Argentinian flags; some proudly held banners for their region, while others led spare horses. We all filed into the arena, where spectators were already lining the fence. Guayito nudged me in the ribs to tell me to take off my hat, but it was too late, the national anthem had already begun and – as the only person present with blonde hair – I stuck out from the mass of solemn Argentinians like an unpatriotic lemon.
Ceremony over, the hundred horses got tied haphazardly to the surrounding bushes, and most of them didn’t get ridden for the rest of the day. Guayito told me that the people who had ridden from especially far away brought a spare horse so they could switch mid-journey. Given that there was really no reason to even bring a horse unless you’re competing, I think they really just wanted to show their spare horses off. I kept that thought to myself.
“LADIES LADIES LADIES. ANY LADIES FOR BARREL RACING. PLEASE REGISTER YOUR ENTRIES NOW.”
“You competing, or what?” says Guayito.
I laugh. He keeps a straight face, and leads me by the hand past the barbecue, past the bar, past the pop-up shop, in short: past all manner of more likely places than where we ended up. Guayito stops outside the entry-booth.
The guy in the booth asks my name. I tell him.
“Wh - , Wha - . I’ll just call you Alicia, okay?”
I give Guayito my hat, and enter the arena. There a few girls practicing on two lines of oil barrels, painted in Argentinian colours.
“You’ve got to canter straight up to the far end, then zig-zag back towards me, then zig-zag to the far end, then canter back as fast as you can. Got it? Keep your reins short. The horse knows what to do.”
I practice twice, I get to watch one pair of girls compete, then the loudspeaker calls, “IT’S ALICIA LA GRINGA IN LANE NUMBER ONE.”
Oh for fuck’s sake. Really? La Gringa - the foreigner? I preferred, ‘Rubia’, ‘blondie’ like they called me in Spain.
I go into the starting gate. The girl in the other lane flicks her black pigtails over her shoulders and pushes her boina beret further onto her head. Her be-spurred espadrilles tell me that she’s rather good. There’s a man in front of us holding a scarf above his head. He drops the scarf. The klaxon goes.
I’m already a step behind as we set off, racing to the far end. Damn. Too fast. My first circle’s wide. 180 degrees around the far barrel. Weave, weave, weave – “IT’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND EVERYONE” – my left stirrup hits a barrel, knocks it over – “COME ALL THE WAY FROM ENGLAND” – round the near-end barrel, tight circle this time – “IT’S HER FIRST TIME DOING LOS TAMBONES” – another barrel down – “WE’VE GOT A BARREL TO THE GROUND” – the other girl’s already cantering home – “GO GO GO” – quickly round the furthest barrel – “LAST STRETCH NOW” – I give it my damnedest until we’re over the line. I didn’t have a hope in hell, but man was it fun.
Next up, it was the kids. Tiny dots of between five and fourteen years old raced around the barrels with the trademark devil-may-care ease of children. Their little legs didn’t reach past their saddles, but that didn’t mean that they’d settle for ponies like English children. No, these miniature cowboys rode horses to fit their skill and their ambition, not their size.
Either because the boys saw themselves as men, or because the men were behaving like boys, the atmosphere didn’t change a jot when it was time for the adult’s competition to begin. The live band improvised a quick payada that gave the men’s warm-up the comic quality of a bloopers reel, while the rest of us bit into an asado, meaty juices spilling down all manner of chins and landing in the universal cravat. Normal-sized bits of meat don’t exist in Argentina. Barbecues hold half-cows and lambs, graphically spread-eagled over the open flames. The cut of meat that gets placed in my hands would’ve done as Sunday roast for a family of four in the UK. Someone asks if I want a half beer or a whole one. ‘Half’ turned out to be a half-litre rather than a half-pint.
Back at the arena, the men’s games are beginning. They’re faster, stronger, louder, more agile, and more competitive. People frown at one guy who’s gruff and nasty to his horse as if he thinks his worth is measured by his horse’s speed rather than his own horsemanship. He got knocked out in the first round, and from then on, each race is better than the last as the heats get increasingly difficult, and the horses and riders begin to move as one. The whole crowd’s in the spirit of the games now, which leaves the wire fence heaving as the people shout, and sigh, and whistle. A couple of horses fall over around especially tight corners – “OOF!” – and any barrels that get knocked over go flying. The commentator’s more excited than anyone,
“AND NOW, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE’VE GOT GUAYITO IN LANE ONE”
We all sit up and watch. He’s excellent, turning so fast that his hat flies off around the last barrel, his poncho streaming behind him in the dash over the finish line. We could all swear he won, but the commentator said otherwise, and Guayito is at once too proud and too humble to fight about it. I would’ve fought, just for another go in the arena. He flashed his crooked grin at me when I told him so, and added, “Next year.”
Everyone who wins their race goes again, and again, and again, until there’s only one pair left to race for their pride across the torn-up, muddy field. It was a brown horse versus a skewbald. Over a series of false starts, the enormous pressure of the being in the final round of a local rodeo wore off. Then, both were immaculate: not a barrel down, not a toe out of line, just sheer speed and agility. The brown horse won. Wild applause from the beer-happy crowd, who did their best to stand up from their deckchairs and their car-roofs to give a wobbly standing ovation. The horse looked proud as he cantered around the arena; his rippling muscles gleaming in the afternoon sun, and his rider bearing the Argentinian flag.
The barrels got rolled away. All age groups were lumped in together for the ‘vuelta del palo’ (a circle around the pole), and then it was time for the real McCoy; the gineteada. People start tying a white pony to a strong wooden post. As if to show the humans quite what they were getting themselves in for, the pony twirls his way out of the loose ropes before they’ve finished, and celebrates with a semi-automatic explosion of wild bucks across the arena. A gineteada is like a Bucking Bronco: you just do your best to stay on that pony.
First up: kids. Wait, kids? An eight-year-old struts out into the arena. He rubs his trousers with water for extra grip then gets lifted onto the pony. There’s no saddle, only a sort of bicycle seat tied on with a single strap. The boy raises a whip above his head, and so does another man on horseback, nearby. Both whips drop, and the timer starts. Everyone lets go of the pony: a white firework streaks across the arena, leaping, tossing, bucking, and jerking as it goes. The little boy is holding on with one hand. The pony lurches forward, he’s thrown back. The pony rears back, the boy flies forward. After six seconds of flip-flopping like a ragdoll, he’s on the ground, and the pony’s off like a mad thing by itself. The boy stands up and punches the air, triumphant. Insanity. He shrugs off the fall like nothing happened while I feel as if I’ve had the wind knocked out of me just by watching.
“NEXT UP WE’VE GOT NOELIA. IT’S HER VERY FIRST TIME - LIKE A NEW FLOWER IN THE SPRING, EVERYONE, NOELIA.”
I’m terrified for her. She falls under the horse, almost gets trampled by the thundering hooves, then – without missing a beat – she throws her head back, tossing her hair, and stands up, swinging her whip above her head.
The ponies get switched for horses when it’s the adults’ go. Now there’s nothing to sit on at all, and you’re a lot further from the ground.
“It’s ok,” says Guayito, “if you stay on for eight seconds, those two men on horses come to rescue you.”
‘Rescue’ seems like a strong word. One competitor with a chest as big as his ego embodies jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire; falling under the chaperones’ horses in the process of being pulled off the insane one. He was fine – or pretended to be fine – but the loudspeaker took the opportunity to remind everyone that the ambulance was ready and waiting. The next competitor kissed his girlfriend before he got on the horse, more for style than for affection. He winked at the crowd as he prepared to lower his whip. I’ve heard that elsewhere they use a ‘bucking strap’, which is pulled tight around the horse’s belly to provoke this madness. There was no bucking strap here. Just one flimsy leather band keeping you on a horse that doesn’t want you on its back.
Almost all the competitors hit the floor. They got crumpled, bent, and stepped on, but each time that the ambulance wasn’t needed, the next competitor mounted with more confidence that the last, as if the lack of accident guaranteed that they too would leave the arena without a broken bone. Part of me wished that something would happen – just so the rest of them would learn their lesson and stop this nonsense before I had a heart attack. Perhaps I’m just English and paranoid. That’s what Guayito said, anyway. After all, it was fantastic fun to watch, and the ambulance did go home empty, in the end.
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