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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open. 1916.


A Chilean Rondeo

ON November 21, 1913, we crossed the Andes into Chile by rail. The railway led up the pass which, used from time immemorial by the Indians, afterward marked the course of traffic for their Spanish successors, and was traversed by the army of San Martin in the hazardous march that enabled him to strike the decisive blows in the war for South American independence. The valleys were gray and barren, the sides of the towering mountains were bare, the landscape was one of desolate grandeur. To the north the stupendous peak of Aconquija rose in its snows.

On the Chilean side, as we descended, we passed a lovely lake, and went through wonderful narrow gorges; and farther down were trees, and huge cactus, and flowers of many colors. Then we reached the lower valleys and the plains; and the change was like magic. Suddenly we were in a rich fairy-land of teeming plenty and beauty, a land of fertile fields and shady groves, a land of grain and, above all, of many kinds of luscious fruits.

As in the Argentine and Brazil, every courtesy and hospitality was shown us in Chile. We enjoyed every experience throughout our stay. One of the pleasantest and most interesting days we passed was at a great ranch, a great cattle-farm and country place twenty-five or thirty miles from Santiago. It was some fifteen miles from the railway station. The road led through a rich, fertile country largely under tillage, but also largely consisting of great fenced pastures.

The owners of the ranch, our kind and courteous hosts, had summoned all the riders of the neighborhood to attend the rondeo (round-up and sports), and several hundred, perhaps a thousand, came. With the growth of cultivation of the soil and the introduction of improved methods of stock-breeding in Chile, the old rude life of the wild cow-herders is passing rapidly away. But in many places it remains in modified form, and the country folk whose business is pastoral form a striking and distinctive class. These countrymen live their lives in the saddle. All these men, whose industries are connected with cattle, are known as huasos. They are kin to the Argentine gauchos, and more remotely to our own cowboys.

As we neared the ranch, slipping down broad, dusty, tree-bordered roads beside which irrigation streams ran, we began to come across the huasos gathering for the sports. They rode singly and by twos and threes, or in parties of fifteen or twenty. They were on native Chilean horses—stocky, well-built beasts, hardy and enduring, and on the whole docile. Almost all the men wore the light manta, less heavy than the serapi, but like it in shape, the head of the rider being thrust through a hole in the middle. It would seem as though it might interfere with the free use of their arms, but it does not, and at the subsequent cattle sports many of the participants never took off their mantas. The riders wore straw hats of various types, but none of them with the sugar-loaf cones of the Mexicans. Their long spurs bore huge rowels. The mantas were not only picturesque, but gave the company a look of diversified and gaudy brilliancy, for they were of all possible colors, green, red, brown, and blue, solid and patterned. The saddles were far forward, and the shoe-shaped wooden stirrups were elaborately carved.

The men were fine-looking fellows, some with smooth faces or mustaches, some with beards, some of them light, most of them dark. They rode their horses with the utter ease found only in those who are born to the saddle. Now and then there were family parties, mother and children, all, down to the smallest, riding their own horses or perhaps all going in a wagon. Once or twice we passed horsemen who were coming out of the yards of their tumble-down houses, women and children crowding round. Generally the women had something in the dress that reminded one more or less of our Southwestern semicivilized Indians, and the strain of Indian blood in both men and women was evident. Some of the men were poorly clad, others had paid much attention to their get-up and looked like very efficient dandies; but in its essentials the dress was always the same.

When we reached the ranch we first drove to a mass of buildings, which included the barns, branding-pens, corrals, and the like. It was here that the horsemen had gathered, and one of the pens was filled with an uneasy mass of cattle. Not far from this pen was a big hitching rail or bar, very stout, consisting of tree trunks at least a foot in diameter, the total length of the rail being forty or fifty feet. Beside it was a very large and stout corral. The inside of this corral was well padded with poles, making a somewhat springy wall, a feature I have never seen in any corrals in our own ranch country, but essential where the horses are trained to jam the cattle against the corral side.

Most of the sports took place inside this big corral. Gates led into it from opposite ends. Some thirty or forty feet in front of one of the gates, and just about that distance from the middle of the corral, was a short, crescent-shaped fence which served to keep the stock that had yet to be worked separate from those that had been worked. Proceedings were begun by some thirty riders and a mob of cattle coming through one of the doors of the corral. A glance at the cattle was enough to show that the old days of the wild ranches had passed. These were not longhorns, staring, vicious creatures, shy and fleet as deer; they were graded stock, domestic in their ways, and rather reluctant to run. Among the riders, however, there was not the slightest falling off from the old dash and skill, and their very air, as they rode quietly in, and the way they sat every sudden, quick move of their horses showed their complete ease and self-confidence.

In addition to the huasos, the peasants-on-horseback, the riders included several of the gentry, the great landed proprietors. These took part in the sports, precisely as in our own land men of the corresponding class follow the hounds or play polo. Two of the most skilful and daring riders, who always worked together, were a wealthy neighboring ranchman and his son.

The first feat began by two of the horsemen, acting together, cutting out an animal from the bunch. This was done with skill and precision, but differed in no way from the work I used formerly to see and take part in on the Little Missouri. What followed, however, was totally different. The animal was raced by the two men out from the herd and from behind the little semicircular fence, and was taken at full speed round the edge of the great corral past the closed gate on the other side, and almost back to the starting-point. One horseman rode behind the animal, a little on its inner side. The other rode outside it, the horse’s head abreast of the steer’s flank. As they galloped the riders uttered strange, long-drawn cries, evidently of Indian origin. Round the corral rushed the steer, and, after it passed the door on the opposite side and began to return toward its starting-point and saw the other cattle ahead, it put on speed. Then the outside rider raced forward and at the same moment wheeled inward, pinning the steer behind the horns and either by the neck or shoulder against the rough, yielding boughs with which the corral was lined. Instantly the other horseman pressed the steer’s hind quarters outward, so that it found itself not only checked, but turned in the opposite direction. Again it was urged into a gallop, the calling horsemen following and repeating their performance. The steer was thus turned three times. After the third turning the gate which it had passed was opened and it trotted out.

A dozen times different pairs of riders performed the feat with different steers. It was a fine exhibition of daring prowess and of good training in both the horses and the riders. Of course, if it had not been for the lining of the inner fence with limber poles the steer would have been killed or crippled—we saw one of them injured, as it was. The horse, which entered heartily into the spirit of the chase, had to crash straight into the fence, nailing the steer and bringing it to a standstill in the midst of its headlong gallop. Once or twice at the critical moment the rider was not able to charge quickly enough; and when the steer was caught too far back it usually made its escape and rejoined the huddle of cattle from which it had been cut out. The men were riders of such skill that shaking them in their seats was impossible, no matter how quickly the horse turned or how violent the shocks were; nor was a single horse hurt in the rough play. It was a wild scene, and an exhibition of prowess well worth witnessing.

Other exhibitions of horsemanship followed, including the old feat of riding a bull. The bull, a vicious one, was left alone in the ring, and his temper soon showed signs of extreme shortness as he pawed the dirt, tossing it above his shoulders. Watching the chance when the bull’s attention was fixed elsewhere, a man ran in and got to the little fence before the bull could charge him. Then, while the bull was still angrily endeavoring to get at the man, the corral gate opposite was thrown open and six or eight horsemen entered, riding with quiet unconcern. The bull was obviously not in the least afraid of the footman, whereas he had a certain feeling of respect for the horsemen. Two of the latter approached him. One got his rope over the bull’s horns, and the other then dexterously roped the hind legs. The footman rushed in and seized the tail, and the bull was speedily on his side. Then a lean, slab-sided, rather frowzy-looking man, outwardly differing in no essential respect from the professional bronco-buster of the Southwest, slipped from the spectators’ seats into the ring. A saddle was girthed tight on the bull, and a rope ring placed round his broad chest so as to give the rider something by which to hang. The lassos upon him were cast loose, and he rose, snorting with rage and terror. If he had thrown the man, the horsemen would have had to work with instantaneous swiftness to save his life. But all the bull’s furious bucking and jumping could not unseat the rider. The horsemen began to tease the animal, flapping red blankets in his face, and luring him to charges which they easily evaded. Finally they threw him again, took off his saddle and turned him loose, and at the same time some steers were driven into the corral to serve as company for him. A couple of the horsemen took him out of the bunch and raced him round the corral, turning him when they wished by pressing him against the pole corral lining, thus repeating the game that had already been played with so many of the steers. In his case it was, of course, more dangerous. But they showed complete mastery, and the horses had not the slightest fear, nailing him flat against the wall with their chests, and spinning him round when they struck him on occasions when he was trying to make up his mind to resist.

Meanwhile the bull-rider passed his hat among the spectators, who tossed silver pieces into it—thus marking the fundamental difference between the life we were witnessing and our own Western ranch life. In Chile, with its aristocratic social structure, there is a wide gulf between the gentry and the ranch-hands; whereas in the democratic life of our own cow country the ranch-owner has, more often than not, at one time been himself a ranch-hand.

After the sports in the corral were finished eight or ten of the huasos appeared on big horses at the bar of which I have spoken, and took part in a sport which was entirely new to me. Two champions would appear side by side or half-facing each other, at the bar. Each would turn his horse’s head until it hung over the bar as they half-fronted each other, on the same side of the bar. The object was for each man to try to push his opponent away from the bar and then shove past him, usually carrying his opponent with him. Sometimes it was a contest of man against man. Sometimes each would have two or three backers. No one could touch any other man’s horse, and each drove his animal right against his opponent. The two men fronting each other at the bar kept their horses head-on against the bar; the others strove each to get his horse’s head between the body of one of his opponents and the head of that opponent’s horse. They then remained in a knot for some minutes, the riders cheering the horses with their strange, wild, Indian-like cries, while the horses pushed and strained. Usually there was almost no progress on either side at first. It would look as though not an inch was gained. Gradually, however, the horses on one side or the other got an inch or two or three inches advantage of position by straining and shoving. Suddenly the right vantage-point was attained. There was an outburst of furious shouting from the riders. The horses of one side with straining quarters thrust their way through the press, whirling round or half upsetting their opponents, and rushed down alongside the bar. Why the men’s legs were not broken I could not say. On this occasion all the men were good-natured. But it was a rough sport, and I could well credit the statement that, if there were bad blood to gratify, the chances were excellent for a fight.

After the sports we motored down to a great pasture on one side of a lake, beyond which rose lofty mountains. Then we returned to the ranch-house itself—a huge, white, single-storied house with a great courtyard in the middle and wings extending toward the stable, the saddle-rooms, and the like. It was a house of charm and distinction; the low building—or rather group of buildings, with galleries and colonnades connecting them—being in the old native style, an outgrowth of the life and the land. After a siesta our hosts led us out across a wide garden brilliant and fragrant with flowers, to the deep, cool shade of a row of lofty trees, where stood a long table spread with white linen and laden with silver and glass; and here, we were served with a delicious and elaborate breakfast—the Chilean breakfast, that of Latin Europe, for in most ways the life of South America is a development of that of Latin Europe, and much more closely kin to it than it is to the life of the English-speaking peoples north of the Rio Grande.

In the afternoon we drove back to the railroad. At one point of our drive we were joined by a rider who had taken part in the morning’s sports. He galloped at full speed beside the rushing motor-car, waving his hat to us and shouting good-by. He was a tall, powerfully built, middle-aged man, with fine, clean-cut features; his brightly colored mantle streamed in the wind, and he sat in the saddle with utter ease while his horse tore over the ground alongside us. He was a noble figure, and his farewell to us was our last glimpse of the wild, old-time huaso life.