Cowboys Around The World: Huasos Of Chile
An intimate look at the training regimen and everyday life of the Chilean cowboy.
A huaso in working attire moves cattle from one pasture to another on land southeast of Santa Cruz in Chile's Colchagua Valley.
Editor’s note: This feature was written in 2006 on an outing to rural Chile. It provides insight into the lives of Chilean cowboys, and honors the spirit of the individuals the author encountered on the trip.
Although the Chilean cowboy’s place in history may be murkier than that of his more-celebrated neighbor, the Argentine gaucho, the fierce pride the country’s modern-day huaso feels is evident in the way Rolando Verdugo sits his horse and deliberately explains the life he has chosen.
Verdugo, referred to by other huasos as “El Professor,” is surrounded by six other men and one teenage boy on horseback in a well-worn corral in the small town of Lolol, situated about 30 kilometers into the verdant Santa Cruz Valley in Colchagua Province. Aspiring huasos come from throughout Chile to Lolol — a town of 6,200 declared a national monument in 2003 because of its traditional architecture blending adobe, roofing tile and corridor constructions — to learn riding and rodeo skills from Verdugo and other locals. (The town was severely damaged in the 2010 earthquake that rattled Chile, and restoration of its church, one of the oldest in the country, and other historic structures continues today.)
The gray-haired, stocky Verdugo, in his early sixties, began riding at age 14. He speaks Chilean Spanish softly, a trace of a lisp the after-affects of 27 days he spent in a coma after being thrown by a horse several years ago.
“I was more on the other side for a time,” he explains, smiling. “I can no longer drive a car because I tire quickly, and my attention wanders. But I can still sit [on] a horse. It is my life.”
That life includes at least five hours in the saddle each day, either working or honing skills.
On this day, persistent rain has waterlogged the official town rodeo half moon on the outskirts. Nearby, a large tin-roof structure that provides room for up to 6,000 people for after-rodeo dancing, an important part of the tradition, sits soggily vacant as well.
The modern, strictly regulated Chilean rodeo is different from the events familiar to most North Americans. A two-huaso team (a collera) atop horses rides laps around an arena trying to stop a calf, pinning him against massive cushions. Points are earned for every time the steer is properly driven around the corral, with deductions for faults.
Near the middle of town, Verdugo apologizes for the shabbiness of the dingy practice corral he is using before putting his horse through a rigorous warm-up, riding back and forth across the center of the muddy ring, turning and stopping abruptly. That abrupt stop is a Chilean huaso trademark. Huasos train their mounts to stop suddenly, dropping down on their haunches (sentada), without throwing their rider.
Soon, two other huasos bring a training calf — “it knows all the tricks,” one of them says — into the ring, and start it through a series of warm-up drills for the atajada, a spellbinding Chilean rodeo pursuit-and-blocking exhibition in which the riders guide a steer toward the corral fence, which serves as a target.
Another huaso sits his horse in the middle of the corral, observing. His cellphone rings, and he conducts his business as the action swirls around him.
Verdugo then begins working the calf, blocking it and holding it against the fence while riding sideways. During a rodeo, points are awarded for a series of technical skills exhibited, such as what part of the animal’s body is used to block the steer (the degree of difficulty increases the further down the body a steer is blocked).
Rolando Verdugo, known as “the professor” in the huaso community.
Verdugo redirects the calf, seemingly at ease, although his jaw is set throughout and his horse is working up a good lather.
Another huaso nearby, Hector Perez, in his forties, smiles thinly, and explains that Verdugo “makes invisible the work of the rodeo.”
The crescent-shaped arena — the medialuna — offers the perfect modern-day proving ground for the Chilean Cirillo, a breed known for lateral dexterity, even temperament, and courage. In the 18th Century, annual Chilean roundups on large encomiendas (royal land grants) involved pens that could contain 7,000 head of cattle. Sorting the cattle by ownership, designated use, and requirements for castration and branding resulted in herding and pushing cattle down long alleyways into classificatory pens, skills that translate to the half-moon corrals of the modern Chilean rodeo, according to Randall Ray Arms, a Chilean Criollo expert.
The Santa Cruz Valley is fertile agricultural land. Once the exclusive domain of wealthy landowners and the huasos who worked for them, the demand for men on horseback has dwindled.
“Modernization in agricultural practices has lessened the farming dependence on horses, but they remain a rich part of the culture,” explains Pamela Guzman, a Santa Cruz-area guide and translator. “These people are very proud to be a huaso, to live in the country. Some still work cattle, but their rodeo skills are highly prized.”
In towns throughout Chile, but especially in this valley, the national sport (decreed such in 1962) is the culmination of a huaso’s year-round pursuit of highly polished skills. There are twelve rodeo clubs in Lolol, with about thirty members in each.
It is an expensive proposition. A good rodeo horse will run between $10,000 and $15,000 (the winning horse in the national rodeo could easily fetch $80,000) in a country where the gross national income is about $5,870 per person (rural incomes may be lower), and then there is the cost of feeding and caring for the animal, and rodeo competition fees.