When Fabian met us in the morning to bring us to a small estancia in the Andes near Mendoza, he was wearing a gaucho beret. Like real Argentinean gauchos do, we thought. On the way to the estancia, our trail ride was supposed to start from, he spoke of 3 different ways to preprocess and prepare mate tea. Our companion definitely knew how to do things the way gauchos do them.
The first impression Fabian´s friends made who we met at the estancia were similar. They were wearing berets, overpants made from rough cowhide to protect the riders` clothes from the thorns of bushes, and a dark tan from the sun of the Andean highlands.
Then we met their horses. The gaucho horses have names. Mine was Bairoletto – named after a famous Argentinian gaucho, who took the cattle from the rich and gave it to the poor – an Argentinian Robin Hood! Balti`s horse was Lindo – obviously named “pretty” for his looks. The horses were in good shape and had healthy skin. They were born higher in the Andes and worked their lives on the pastures in the highlands, we were told. Now they were brought down from the highlands to end their lives with all the comforts possible in this rough land. Years of comradeship with excellent riders made the horses obedient and ready to comply with every command we gave them – even though we were probably not quite good with giving our commands. That was our first time riding gaucho style.
We were a group of seven: Oli, who guided our ride, two of his daughters, Val, our Airbnb host who had also introduced us to the gauchos and her friend who brought us here. Around 6 dogs followed us on our trail ride and almost every picture from this day features at least one dog.
“A good dog is everything for a gaucho”, Oli said. “Without a good dog cows will just spread out and get lost. And the dogs also feel when pumas are getting close. If they see one, they will attack it with no hesitation to protect you even though the puma is bigger and stronger.”
“But as the life of a dog is full of dangers, it is short – you can`t get too attached to a dog”, Florian added. “You mustn’t have strong feelings for anybody.”
We rode a thin trail between the spiky bushes. When we got to a wider meadow, part of the group decided to take a rest there. Oli suggested that he could take Balti and me to the top of the range to show us the view.
“This is real freedom”, he said when we reached the windy top of the range. “Fortunately, man hasn´t come here yet, wherever man goes, he destroys the place.”
Oli pointed at the hill in the distance.
“They have an antenna and a helicopter platform there. The helicopter scares away the guanacos and the pumas have no food. They attack our cattle.”
“But we don´t shoot pumas,” he continued after a short silence. “A real gaucho is always armed with his knife.” – Indeed, Oli had a big knife behind his beautifully handcrafted belt.
When we went down the big hill, we caught the rest of the group and then got past them – Oli gave us a signal, rushed his horse and gave us a chance to gallop through the thorny bushes. That was an apogee of a ride and our eyes were sparkling with satisfaction, even when our arms were torn and bleeding. I was just wondering how the horses coped with the thorns.
With the time we gained, we made a bigger loop on our way home. Oli showed us the other horses he owned. The beige one was a young mustang, he said. It came down looking for yerba – grass when his mother didn´t want to share her grasslands with her grown-up son anymore.
Oli domesticated the wild horses. They may become good gaucho horses, he said. But not always: just a day ago he released one of his domesticated mustangs back into the wild.
“It was a good horse, but after all the time he spent with me and all the training he received it was still opposing. Its heart was still wild. Released, it ran happily into the pampas.”