Chile Culture — 01 April 2016

chile horse riding

by
Walker Rowe

One irony in Chile is here the poorest people can own a horse but in the USA only the richest can afford that, especially on the East Coast. In the American West it is different.

In 2011, I moved to Chile from Rappahannock County, Virginia, which is the heart of what they call Hunt Country. I took riding lessons at a stables there. Most everyone there rode with the hounds, that is to say they went fox hunting. In the fox hunt 30 to 50 riders put on what looks like tuxedos and took off with 100 dogs or so who are chasing a fox. It’s an English aristocratic sport brought to Virginia, although I believe it is banned in England now, because animal rights people complained.

Even though I bought my house and 65 acre farm for cash in Rappahannock County I was relatively poor. The people who went fox hunting did not have to work every day and owned several horses. Most were older since older people obviously have more money and time that the young. That was ironic too as fox hunting is quite dangerous. Smack into a tree while galloping in the forest or leaping over a fence and you will get killed. I did not ride with the hounds because I did not buy my own horse until I moved here to Chile.

In that part of Virginia horses literally live better than people. They have nicer houses (stables). Or at least some of those that surrounded me were nicer than mine. They were definitely larger.

There are many idle rich people, or indebted professional people and entrepreneurs, who own vast rolling acreage in Rappahannock and Loudon County, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. They mark off their 100 or 500 acre spreads with wooden fencing. That amount of wood alone would cost more than even an average person’s house. A person who was actually farming such land would use barbed wire fence, which costs a lot less.

The fox hunters have arranged with the landowners there to let their hounds (It’s bad form to call them merely “dogs.”) and riders to cross their property. So some of these hunt clubs have amassed as much as 100,000 acres of contiguous land on which to ride. So where does someone go who does not have their own land or time and money to ride with the hounds? They don’t. They would need to buy their own land, which the poor cannot do. Or they can ride around in a circle at a stable such as eager teenage girls who learn dressage do. So riding is not a sport for the poor or even middle class there.

chile rodeo

Here in Chile things are quite different. Here you see people riding horses in the road. You see horses working too as people use them to haul carts. That simple access to the public roads lets people go where they wish without having to owning all the land in between. So a rider can pass from one place where they have permission to ride to another or simply ride in the road or in the hills or riverbed or wasteland. You do not need 500 acres of rolling grass pastures. You could not ride a horse in the road in Virginia because the road is too well paved. The cars go too fast and there are lots of blind curves in those rolling hills. Someone would run into you. Perhaps the police would stop you too, yet tractors can drive in the road. It’s supposed to be a public right of way.

In Scotland ordinary people have greater access than in Virginia. There they have an ancient privilege called the Right to Roam. In England they have that too, but politically-connected fishermen were able to recently stop the public from wandering the private trout streams. The Right to Roam lets people cross private property as long as they do not do any damage. So you could ride your horse over dale and hill (Shakespeare said that.) and roam the lonely moors.

It’s not that way in posted-no-trespassing Virginia. It’s not that way here in Chile either, but people in Chile are less likely to complain since the only place you could roam on your horse would be the hills and foot hills or wasteland. All the flat land has fences around it since it’s all planted in agriculture or small 1-2 acre plots with houses. Chilean put fences around all the land, even when it is sort of ridiculous to do so, such as on land on which it is too steep to walk. More about that in a moment.

In the Western United States land is not so expensive, so you do not have to be a billionaire to buy 20 acres to ride a horse. You could buy, say, 20 acres or even less in Arizona or New Mexico and locate yourself next to an Indian reservation or national park and have an endless expanse to ride on. There are national parks in Virginia too, but those are covered with trees and rocky trails which are not a good place to gallop.

In the Western USA horse riding is a completely different culture than Virginia. It’s a different style of riding too that they call Western. That means you use a Western saddle instead of an English one. Although a cowboy might take offense to this statement, Western riding is easier for the beginner. Because the huge leather Western saddle has a saddle horn. It’s supposed to be used to tie off a cow when you lasso it. But it also gives you something to hang onto in case the rider gets out of control.

The English saddle, by comparison, is very small. It has no horn. When you are galloping down a hill in the Virginia mountains it feels like you are flying. And if you do not learn to maintain your balance and hang on with your thighs you will in fact take to their air and fall off.

In Chile they use a type of saddle that I imagine you could simply call Chilean. It has no saddle horn. It’s safer too because the stirrups are wooden and closed on one end. It looks like an actual shoe. So there is no chance that your foot will poke through and you will get dragged to your death as is possible with an English saddle with its iron stirrup.

The Chilean saddle is not all leather either. I think the reason for this must be in part because leather is expensive in a country without many cows. There are cows, but not many as there is not much grass. The Chilean saddle has a padded seat made from wool. The back has a kind of shock absorber looking just like a motorcycle. It has no saddle horn. The strap that passes under the horse are not leather either but cotton, which holds a better grip. The reigns are cotton too.  All of this leather is sometimes white as it is not always stained with tannin.

I live in the country west of Santiago where I have a mare. I keep her in a corral in a gated community. Before she lived on a 5 acre farm ringed on all sides with mountains that I was free to roam. The mountains are privately owned here, but no one pays much attention, and you can generally pass. The hills here are steep, but they are only a few hundred feet high. So it’s possible to ride up since they are not the snow covered Andes with no solid place to put a hoof. Out here in the country most of the roads are not paved either. So you can ride seemingly forever. And when the road runs out just ride along the river. The riverbank is public land. In Virginia the riverbank is private.

From here south for 4 hours is the only land in Chile suitable for farming, so it’s flat. Yet there are mountains sticking up everywhere, so there are no wide vistas. Only 4% of Chile’s vast territory is suitable to farming. The rest of it is too steep or too dry. It rains in the south, but that is only suitable for grazing. So if you lived in the south you would find more places to ride and fewer fences since grazing land has more acreage than land given to fruit trees, wine grapes, or vegetables, which is what they grow here.

So no one here has 400 acres of grass pastures on which to ride. First of all it is desert here, with rains only coming in winter. So there is no grass. And because there is such little arable land if you had 400 acres even inch of it would be planted with fruit trees, wine or table grapes, oranges, avocados or something else as it is too valuable to leave fallow. If you went to the north of Chile you could ride in the desert. But no one lives in the desert since it is so dry there is not even one blade of grass. People tend to live along the rivers there where the mountains are so steep you can hardly stand up let alone ride a horse.

In the 1960’s Chile had land reform. Then anyone who had more than 80 hectares (162 acres) had to sell. The idea was to break up the great estates. So lots of people here own lots of little pieces of land. But land that is suitable for agriculture, and has water, is very expensive, much more so than even Virginia. So no one wastes it by riding horses on it, unless it has no water in which it would be worth nothing. If it is not along the irrigation canal or has no water in the well then it is just abandoned. So that would be a good place to ride.

So here a person if they are a farmer are likely to own perhaps 2 acres or maybe 10. That is a small farm as far as Wyoming style horse riding goes. A small farm like that can be profitable. In the USA because there is so much farmland, prices for beef and corn are so low that if you farm corn or cattle you would need a thousand acres and hundreds of heads of cattle to turn a profit. Most rural land in Virginia has cattle, but that is simply to reduce the tax bill. Get it labelled agriculture and the real estate tax drops 80%.  As for the horses, they tend to spend most of their time inside the stables. Here it is warm enough to leave the horses outside in winter, but you should cover them with a jacket and move them out of the rain, on the few days when it does rains.

One obstacle to riding here is as everywhere, even Wyoming, fences. Fortunately lots of those fences in Chile have been pushed down by people who wanted to cross, at least in the mountains and hills. There’s not a lot of pressure treated posts here. Those cost money. So fences are often just some tree branch that eventually rots since it is not salt treated. So it falls over by itself or you can tip it over.

Here in the country you can ride on the unpaved roads and ride in the mountains. You can ride paved roads too, just don’t go fast or you horse can slip and crush you. As for the mountains most of them are privately owned. But you quickly learn which landowners will complain if you ride on their land and which will not.

Not all the riders here are poor. There are expensive horses here. This too points to something quite different than the USA: the rodeo. In the USA the rodeo is associated with fighting drinking cowboys who when they are not fighting or drinking are off working some blue collar job. Here the people who ride the rodeo have the most expensive horses and the most expensive looking wives and well dressed children. It’s a genteel sport. Horses for the rodeo are required to be registered horses of the Chilean breed. The average campesino you see riding the shoulder of the highway does not have a registered horse. That just means it does not have papers. It can still be a fine horse.

You can buy an unregistered horse for about $800 USD or less. The average salary in the country is only $6,000 dollars, so that is a lot. You can buy a registered horse for $2,000 to $30,000. I pay $15 per month to keep my horse at a stable and $30 for someone to feed it every day.  It would costs hundreds of dollars in Virginia for that.

In a land with no rain you need to buy alfalfa, ordinary grass does not have enough nutrients. Alfalfa looks like grass, but it is a legume, like beans. So it is rich in nitrogen. In grass-rich Virginia people do not usually give their well-fed horses alfalfa as it would make them fat. Here a bale costs about $4. One bale lasts three days.

So in Chile horseback riding is a more democratic sport even if the gap between the rich and poor is enormous. For tourists and city people who want to ride horses there are some places you can rent a horse outside Santiago. But where’s the fun in that? You need to own one and ride it a lot so you can learn to gallop and turn and dash among the fruit trees in an orchard and go up and down steep hills. Going fast is a lot more fun that trail riding or going with a guide.

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