The Argentine gaucho might be a more famous figure in worldwide terms – but Chile’s equivalent, the huasos, also have a prominent place in their own country.
Rancagua, their spiritual home, stands a few miles further south on Route 5, part of the Pan-American highway that runs the length of the continent. Rodeo attracts more spectators than soccer and, once a year, Rancagua hosts the national rodeo championships.
“Chilean rodeo is very different to what people are used to seeing in North America,” says my local friend Claudia. “Two riders have to work together to pin a calf against a special padded area of the arena. There's none of the bucking-bronco-style performances.” Indeed, Chilean rodeos owe more to the equestrian world of dressage, with the horse’s appearance first inspected by judges before any further individual displays of skill. Like much that goes on in public in Chile, rodeos are a graceful and stylish affair.
Underneath it, there are the tensions of poverty and class. Like the Mexican vaquero or Uruguayan gaucho, the huaso was a hard working ranch-hand, hired when landowners needed to round up cattle. Most had roots in the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples of the Americas, who had never seen a horse when the Spanish Conquistadors first arrived but soon learned the skills needed. They can stop a galloping horse with a voice command and skilfully throw a bolas – leather ropes with small stone or metal balls attached – to bring cattle quickly to the ground.
“Even so, they are badly paid and often have little job security,” says Claudia. Their life is a harsh one, a far cry from the romanticized version on show in the rodeo, all immaculately attired horsemen in straight-brimmed straw hats, striped ponchos, ornate spurs and polished knee-high leather leggings.
“The rodeo competitors are often from the upper middle-class, traveling down from the city to compete,” continues Claudia. “Everyone wants to think of the huaso life as one of simple, rural pleasures and city dwellers want a part of that.”
In the city, “huaso” is Chilean slang for an unsophisticated country hick, so it is ironic to see what are actually the upper echelons of society, in their expensive costumes, being snapped by tourists who imagine they are traditional cowboys.
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