“We’re from San Antonio,” said a middle-aged American woman.
“That’s San Antonio de Texas,” she added, pronouncing Texas ‘Tay-Hass’, as if anyone was going to confuse her with a local.
Her husband rolled his eyes as the ranch hands smiled politely. We were at Estancia La Cinacina in San Antonio de Areco, a few hours outside Buenos Aires. Mr and Mrs Tay-Hass, it transpired, had their own ranch back home and the day was to be punctuated by her tedious comparisons. Our ranch was modest by Argentine standards, making the bulk of its money from day-trippers who, like us, wanted to experience ranch activities but didn’t have the time or the ability for a longer stay.
No ranch day was going to take place without horses, however, and this had thoughtfully been scheduled first, in case we lost our nerve. Whilst our multicultural group clutched mugs of maté and made awkward conversation on the veranda, gauchos with jaunty berets and red neckerchiefs tugged expertly at straps and then lounged casually against the corral waiting for their tardy riders.
“Less go, riders, vamos, less go!”
The term ‘riders’ was used in its loosest sense, implying as it does some kind of skill on a horse when it would all too soon be apparent most of the group had none. We looked to Mrs Tay-Hass for guidance, but she was no help at all, exclaiming that she had had quite enough of riding at home and wasn’t going to spend her holiday doing so too. Her credentials were starting to look distinctly suspect.
With varying levels of skill, ranging from rag doll to corpse, we heaved ourselves onto (and in one case, straight over and off the other side) our patient mounts and with varying degrees of help from the gauchos set off down the field at a comforting stroll. An Italian squawked as his horse got a little frisky and broke into a slow canter. We were rattled. A slow canter for this group was like a race day gallop and we weren’t yet ready for such exhilaration. The stallion reared and dumped the Italian on the ground. Pride more bruised than his bum, he clambered back on his horse with an embarrassed grin. The rest of us tightened our grip on our reins and unconsciously moved closer together. At some point, we transitioned from uncomfortable to relaxed, though for some that didn’t come until their dismount.
Stiffly, we lurched across the paddock and back to the porch where lunch and Mr and Mrs Tay-Hass awaited. She hooted with laughter as we recounted the Italian’s narrow escape. The group sought solace in the food that surrounded us – huge piles of ribs, steaks, sausages and several plates of unidentifiable entrails. Aside from the meat, the only other food on the table was bread. Salad was for wimps. Of course, Mrs Tay-Hass was extolling the virtues of Texan steak to anyone who would listen but it was hard to see how it could better this feast. Red wine flowed and ever more fantastic tales of horsemanship were exchanged, each nationality hoping to outdo the other.
Bellies full, we were treated to a short folklore show. The musicians played with gusto and the dancers made interesting and varied use of their handkerchiefs. (Actually, it wasn’t interesting at all, but after the copious amounts of alcohol we’d just drunk we’d have applauded anything, just so long as they didn’t make us get back on a horse.)
Across the field, the gauchos had saddled up and were jostling and shoving like Aintree on race day, periodically breaking away for a gallop. A slight, almost imperceptible, tug on a rein, and order was restored. Contrast that to the morning’s hapless efforts when most of us could barely get the horses to walk, let alone change direction.
Busying themselves for the Corrida de Sortija, the gauchos had strung across the track a series of tiny metal rings about the size of curtain rings. They cantered off to the far end of the course as we climbed up on the fence to watch. At once, they were off, hurtling full pelt. As they reached the rings, stretching up out of the saddle, they attempted to pierce them with a small stick, a feat requiring balance and precision. It was clearly not easy. A successful poke scored a cheer from the other gauchos as well their audience. Again and again they raced. Only one failed to make a single direct hit and soon became the butt of jokes from his fellow horsemen. Not us, however. Whooping and cheering, we knew how hard it was just to stay on.
For once Mrs Tay-Hass was silent. Texas couldn’t beat that.