When Aussie girl Hebe decided to move to Chile to volunteer and live the life of a Gaucha, she had no idea what she had signed up for. Apart from the daily chores of her new Gaucha life she also had some great adventures; including her own “Man from Snowy River” moment galloping headlong down a steep and rocky mountain.
Author: Hebe Webber
I’d arrived with a bag full of hopes and dreams, insufficient warm clothes and a rough grasp of Spanish. And now I was hurtling down the hillside with a saddle made of rawhide and sheepskin, on a horse that I couldn’t pronounce the name of.
Patagonia – Home of the Gauchos
That’s right, I’d made it to the land at the end of the earth: Patagonia. Home of the Gauchos, the maté drinking, boina wearing Latin American cowboys of your dreams.
The first days were hard. The thick, rapid Chilean accents are known to be among the hardest to understand in South America. Let alone to learn the names of all 40 horses and all their gear. Not to mention, I’d only ever ridden English style and never in my life used a cinch. My 18 years of experience seemed to fizzle out and fade -all my confidence with it, as I failed to saddle my first horse properly. I was determined to never catch the wide-eyed, raised eyebrow glances of the Gauchos again.
After a few days of slyly watching how the others tightened the cinch, as usually I was either too embarrassed or unable to ask for help in Spanish, I’d figured it out. But it was the only beginning of my challenges. Something as simple as being asked to catch a horse needed to be repeated to me several times before I understood. I began to assume because they all had to speak to me like I was a complete idiot, they thought I was one too.
Taking on the Challenge
Eager to prove myself as a confident rider, I volunteered to accompany the youngest Gaucho to “buscar la tropilla,” which little to my knowledge meant find the guest riding horses in the unforgiving wilderness of the 13,000 hectare farm, and bring them home.
And so we set off at a brisk canter, me following the tail of the Gaucho ahead, scanning the trees and the ground for signs of the herd. After riding for half an hour, the Gaucho stopped. “There, can you see them?” He spoke to me in Spanish, pointing into the trees at the bottom of the valley. “Sí” yes, I nodded. “Allá tambien” I pointed to some horses in a clearing higher on the mountain. “Vamos” he said. Let’s go!
The “Man of the Snowy River” Moment
And thus I found myself galloping headlong down the steep and rocky slopes of Patagonian landscape, narrowly dodging Armadillo holes, twisting in and out of spikey calafate bushes, knowing full well if my horse puts a foot wrong we’re done. Mind you, I wasn’t wearing a helmet either. A wise lady once told me “Australian riders aren’t taught to ride to look good; they’re taught to ride to stay on.” And never have I been more thankful for the truth of that statement. Here I was, 24 years old, living my “man from snowy river” dream in Chile… or was it a nightmare? At this point I was unsure, as I clung to my mare while we crashed down the mountainside, the Gaucho shouted important instructions behind him in Spanish. Could I hear him? Yes. Did I understand what he was saying? No.
I soon realised he was going to bring the horses off the mountain so I pushed on behind the herd in the valley, feeling as dumb as I probably looked, attempting to mimic the shouts and whistles of the Gaucho. As the two herds merged together, the Gaucho flashed me a grin. I didn’t know if this meant “good job” or “brace yourself gringo, the best is yet to come.” It was the second.
Alone on a Mountain
Just as I thought we had them, a group of horses broke away from the herd and galloped into the dense, 400-year-old forest bordering the next mountain. And the Gaucho with them. The pounding of hooves merged with the sound of the wind, and became silence. And just like that, I was alone. Alone, on a mountain, on a 13,000 hectare farm with absolutely no clue where I was, or what direction was home.
“Okay, horse, what do we do now?” I said to my mare. “Oh yeah, you only speak Spanish… Sorry” I said aloud, trying to joke and calm my rising panic. I looked at the 20 horses in front of me. My mare pricked her ears. “Alright, if you think so…” I pushed the rest of the herd forward, praying the horses would head for home.
Bush Bashing – Indiana Jones Style
So with next to no mustering experience, I galloped after the herd. Every stride attempting to dodge branches, not poke my eye out, jump fallen logs, stay atop my steed and navigate all of the horses, all at the same time, in an unknown direction. Piece of cake right? Wrong! Every few minutes my path was blocked, forcing me to bush bash Indiana Jones style through trees. After much struggle, and much swearing in various languages, we appeared at the top of a ridge. And in my sights: the estancia, and the Gaucho at the bottom of the ridge with the other horses. He greeted me, with concern, slight astonishment and an impressed air. “Tu andas a caballo muy bien!”
Yes!!! I inwardly fist pumped the air. The words I was dying to hear: they thought the Aussie gringo could ride. Mission accomplished…almost. Together we mustered the heard the final kilometres to the estancia. This time filled with laughs, smiles, and of course Spanish instructions I still didn’t understand. Flying through the wilderness, keeping in time with each other. All the years of riding a crazy pony bareback through the Australian bush were finally amounting to something. You live with the Gauchos, you ride as the Gauchos and I’m sure as hell glad I can ride to stay on.
Finally living the Gaucha Life
Arriving home at the estancia, the horses successfully in the yard, a big grin spread across my face. I felt accomplished and excited. When I dismounted my horse, the Gauchos all stood looking at me. Anxiety crept in. “Quieres maté?” they said. “Yes! I mean please! I mean, sí,” I flustered. Big smiles lit up their faces.
And so we sat, drinking maté and the young Gaucho bragging of my ride to the others. Relieved, and happy, it was then that I learned the Gauchos are not as rough and tumble as their exterior, they are some of the most kind, forgiving and patient people I have ever met. It wasn’t long before I was a maté drinking, boina wearing member of the family saddling horses while belting out Spanish pop songs. And that ride became solidified in my memory as one of the best in my life.
Hebe is a regular contributor for Equestrian Adventuresses. Follow her on her next horse riding adventure in South America. That time she made her way to Brazil and found herself on a beautiful island Riding the Coconut Trail.