I’m delighted to welcome Tom Williams to my blog today, to tell us all about riding with the gauchos, and his new book.
Burke in the Land of Silver tells the story of the doomed British invasion of Argentina in 1806 and the role that may well have been played by real-life spy James Burke. There are beautiful women, evil villains, daring deeds and dastardly plots, but the whole thing is based around real events. Burke’s adventures on the pampa and in the Andes drew a lot on my own experience, as well as fascinating descriptions of life on a cattle ranch at the time by, of all people, Charles Darwin. His journey round the world wasn’t all giant tortoises and Galapagos finches!
Most of the action in Burke in the Land of Silver takes place in what is now Argentina. Our hero is spying for the British who are planning to drive the Spanish out of Buenos Aires. Burke discovers that the cattlemen out in the country (the pampa) have no love for their Spanish rulers and he tries to win them over to the British side. In the story, Burke spends some time with the gauchos, as the cattlemen are called. I particularly enjoyed writing this part as I have spent a short time riding with the gauchos of today, whose lives are, in many ways, remarkably unchanged. They are still magnificent horseman, often wearing their traditional dress as workaday garments.
The object above is something that shows the enormous skill of the gaucho on horseback.
The ring is supposed by some people to represent a wedding ring and it is said that gauchos used to play this game to win the hands of their sweethearts.
The clip fastens the ring to a rope stretched above the head of a man on horseback. The gaucho rides at the rope holding a cone shaped metal object in his hand which he has to pass through the ring whilst maintaining at least a fast trot. To win the game, you must carry away the ring without dropping it. What is amazing is how often the gauchos are successful. The photographs show how it is done.
The riders stand in the stirrups, well clear of the saddle, his horse moving so smoothly that the rider can catch up the ring as he passes beneath it.
In the third picture above, the young man has passed the ring without catching it. No congratulations from a beautiful Señora for him.
Riding these Argentinian horses was a strange experience for me. I’m not a particularly good horseman and I have only ridden on a European saddle, so first I had to get used to the Western saddle and the different way of using the reins on an Argentine horse. The biggest difference, though, came when I pushed with my heels. The horses at the ranch where I was riding are “cutting out horses” used for moving into a herd of cattle and cutting out the ones that are to be lassoed for whatever reason. The slightest pressure of the heel moves them into a full gallop immediately. When the gauchos aren’t playing the game with the ring, they enjoy racing each other over very short distances, where victory or defeat depends on just how quickly the horse can start its gallop. I’ve seen horses start by jumping into the air and landing immediately into a gallop with no walk or trot or canter.
You’d think that riding horses like this would be a terrifying experience, but I have never felt so safe on a horse of my life. Riding a full gallop across the pampa when some cattle crossed my path and my horse swerved to avoid them should have had me clinging on in terror, but instead I was able to stay comfortably in my seat, absolutely convinced that my mount would do nothing that might throw me off.
My time spent riding on this dude ranch and, later, in the rather more challenging conditions of the Andes above the snow line, was some of the best days of my life. Strangely, I have hardly been in the saddle since I got back to England: it just doesn’t feel the same.
Burke in the Land of Silver has just been republished by Endeavour Press, and is available from Amazon.
Catch Tom on his Blog