Out of a passion for both horses and Argentine culture, travel writer Madelaine Triebe goes in search of the gaucho life at Cordoba’s Estancia Los Potreros.
I will never forget the words of my Argentine Spanish teacher reciting a passage from All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. “What he loved about horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the blood of the heat that ran them,” she said as I sat opposite her in an apartment in Buenos Aires with piles of paper on the kitchen table and a thermos of hot water beside her.
I’d told her about my passion for horses and she’d instantly put words on the love that I shared with her country and one of its greatest national symbols – the Argentine gaucho. The equivalent to the American cowboy and celebrated in the famous poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro, a national hero and vagabond going where the cattle took him.
My taxi driver Miguel turns left on a winding road that has taken us from Rio Ceballos – a non-descriptive town with its most exciting attribute being a casino – through the hills of the Sierras Chicas in Córdoba – a province that’s famous for its smiling inhabitants and Jesuit estancias.
Driving carefully up the two-kilometre potholed dirt track, I feel like I’m slowly entering a different world, surrounded by hills of swaying pampas grass and passing pens with herds of horses. I can’t wait to get in the saddle, so I’m on my way to Estancia Los Potreros – a 6,000-acre family-run cattle ranch – where I can live out the gaucho dream.
The owner Kevin and his wife Louisa Begg greet me and before showing me to my room they ask me if I’d like to participate in the morning ride. With no hesitation I change into espadrilles and turn up outside the saddle room, ready to mount.
On horseback, we roam the hills to move some of the estancia’s black Aberdeen Angus cattle. Together with Ted I follow Leo – our gaucho who’s dressed in loose cotton trousers and a black broad-brimmed hat with his hand resting loosely on his hip – in search of the herd.
“I’ll go this way”, says Ted, pointing towards the rocky hill to his left. “Ok, I’ll ride over here”, I say pointing in the opposite direction. Leo is already riding off, before we have time to ask where he’s going.
While the sun sets in front of us and the long bleached pampas grass is swept by the breeze, I hear the roaming cows and a yodelling Leo. My gelding Salchicha points his ears when he hears the sound and starts prancing around. I don’t know who’s more excited, but we both seem up for the job.
Later at dinner, as we fill our stomachs with slow-cooked osobuco, made with beef from the farm, Kevin tells us how he was once given the option of leaving the farm: “My old boss from London came to visit one day. He offered me a good job back in the city and asked me if it was time to get back to the real world. It was a good offer, but I kindly turned it down and told him that this is the real world for me.”
The following day we set out on another ride – this time across pouring streams and rocky terrain. But, with the sure-footed and alert dark bay criollo Carancho – named after the vultures that sail through the skies – I feel like we’re a team. Carancho seems as excited as I am whenever Daniel our gaucho up-front turns around to ask the group: “Galope?”
Ted from Boston, who’s here with his twins, and I have already bonded over our love for fast gallops. He enthusiastically tells me about what a great experience he has had at the estancia: “I’ve been to a few dude ranches in the States, but nothing like this. The horses are wonderful – so responsive and well-trained.”
Kevin tells us that it’s not about going fast but it’s about the relationship between you and the horse, and although I agree I can’t help myself when we arrive in a big field – both Carancho and I know what’s coming. I give him the rein, lean slightly forward and make a kissing sound as he shoots off, kicking up the ground beneath us.