Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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Horses and Horseracing
An Irish passion in Nineteenth-Century Río de la Plata

By Edmundo Murray 


La cuadrera
(Florencio Molina Campos, 1943)

Basta de carreras, se acabó la timba,
un final reñido yo no vuelvo a ver,
pero si algún pingo llega a ser fija el domingo,
yo me juego entero, qué le voy a hacer.

‘Por una cabeza’, tango (Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera, 1935)





‘For the sportsman in the true sense, who cares for horses, dogs and living things, who joys in the open air and wide plains, it [Argentina] is the best life in the world’

(John Macnie, 1925)

Up to the 1980s, historians repeatedly remarked that the major attractions for the Irish to emigrate to Latin America were the Roman Catholic religion and freedom from English rule. However, the land-hungry Irish who emigrated to Mexican Texas in the 1820s were fascinated less by religion or political liberties than by the huge pasture plains and the availability of relatively inexpensive land in the Refugio and San Patricio colonies (Davis 2002: 8). In South America, most of the officers and soldiers who embarked in Cork and Dublin to join the independence armies in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and other South American countries were enticed by the influence of Romanticism in early nineteenth-century Britain, the affirmation of masculinities and the cult of the adventurer (Brown 2006: 26). Furthermore, their fellow countrymen who chose Argentina as their destination were attracted by the possibility of becoming landlords and the freedom to practise their adventure-seeking lives. Significant among the characteristics of those lives was the tradition of horseracing, associated from early times with nobility, landownership and masculine behaviours. This article describes some of the horseracing activities in Argentina before and after the arrival of the Irish and British immigrants.   

Work and Play on Horseback

‘Cattle and horses have feelings like ourselves; but the horse is by far the cleverest. […] When a horse sees, himself, the necessity of using his intelligence, he is surprising’ (Bulfin 1997: 73). When William Bulfin published his Tales of the Pampas in 1900, he could not resist appealing to the one subject that was so close to the hearts of both Argentines and Irish: horses. The Irish shepherds and the gauchos - the cowboys of the Pampas - were united in their worshiping of horses, although their manners and reasons differed. [2]

For the gaucho, the horse was the most common feature of their daily life. Work, travel and entertainment could not be conceived of without horses and, at least in a rural habitat, everyone become a skilled rider from an early age. Up to the second half of the nineteenth century, thousands of wild horses populated the Pampas, and most were free to be seized without any other effort than driving and taming them. In contrast, most of the Irish farmers thought of horses as a valuable tool for draught work in farms or for transportation. In contemporary Ireland, riding a good horse was generally perceived to be a privilege of the landed classes and only a small number of tenant farmers and labourers were trained in the skills of horsemanship.

During the times of the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, Andalusian horses were successfully introduced in the South American plains. Many were abandoned and the species freely developed in an ideal context with regard to food, health, climate and topography. Centuries later, what is known in Argentina and Uruguay as the criollo breed [3] represents the descendants of the original horses brought to the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, with the gradual addition of British, French and other European breeds.

The indigenous people of the Argentine Pampas became skilled riders and improvised breeders. The horse was their means of transport, a crucial resource for war and hunting, and their companion during the long journeys through the lonely plains. The gauchos, associated with the mixed ethnicities of Europeans and Amerindians and their descendants, adopted the horse as their most important friend. Later in the nineteenth century, European immigrants would perceive in their own relation with horses a symbol of their integration into the local culture.

In the early 1820s, a visitor to Argentina chronicled: ‘The Buenos Ayrian is continually on horseback: the nets in the river are drawn from the saddle, and the Gaucho bathes from the horse, and swims around it.’ […] Another visitor observed in 1853 that ‘the natives, without a horse […] simply assert that they are “without feet”; whatever work is to be done, either in collecting, marking, driving, or taming cattle, must be done on horseback’ (William MacCann in: Slatta, 1992: 25). Dismounted, a gaucho ‘waddles in his walk; his hands feel for the reins; his toes turn inwards like a duck’s’ (Hudson 1922: 350). The failure of the English invasions of Buenos Aires in 1806-1807 prompted Sir Walter Scott to pour scorn on the Argentines as ‘a sort of Christian savage called guachos [sic], whose principal furniture is the sculls [sic] of dead horses, whose only food is raw beef and water, whose sole employment is to catch wild cattle, […] and whose chief amusement is to ride horses to death’ (cited by Jones 1949: 78).

Regardless of social origin or class, work, recreation and travel were undertaken on horseback, or at least on a saddle. The enormous extension of uninhabited plains, the great quantity of wild horses, and the lack of a system of control that would prevent them from making these lands their own property without further formalities, gave the gauchos a liberty and opportunities which were not available to immigrants from Britain and Ireland in their home countries.  

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008 

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Murray, Edmundo, 'Horses and Horseracing: an Irish passion in Nineteenth-Century Río de la Plata'
in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 59-66. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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