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 


Beggar on horseback
(Emeric Essex Vidal, 1820)

This aspect of the life in the Pampas levelled the whole population, rendering them a uniform horse-riding people, a fact that was amazing in the eyes of English and Irish visitors, accustomed to the familiar figure of landlords - and sometimes large farmers, but rarely peasants or labourers - on horseback. Moreover, in Buenos Aires ‘the mounted beggar stands at the corner of the street, and asks charity; his horse is no more proof of his being undeserving of alms than the trowsers [sic] of the English mendicant’ (Caldcleugh 1825: I, 172). ‘[H]is manner is essentially different from that of the real object of charity. He accosts you with assurance and a roguish smile; jokes on the leanness of his horse, which, he says, is too old to walk; hopes for your compassion, and wishes you may live a thousand years (Essex Vidal 1820: 52). Rather than social scandal, these views excited the imaginations of the Irish immigrants and, particularly, of their fellow countrymen and women at home. If anyone (even beggars) in the Pampas could own a horse, by analogy the dream of land ownership could be realised, and upward social mobility - becoming a landowner - could become a reality for the industrious young tenant farmers of Ireland.    

Pato, maroma, and cuadreras

From the early seventeenth century, following the fashion of other Spanish and Portuguese colonies, bullfighting was the most important social amusement among the people of Buenos Aires, Montevideo and other locations in the Río de la Plata region. Local versions of the corridas, in which the torero kills a bull assisted by lancers on horseback and flagmen, were developed. Wild bulls and cows were mounted by expert riders (toreo a la americana), and complementary fights between teams of smart horse-riders armed with canes were organised (juegos de cañas). The latter game was eventually replaced by pato (‘duck’), in which two, three or four teams of several accomplished riders struggled for the possession of a rawhide bag containing a live duck, and to carry it to the big house of their own estancia. Among other popular pastimes among gauchos on horseback were pechadas, during which the players would violently shove each other until the winner would be the only one still on the mount, and maroma, which consisted of jumping from a high gate or tree on to the back of a horse galloping at full speed. [4] 

Certainly the most popular entertainment in the Pampas was horseracing. The local form, cuadreras, was performed during holidays or on the day after a successful round-up of wild cattle. The differences with British races were observed and accounted for by Essex Vidal:

Horse-racing is a favourite diversion of the people of Buenos Ayres, but it is so managed as to afford little sport to an Englishman. There are no horses trained for racing, nor is attention paid to the breed with a view to that object. No match is ever made for more than half a mile; but the ordinary distance is two quadras, or three hundred yards, and the race is decided in a single heat. To make amends for this, however, they will start more than twenty times, and after running a few yards, return, until the riders can agree that the start is equal (Essex Vidal 1820: 113).

There were never more than two horses in the same race, and the winner’s advantage must always be con luz between the horses, that is, upon arrival there should always be a distance between the first’s back and the second’s nose. It was not allowed for racers to jostle the adversaries off the course, but they could throw ‘one another out of their seat, which is allowed, if it can be accomplished; but with such expert riders it is extremely difficult, and therefore seldom attempted’ (113). In ‘The Defeat of Barragan’, William Bulfin tells of the intense conclusion of a race between the hero Castro and the villain Barragan, who

closes in and tries to jostle as they race. Castro, holding the top of his head against the whistling wind, turns his face sideways and, looking into the face of his adversary, while he raises his right hand, shouts, “I defy you to do it.” The other, flogging with all his might, edges in. It is an old dodge! He has done it scores of times before; but to-day he has met his master. As the breast of his horse touches Castro’s right leg, my companion [Castro] lifts his whip, which in the meantime he has gripped by the tail. Two swift strong cuts and he is free, […] amidst the cheers of his hundreds of backers leaves the bayo nowhere. Barragan […] is entirely beaten. Castro has the rest of the running to himself, and crosses the line twenty yards ahead of his rival (Bulfin 1997: 94).  


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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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