Thursday, March 15, 2007

Article: It's hard being a horse

Horses are one of the great loves of my life so it might be surprising to learn that I passed up an opportunity to ride while in Venezuela last month.

We were staying at a cattle ranch that also accommodates a few tourists near the town of San Fernando de Apure in central Venezuela. The hatos, as these ranches are called, typically encompass thousands of acres of grazing land and are patrolled by the Venezuelan version of the cowboy. The llaneros ride scrappy little horses that bear little resemblance to American Quarter Horses, their cowboy equivalent.

Life is hard for the llaneros and their horses. Half of the year, most of the land is flooded. All year round, caiman and crocodiles lurk along the edges of the water holes. Pumas and jaguars roam the land at night. Distances are vast and the few roads double as dams, ineffectively holding the marsh at bay. Moving cattle generally involves herding them along roadsides where the land is most likely to remain dry and passable.

There is an element of the romantic in the llanero. I’d read a lot about their solitary existence, their music and unusual dress that includes sandals instead of boots while riding. I was curious to see them in person and my first chance came at the hato. When we arrived we were told that we could go on to two excursions per day, and one of them could be a horseback trek through the ranch. It sounded interesting and fun but I’ve had bad experiences riding other people’s horses so I hesitated.

As we walked around the ranch house that first day, I saw a few Venezuelan horses up close. I’ve always said that all horses are beautiful but the first horse I saw proved me wrong. Its white coat was speckled with scars and bites, red skin ringed its nose and eyes, its knees were so low on its legs that it could have been walking on them. It wandered around the buildings, ugly and unkempt and looking for food.

Next I saw a little dun horse, just skin and bones, standing saddled under a tree. A llanero strode up, untied it and mounted. The horse acted almost as if it had never been ridden before. Only a severe bit provided any control to the rider who managed to straighten him out after taking a few spins on the haunches. Did these so-called “expert horsemen” not bother to train their horses at all?

As I watched the llanero ride off, I noticed the horse was gaited, possibly a smooth-riding relative of the Peruvian Paso horses so highly prized in the US. Although I was intrigued by the horse’s movement, I resolved not to ride. All of the horses near the ranch house were scraggly and skinny. It would be cruel to ride them.

A couple of days later we passed a pickup truck with two horses standing in the bed as it sped down the highway. Rails had been installed to provide some height to the walls. My driver laughed when he saw me take a photo. I explained that this would never happen in the United States, it would be against the law. He didn’t understand why. The horses seemed calm even though a stiff wind blew in their faces. I hoped they remained that way and that the driver never had a reason to brake suddenly.

On one excursion we stopped at the home of some llaneros, far from any paved road. A little gray horse stood saddled and tied to the fence outside the shack that housed the extended family. This horse was in better condition and his tack was both colorful and complex. Finally my vision of the romantic life of the llanero acquired some validation. Later as I watched three llaneros ride across the plain on their small horses, I thought that these men matched their animals, sculpted by the harsh life they lead together. Living much closer to their horses and relying on them for their livelihood, the remote llaneros cared for them better.

Everywhere I went in Los Llanos I saw this division: at some places the horses were thin and sickly looking with mangy coats lacking any shine or luster, in others, horses looked about with bright, inquisitive eyes, running across green pastures to investigate visitors. I guess this is what happens when there are no laws regulating the treatment of animals, horses like other pets and livestock suffer or thrive at the whim of their owners.

Although I enjoyed my stay at the hato, I will not go back. I can’t support an establishment that allows animals to suffer. There are other hatos in Los Llanos and if I return, I will stay at one of those.

Photo: Even the ugliest horse in the world should look better than this.

Photo: I wish I could take this horse home and feed it a good meal.
Photo: My horse Ribbon showing what a well-fed horse looks like from this angle. Notice that the backbone and hips do not protrude.
Photo: Safety last.
Photo: Please don't hit the brakes!
Photo: Horse in typical llanero tack.
Photo: Los tres llaneros!
Photo: A happy, healthy horse in a nice pasture


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Con tu aporte ayudaremos al gremio Ecuestre Venezolano said...

Hola buen día, Con tu aporte ayudaremos al gremio Ecuestre Venezolano
Colabora enviándonos por correo todo el material que quieras relacionado con Jinetes y Caballos, y con gusto los publicaremos respetando los créditos de quienes correspondan.
Te envió un fuerte abrazo y deseo que tengas prosperidad y exito!!

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