A Different Kind of Horse for a Different Kind of Cowboy

When I started writing HONEYMOON WITH THE RANCHER, I figured that a special kind of cowboy – an Argentine Gaucho – rode a special kind of horse. Turns out I was right, and today I’m going to introduce you to the Criollo.

This native horse of Argentina descends from the horses of the Iberian conquest. When parties went to explore and conquer South America, horses were shipped to the river Plate from Iberia, and as in all the Spanish and Portuguese conquests, they brought the toughest, hardiest horses they could. Conditions were tough on such voyages with insufficient food and water. Many horses died or were unable to regain health. Whether it was the primitive characteristics that cropped out under the wild conditions in the New World, or whether some of the shipments were of rather primitive Iberian horses in the first place, fact is that until fairly recently, the Argentine Criollo and the Criollo in general, bore a considerable resemblance to the ancient Sorraia wild horse of Portugal and Spain (zebro, or encebro).

During long campaigns with Indians, many horses escaped or were turned loose. Also after destruction of Buenos Aires by Indians, many horses were driven into the wild. Natural selection resulted in physical hardiness and the survivors became the progenitors of the Argentine Criollo breed.

The Criollo horse is still the choice of the South American cowboys, the best-known of which is Argentina’s gaucho. On cattle drives or gathers, the Criollos are usually ridden for a week, then returned to pasture and substituted by new ones. All along, the native grass is their only feed. Horses on the ranches are not necessarily registered Criollos, in fact, they seldomly are. The registered Criollo horse has become too valuable to be exposed to the dangers and hardships of many ranches, but those horses used for ranch work are still criollos in the original sense of the word. It is a bit confusing that the breed carries the name of a horse that, traditionally, was not a breed, but a wild or semi-wild horse without a pedigree. Now the pedigreed horses carry that same name: Criollo. In that respect, too, the situation is similar to that of the mustangs of North America, where mustang also described a wild-living horse without a pedigree, but registries exist that use the term to describe their registered animals.

Just like from the work of the North American cowboy, several events resp. contests have derived from the South American herdsmen’s work, some are similar to those in North America, some are quite unique. The Criollo horse excels in all of them.

Criollos of Central and South America were the basis for several specialized breeds, such as the different Paso breeds, or the Mangalargas of Brazil. If you’ve never seen a Paso in motion before, it’s a real treat. I never got to ride one but my sister did, and she said it was like gliding on a magic carpet.

The Criollo horse became only really known beyond its homeland through the famous ride by Swiss Aim Tschiffely with two Criollos from Buenos Aires to New York City. The two horses, Mancha and Gato, were 15 and 16 years of age, respectively, when he set out. He was received by the U.S. president in Washington when he arrived there three years later, after approx. 13,500 miles that took him, among other hardships, over the over 18,000 feet high Condor Pass in Bolivia. That both, Mancha and Gato, afterwards lived to be over 40 years of age is further testimony to the extraordinary toughness and vitality of the Criollo horse.
In some ways, I learned that the Criollo is practically a symbol for the strength and resilience of the Argentine people.

HONEYMOON WITH THE RANCHER is out now from Harlequin Romance.

*info provided by http://www.horseshowcentral.com/horse_breeds/criollo_horse/421/1

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11 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Horse for a Different Kind of Cowboy”

  1. Donna,
    What an interesting post! I don’t know much about horses–always wanted one, but Mom and Dad never would “go for it”–I think they didn’t know about them either and thought one would be too expensive. I had no idea a horse could live so long. Forty yeats is a long time, for sure! Thanks so much for this–I always like to learn about things I don’t know much about, and this was really very informative and interesting. I hope you are feeling better today!
    Cheryl P.

  2. I’ve never heard of the Criollo, Donna. Thanks for a lesson on a fascinating horse. The gaucho is a tough breed of man. He would need a horse to match.
    And you’re pretty tough, too, lady, getting this blog up when you were sick. Hope you’re on the mend.

  3. What a glorious horse, Donna, and a terrific history. I have an Argentine friend and promised her I’ll have a gaucho hero someday LOL. I loved learning abouta the Criollo. Thanks for a great post. oxoxox

  4. I am so glad to learn about another horse. Such a sturdy animal!

    Hope you are feeling better.

    Peace, Julie

  5. Hi everyone! I’m a little late coming in to check comments because I’m actually editing the book due in a few days AND I’m blowing my nose at an alarming rate. I avoided being sick all bloody winter even when people around me were dropping like flies. The law of averages has caught up. At least my throat isn’t as sore, but the weird humming in my left ear is distracting, lol!

    The Criollo is interesting, isn’t it? And 40 years IS a long time (and longer than horses usually live!). One of the best things about this job is learning new things. Maybe next time I’ll talk about the differences between a western saddle and a gaucho saddle…lol!

  6. Donna, what an excellent post! Thank you for sharing all this fabulous info about the Criollo. I have a cousin who trains horses for a living and he loves smaller smart horses. 🙂

    Cheers (and get better soon!), Julie Rowe

  7. Thanks for the interesting and informative post. As ethnocentric as we are, I was aware of the mustangs, but never thought much about the spanish horses which would have gone wild in South America. In many areas, the conditions are more harsh than here in the States and the horses would have had to be tougher to survive. Just looking at the pictures, you can tell they are a sturdy breed.
    I had heard of the Paso and all of it has been good. If I remember correctly, there are several groups that ride them in the Rose Parade every year.

  8. Hi Julie, Estella and Patricia!

    Julie – looking forward to seeing you in New York!

    Patricia, I’m glad you mentioned the mustangs. HOnestly when I was researching I kept thinking of Hidalgo. Of course watching Viggo Mortenson for a few hours isn’t a hardship…

  9. Enjoyed your post, Donna. I’ve never seen a Criollo but after just paying the farrier $140, a horse with tough feet sounds great! Thanks for sharing your research.

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