Colombian Horse Culture | Eje Cafetero
The Eje Cafetero, or Coffee Axis, is a special place for discovering the Colombian Horse Culture in real time. Yet, it is a world which isn't openly advertised like other activities and membership is often quite exclusive due to the cost, and location of horse ranches accessible by public transportation, and jeeps.
Colombian Horse Culture
In other words, this is a culture where access is limited and membership often happens via birth and vocation. Many backwards seeming traditions are still observed that otherwise might have been left behind in a more developed country.
There is a refreshingly irreverent aspect to this world of adrenaline and confidence, because caution and safety nets are pretty much thrown to the wind. Helmets are optional. Alcohol can be drank if you feel like it. Cerveza, or beer, too.
You can even stay up late, party, dance, drink, and watch the fancy horses parade past with each rider trying to show more pizazz than the previous one. I only ask that you don't choose to drink and ride, because accidents can happen.
The dark side of Colombian horse culture, much like that of the American horse races, there are often shady elements in and around the scene where having money to participate is necessary, and the image is attractive to some underworld types.
You cannot simply show up to a horse ranch and ask to pet their prize show pony. I will try to give you some tips on getting involved in a healthy way, and where!
The light side, is that there are also many good hardworking traditionalist country folks who are also participating and who dominate the scene versus the first impression I may have given you. And, this is the rule, not the exception.
Arriero, or Mule Teamster
The story of Colombian horse culture includes the powerful horses and mules of the Arrieros, who carried supplies and people from one place to another.
Today, you can still see a practical application of the mule teamsters for people who live in places with very poor access roads, where shipping production to the pueblo is safer, cheaper, and in some cases easier, on mules, rather than in a jeep.
Paso Fino Colombiano
The center of this culture is the horse type characterized by the Colombian Paso Fino, and the Caballo Criollo, which is a hybridized Paso with either Percheron, quarter horse, appaloosa, or paint horse typification. The dominant horse culture is always a Paso Fino, except in Los Llanos (or plains), where a quarter horse type is more dominant and a rodeo scene is present.
The Paso Fino Colombiano, is also typified by three different gaits - Paso, Trocha, Galope. Usually each horse focuses solely on that gait and its comportment while maintaining it with the energy and brilliance that people adore seeing. This isn't about healthy quiet minds in working horse, but more focused on bold, blustering movements with style, and crowd appeal.
One of the easiest ways to access horses and the thrill of a quality mount, is in the ecological, or traditional Colombian cabalgatas. Not for the faint hearted, you must be up to a thrill and a challenge. So much of the psychology I see here has more to do with internal dialogue and confidence level.
People with a high level of confidence, who may only be beginner riders, tend to fare well with the type of horse rental found in a Cabalgata situation. But, if you are a person who has a low confidence level, often gain a new sense of self confidence, by learning to navigate the obstacles of your average cabalgata, and realizing that they can do really cool things. The horses themselves, in my experience, are quite noble. They aren't lazy slugs, but they will often take care of the beginner riders.
The Colombian cabalgata is separated into two categories, a traditionalist cruise through the pueblo stopping off at bars and cantinas, or an "ecologic" one where a group rides off into the countryside with a packed lunch and evening after-party at a ranch or stable. Both are very distinct in their approach but common in that aguardiente is a accompanying beverage of choice.
In the Ecological Cabalgata, riders will often learn more about nature, horses, and life in the Colombian outback. Music is optional in this situation, and in the private rides I run, you can opt out, or opt-in, and even bring your own memory stick with your favorite songs ready to go, and we put them on.
In the more traditional weekend Cabalgatas, riders often opt to wear long sleeved button up shirts, Aguadeño hats (a type of cowboy hat), and low heeled boots, sturdy shoes, or rubber boots during rainy season. The thin cotton ponchos are used because they create enough of a barrier to resist the chill of evening, or to wipe the sweat of dry season days. These weekend rides always have after-parties featuring music and entertainment.
Equine Expositions, or Exposición Equino
For the money sport side of horses in Colombia, are the Exposiciones Equinos, where the best of the best put their best hoof forward.
They are like American horse shows in their configuration but completely Latin culture in their execution - that is to say, more of a sense of drama and intensity.
Classes in Equine Expos consist of structure, breed prototype, or potential, and showing off the prancing skills of the horse and rider. Mostly men compete. Many are paid riders, not the actual owners. There are classes for women, and owners do ride, but having kept much of its traditions, it is still quite a male-dominated world and atmosphere, where women are more for show and less for participation, much like the horses themselves.
As a woman who grew up showing horses, it took a little bit of effort on my part to have the confidence to dive in and poke around in this testosterone charged atmosphere. In the end, my curiosity won this round, and I found people who spoke kindly to me and introduced me to their world.
When able, I plan to return again to the next big local show to compare my experience now, with my previous experience, and see how the Equine Expo feels after being involved with the Cabalgata culture.
It would even be fun to get involved with a barn, participate in a show, ride someone else's horse in a class to have the experience. A new item for my bucket-list: Show a horse in Colombia. Why not? Life is short, so I intend to live it.
How to Get Involved
If you are in Colombia, the easiest way to try your hand at horse riding is to go on a cabalgata in Aranzazu, Caldas. The cost is not prohibitive, the quality is extremely good, and you will live an adventure! Why Aranzazu, for me they have been the most approachable, friendly and open to outsiders. Email [email protected], for more info, or to create your own horse riding experience.
Feed stores, tack shops and veterinary supply stores usually have the horse expo posters up on their windows, or walls. For Pereira, the horse show grounds are down in Cerritos on the Via La Virginia next to the CAI (police station). In Manizales, it is Expo-Feria on the Pan-Americana highway via Bogota.
In a future post, I hope to have horse-riding school information for Pereira to share. It is a new project I am trying to get launched.
Based in the Coffee Axis of Colombia, Erin, an independent journalist and photographer from Reno, Nevada USA, spends her time between the cities of Manizales, and Pereira, while exploring the surrounding pueblos (or small towns) on weekends. She lives with her mother, who is also from the United States, and her son - who was born in Pereira. Her favorite things are travel, tango, tai chi, and horses! Read more about lifestyle, gastronomy tourism, and her adventures on www.coffeeaxistravel.com