Why am I Perplexed by the Gaucho Festival?

The day before the gaucho festival – horses on the move everywhere.

The day before the gaucho festival – horses on the move everywhere. We slept right next to a horse paddock.

I’m in two minds about the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha that we spent 5 days experiencing in Tacuarembó , Uruguay.

Cultural Heritage or Cruelty and Sexism?

On the one hand, while travelling in Argentina, southern Brazil and Uruguay you can’t help but notice the gaucho culture that pervades rural life – and sometimes even city life. You see them on their horses along the roads, sometimes herding cattle or other horses, sometimes with just a dog. We spotted one at the San Telmo markets in Buenos Aires in traditional dress, with a stall full of gaucho paraphernalia. In Brazil we followed hand-painted signs along a back road towards a canyon; when we found it, we also found the owner of the property in gaucho dress.

Gauchos on horses, and then more gauchos on horses: this is what the annual celebration of gaucho culture in Tacuarembo is all about.

Gauchos on horses, and then more gauchos on horses: this is what the annual celebration of gaucho culture in Tacuarembo is all about.

Everyone we spoke to about the Patria Gaucha in Uruguay insisted that it was the most important celebration of Uruguay’s heritage. Since we were there and had the time, we went.

A gaucho compound: timber, mud and thatch hut with requisite horses and gauchos.

A gaucho compound: timber, mud and thatch hut with requisite horses and gauchos.

There must have been thousands of horses! There were also enough gauchos, along with their families, to manage them. Almost all of them were dressed for the occasion in some type of gaucho gear. The women were often in traditional long, frilly dresses, and when they were on a horse the dresses flowed back over its rump. Even the children were dressed up. It was quite an impressive sight. Many of the spectators were also dressed in some form of their gaucho best, although the distinction between them and the participants was usually quite obvious.

Spectators at the arena: even the young boy has his knife in the back of his gaucho belt.

Spectators at the arena: even the young boy has his knife in the back of his gaucho belt.

Activities at the festival included various events in the arena. These seemed to be popular with everyone, although we had some difficulty following the programme and the progress of the competitions due to our limited Spanish. A lot of it seemed to be gauchos hopping onto lively horses which tried hard to buck them off. We also happened on an event where the gaucho was showing off his horse management skills, including things like the horse not getting spooked by twirling lassoes or other moving objects. Some of them even crawled around under the horse’s legs to prove the horse wouldn’t trample them. This was quite the juxtaposition to the bucking horse battle! The youngsters also showed their horse skills in competitions like slalom drum races.

 

Another competition which was particularly interesting involved different groups building several buildings in a small compound. They were constructed in traditional ways out of rocks, mud and even turf. They then displayed their heritage through various activities, objects and costumes. All had a fireplace where there was constantly either a cauldron bubbling away, or some part of an animal grilling asado-style. This was probably the most informative part of the whole festival for us, and we spent a lot of time wandering in and out of the constructions. The public were asked to vote for their favourite ‘estancia’ with a tear-off portion of the entry ticket. We voted but have no idea who won.

 

The whole event was interesting, but I started out by saying that I am in two minds about it.

So, on the other hand, I am very much against cruelty to animals and a lot of what we saw in the arena verged toward it. For the bucking events the horses often fought hard with the handlers at the hitching post; rearing up, pulling away, rolling over, and even lying down and refusing to budge. The handlers then used various means of force to get the animal to do what they wanted; punching, kicking, pushing, whipping, and even bringing in a horse with a rider to push the horse into position. When they finally had it subdued, with a blindfold to help the process, the rider would mount.

Cooperation is not the name of this game. The horse shows his unwillingness to play in the arena at the gaucho festival.

Cooperation is not the name of this game. The horse shows his unwillingness to play in the arena at the gaucho festival.

Most of the action we saw was bareback. The rider would hold onto a leather strap, and also the mane of the horse, in order to stay on. Once the horse was released – and the blindfold removed – the horse would take off, bucking madly. The rider would beat it with some sort of whip, which seemed to have a spherical shape on the end. This continued until he was bucked off, or removed by two other horsemen when the bell rang. It was only after seeing a photo Juergen took with a strong zoom that I realised they also stayed on by digging their spurs into the horse’s belly! We also noticed that riders sometimes came off with hands full of mane hair.

A sight that is hard to watch: sharp spurs in the horse’s belly keeps the gaucho mounted.

A sight that is hard to watch: sharp spurs in the horse’s belly keeps the gaucho mounted.

There were also bucking events where the horses were saddled and had stirrups and reins. In these contests the gaucho only had a large piece of cloth, which he waved around the horse, more so than hitting it. Some still wore spurs but they were much smaller. This was a little easier for me to watch, but the horses were no more willing at the hitching post.

Slightly more humane action in the arena at the gaucho festival: bucking horses with saddles and stirrups this time.

Slightly more humane action in the arena at the gaucho festival: bucking horses with saddles and stirrups this time.

We have two short videos from the horse events in the arena at Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha:

 

I may appear to be a bit naïve, but I’ve never really seen anything like this before. Is it cruel to the horses – or just a normal part of the culture where horses and humans work together?

Another thing that disturbed me at the festival was the stereotypical roles of the sexes. In this culture it appears that the men are the action figures and the women dress up in frilly dresses and look beautiful. They do this from the back of a horse and are very comfortable there, but none of them are in the arena showing off their horse skills.

A beautiful woman proudly riding her horse in the gaucho parade. In the background some young girls in their frilly dresses.

A beautiful woman proudly riding her horse in the gaucho parade. In the background some young girls in their frilly dresses.

This is propagated in the next generation with toddlers and even babies dressed like little gauchos if they’re boys. Of course the girls are in frilly dresses not unlike those of their mothers. There were however, girls competing in the youth activities in the arena, like the slalom barrel races. And just maybe this is only ‘playing dress up’ for this occasion, so my reservations on this point are not so strongly founded in fact. Either way, I still have reservations.

 

Horses holding up the traffic in Tacuarembo. At the end of the gaucho festival the horses were driven back to their paddocks outside town.

Horses holding up the traffic in Tacuarembo. At the end of the gaucho festival the horses were driven back to their paddocks outside town.


On the last evening I was delighted to see a woman of my age walk past, who was dressed in what would probably be considered men’s gaucho gear. She looked great, but no chance of a quick photo.

My conclusion is that what I saw made me somewhat uncomfortable.
Would I go to a gaucho festival again?
Probably not.
Would I recommend it to others who have the opportunity?
Yes, because it gives a real insight into the culture and heritage that is so important in this part of South America.

I would love to read your reactions and thoughts in the ‘comments’ below!

 

Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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40 Responses

  1. Sierra says:

    Honestly, sounds like an event I would like to go to…a lot like the rodeos we have here in the Western USA!

    • Yasha says:

      It sounds like it’s a part of your heritage and that you would have none of the qualms about it that I experienced. It does seem to depend on what we’re used to, I guess.

  2. Patricia says:

    This all would leave me with two minds as well. I suppose if I could just look at it as an important symbol to them of their heritage then I would want to see it. I would try hard not to judge it with modern eyes. However, the whips and spurs into the horses would make me cringe no matter how open-minded I would try to be.

    • Yasha says:

      That’s just how I felt. The action was far enough away for it not to be right ‘in your face’ – but the zoom on the camera brought the reality into strong focus. But, I really don’t want to be judgmental.

  3. I’ve never heard of this so it was a very interesting read. I really like the second photo and you really got amazing shots of the horses!

  4. Tonya says:

    The rodeos here would be very similar and we went to a few here in Florida. Not knowing enough, I’ve never been sure what to make of them either!

    • Yasha says:

      Tonya, if you don’t like to see animals treated badly then I wouldn’t recommend a rodeo. I certainly have no desire to go again. But the festival outside the arena was quite interesting in an historical way.

  5. Valid questions Yasha, and food for thought.
    Here in the north Philippines, until very recently it was heritage/custom/culture – whatever word you want to use – was head cutting. Tribal wars, and not much was needed to cut off somebody’s head. Cannibalism was heritage/culture/custom in some Brazilian indigenous groups until the 1950s. The question you could ask is whether heritage/custom/culture that has existed for ages, is a good argument to either enjoy it and/or we should keep it. And in this case that goes with the way animals are treated as well as the obvious difference in the role of women and men in this tradition.
    Have you looked at it from this angle? And what are your thoughts about it?

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks for commenting Karin-Marijke. I think it is an interesting angle to look at it from. I do think that there is a time to stand up and say ‘enough’ to some of these ‘cultural’ practices. Humanity should be evolving into something better, although when I look around me I can see a lot of evidence against that! I really enjoyed the history on display at the festival, but I won’t be heading into any more rodeo arenas.

    • ines says:

      This is such an interesting topic!

      The difficulty I see with letting traditions go, is that there are values attached to them. How can you convince someone that things like “honor”, “family”, “bravery”, “wit” and “self-determination” are not worthy anymore? We need to work on re-defining those values so they are no longer attached to that tradition, but instead create new ones to celebrate them.

      When protesters go to this type of event, the people that participate take a huge offence, because in a way you are questioning their identity and values. The conversation can´t be about “being evil” or “old fashion”… Even though the practice may feel horrible, we need to make an effort to understand it in order to promote a new understanding of the values.

      • Ines, to me we’re talking about different things here. Yasha’s question is, as I read it, a question of ‘what do I feel about this’. I have come to the conclusion that for me this type of working with (with you like to call it that) animals is no longer acceptable. That is my thought, my feeling; that doesn’t mean everybody has to share it.
        However, that is quite something different than going there and then criticizing the people. Either you go and enjoy, or stay away, at least when in a role as a tourist. If you like to start the discussion – e.g. as an animal activist – I think an event like this is not the right place or moment to do so. To compare that with another situation: it makes sense to me to e.g. FB pages to condemn Sea World; it’s ridiculous for me to go to a Sea World show and then condemn the workers there about what they are doing. Makes sense?

        • Yasha says:

          I’d never been to a rodeo before and really felt like I couldn’t criticize directly. But I needed to raise the question because I was certainly uncomfortable about it.

  6. Ivy says:

    This looks like such a neat experience. I’m going to sound really dumb by saying this but I really want to know- Is a gaucho like the South American version of a cowboy?

    • Yasha says:

      Hi Ivy, I guess they are, but their history is quite a bit different from the American version of a cowboy. We hope to have a blog post soon more specifically about the South American gaucho culture and its history. So watch for it!

  7. Eva Lamot says:

    This is the first thing I ever read about the gaucho festival!
    It must be cool to check it out once, but I guess I would feel the same as you did.
    I can’t bear the animal cruelty and would never support it!
    It’s their tradition and, therefore, normal for them. Hopefully, they will change the tradition a little bit over the next years.
    Thanks for sharing this incredibly interesting article!

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Eva. It is difficult. On the one hand, as travellers we don’t like to criticise the culture we are visiting and trying to understand. And on the other hand we can’t condone things like animal cruelty. The more I look at that photo of the spurs in the horse’s belly, the more determined I am not to go to another rodeo. Saying that, the rest of the festival was interesting from an historical point of view.

  8. ines says:

    As an Uruguayan I can say you are right about the animal cruelty. When the festival is in Montevideo there are always protesters. We do have tensions between the traditionalist and the people who think we should be over it (I’m on that last group!). But the gauchos they don´t even see it as cruelty… they actually have a lot of respect and love for their animals… for them is the normal way to interact with them… it´s hard to watch but afterwards they take very good care of them.

    About the sexism… Yes it is true but most of it is just play dress up. Those women ride since they are toddlers just like men… They just don’t show it on the festival. But of course is sexist, it’s an eighteen and nineteen century culture!! And the festival is about re-creating what that period was like, so we could say is very accurate!! But as Uruguay is very divided between the “big” city and the country side, is easy to understand why they want to keep their traditions alive and why they are proud of them.

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Ines, for this comment from the inside. It helps me to understand the event and also my reaction to it.

      • Not sure whether to respond here or below the previous, constructive comment of Ines… Thought remains the same. Whether you talk about that ‘for them it is the normal way to interact with animals’, or ‘you are questioning their identity and values’, you could draw a parallel with way of reasoning to another topic: slavery. Slave holders also argued it was within their tradition, identity, and hey, let’s face it, the bible was a strong fundament of arguments in favor of apartheid and (as a result) slavery.

        So while I see how valuable those arguments are for a particular culture, such as e.g. discussed here, that doesn’t in itself justify the behavior. Does that make sense?

        On a different, more positive note, I will add that what I particularly like about the gaucho culture is the male costumes. Almost everywhere in the world the men are the first to lose their traditional dress, swapping it for the jeans and t-shirts, while women continue to wear theirs (also in daily life). So that’s a part I find refreshing of the gaucho culture.

        • Yasha says:

          Thanks Karin-Marijke. It is certainly an interesting discussion, and there are no hard and fast rules. It’s so much dependent on personal ethics and what we will, and will not, tolerate. I sometimes wish for absolute ‘right’ but I don’t think it exists.

  9. Taylor says:

    I think seeing events from different cultures is fascinating, it really gives you a sense of culture that not many people take the time to see. I think that this is still some form of abuse for the animals unfortunately, but even just riding horses is just for human sport as I’m sure they’d just like to run without a saddle on!

    • Yasha says:

      I agree Taylor. There is no absolute right and wrong in these ethical situations. There is a degree which some people find cruel and others find ok. But I choose not to watch this type of event again because for me it is cruel to the horses. Outside the arena the event was really fascinating.

  10. Tiana says:

    So interesting, I love horses so I would probably love this!

    • Yasha says:

      If you love horses, you may not love the way they are treated, which is the main point of my post. I had real problems with that.

  11. I completely understand where you are coming from. I love horses and grew up riding them so it makes me feel sad if I see any cruelty towards them.. to the point that I probably couldn’t bear to see something like this.
    Thanks for sharing.

  12. Good day and thank you for a great article. I am French, horse fanatic and I live since few month in Argentina near Bariloche in a place called Angustura. I have been to 3 fiesta gaucha and I think it will be the last time I will go. Most of the fiestas I went to were rural events, one near Junin de los Andes, on in l a Angustura and the other one in Traful. I totally agree with your comments despite the fact that I will not totally agree on the animal cruelty. If you compare to American rodeo there is a huge difference, especially in the way that the horse is rigged. Nevertheless I will not go back to those fiesta unless it is to have a good choripan.

    • Yasha says:

      Thank you for your comment Bernard. I think your comment on comparison is very appropriate. We all make our own judgements in situations like this and it is really about the degree of the act, and how we perceive it.

  13. Rosemary says:

    What an interesting post and you raise really valid questions. Having traveled through South America, I was also exposed to Gaucho culture in the Pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. Though we did not get a chance to see a festival as you did, I would have attended one to understand the local cultures. In terms of the animal cruelty and sexism…my only question would be “how much was that for show” vs. reality?

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks Rosemary. In the area of gender equality, I could see that it may have been for show – exhibiting the historic roles rather than the present day ones. But with the horses, you just have to look at the 4th full size picture on the page – the spurs in the belly are not really for ‘show’, I think… The festival, outside the arena, was totally fascinating.

  14. Maggie says:

    It doesn’t sound like something I could sit through. I’m in South America at the moment also and I get upset seeing horses or cows tethered to poles! I’m usually vegan but have had to eat a bit of dairy to accommodate traveling, but the animal thing is a big issue for me. The feminist part I’m more torn about. I see women dressed in very old fashioned traditional dress and I feel like many women here don’t have a lot of opportunities like I have had growing up in the US. But I also understand that traditional gender roles are a huge part of the culture here, so I’d say I have a harder time coming to a conclusion on that part. Either way, great pictures and thanks for sharing the story!

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks for this comment. I like to know what people really think. If you ever get to Tacuarembo during gaucho festival, my advice would be to stay away from the arena and spend a day wandering around the rest of the space. I enjoyed the historical presentations even though I have my reservations regarding the gender roles.

  15. Inês says:

    This sounds like a really interesting cultural event, but I get where you’re coming from for sure. Here in Portugal we have a tradition of “tourada” (bull-fighting) that not only seems like animal-cruelty to me, but it also has the sexist side to it (although I do have to admit there have been some women breaking into the scene as bullfigthers). For me personally, I wouldn’t attend an event like that. Our culture is constantly changing: traditions like that are bound to disappear eventually, and that’s okay! We have plenty of traditions that were difficult to let go of at the time but we no longer follow today because they are sexist (i.e. women not being allowed to learn to read/write), cruel (i.e. corporal punishment), racist (i.e. slavery). I have a feeling those kinds of events will go down the same road.

    • Yasha says:

      You are so right, and I hadn’t thought of it exactly in those terms. I suppose sometimes we just have to have faith that these kinds of things will pass as humanity evolves. And hopefully the best parts of the culture will be retained. Although, people will always differ on what is right and what is wrong.

  16. It parallels the American rodeo circuit in many ways. I’m not a rodeo fan due to the animal cruelty but I would probably attend an event like this if it represents the local culture. Great story!

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do recommend the festival, but if you have a problem with cruelty to animals I’d recommend staying out of the Arena. You actually have to pay extra for entry to the arena so it’s more economical too…

  17. Jen says:

    As a fellow animal lover and a vegan, this is not something I would be able to attend. To me, it’s inhumane to treat an animal in a certain way when he has no voice to express his pain and suffering. It’s tough as a traveler, because you want to respect and support the customs and culture of another country, yet there’s the dichotomy of sticking to your own values. I appreciate your candid observations of the events.

    • Yasha says:

      I understand your point completely. But this only occurred in the arena. There were many people about on horses in the other parts of the festival grounds who apparently took great care of their animals. I’m not sure why this cruelty for entertainment and competition seems to be part of the human experience. The Romans did it – with humans being the object of cruelty! Doesn’t do to dwell on it too much or I lose all faith in the human race.

  18. Your photo showing the spurs digging into the horse’s belly is sad. I don’t have a problem with the women wearing beautiful dresses though – if I was there I would wear a nice dress too.

    • Yasha says:

      I do think the lovely dresses on the women were for the event and didn’t really reflect their everyday life, but I do think it is necessary to check what stereotypes people instill in the next generation. As someone commented, the costumes are just ‘for the show’. The cruelty to the horses is very disturbing to me – and I’m sure it goes on in all sorts of places all over the world.

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