Chilean Rodeo – National Sport and National Conflict

The noisy roar rising from the excitable crowds of spectators, the piercing voice of the commentator which resounds throughout the arena – a scene found in many sporting events. And yet the mounting clouds of dust, the neigh of the horses, the spurs clicking in unison and the encouraging yells of the cowboys signal that this is none other than the Chilean national sport: the rodeo.

Being a national sport, the rodeo carries with it all that could be expected of any major sport: countless spectators and great honor for the champions. Not surprisingly, the cowboy, or huaso, garbed in leather boots with spurs, a traditional poncho and a woven hat is one of the Chile’s most recognizable national symbols.

Not to be deceived by its name, the Chilean rodeo is unlike any others practiced elsewhere. A team of two riders, or a collera, is drive a calf around a crescent-shaped corral, or medialuna. The riders use their horses to guide the calf, pinning it against the large cushions that line each side of the medialuna. Points are awarded for each time the calf is guided around the corral, to a total of three go arounds. Rodeos can be found year-round, with major competitions taking place in September to April. It’s also very common to see rodeos at the fondas, large outdoor gatherings, celebrating Chilean National Day every September. While some may think of cowboys as relics from an increasingly forgotten past, especially in a rapidly industrializing country, the rodeo continues to be a thriving sport that enjoys great popularity, especially in Chile’s rural areas.

History of the Chilean Rodeo

The seeds of the Chilean rodeo were planted in the 16th century by Governor Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza. Governor Hurtado, noticing that it was common for cattle to get lost due to a lack of proper identification and tracking, decided to institute a branding requirement. Every year, all the cattle from the surrounding countryside would be gathered in Santiago’s Plaza de Armas to be branded and categorized. The event became mandatory, which allowed cowboys the opportunity to become very skilled at driving their cattle from corral to corral. Naturally wanting to show off their herding skills against other cowboys, in particular separating and guiding a single calf, a competitive rodeo event was born, one that is very unique to Chile.

The rodeo became regulated by the end of the 17th century and was announced as Chile’s national sport on January 10th, 1962 by the National Council of Sports and the Chilean Olympic Committee. It is now regulated by the Federation of Chilean rodeo. The sport has strict regulations dictating that specially-bred Chilean horse are to be used exclusively and that the riders must wear traditional huaso clothing.

Although competitions happen year-round all over the country, the annual Campeonato Nacional de Rodeo, a nationwide rodeo championship, is held in Rancagua. It’s not unusual for riders to travel across the country to participate in major competitions in search of fame and prize money. The greatest rider in the history of the sport is considered to be Ramon Cardemil, having won the national title seven times.

Campeonato Nacional de Rodeo 2016 in Rancagua.

National Pride

The figure of the huaso, sharply dressed and able to display incredible horsemanship, is undoubtedly a striking image that inspires abundant national pride in Chileans and great admiration in visitors. The rodeo is truly an incredibly widespread sport, which may at times surpasses even football in popularity, especially in rural Chile where it is one of the primary pastimes. Proudly describing the sport, a Chilean is likely to point out the incredible horsemanship skills required, the dexterity of the well-bred horses which display a unique ability to run sideways and seemingly read the minds of their ride.

In rural towns, or pueblos, the rodeo signals celebration. Young and old alike gather to cheer for their favorites in a carnival-like atmosphere surrounded by music, dancing and food. It’s a place for the huasos, to display not only their abilities, but also their best garb, sporting colorful ponchos, decorative sashes, leather accessories and finely made leather boots with large spurs. Participating in the rodeo or cheering on a selected favorite rider is what for many defines Chilean pride and is seen as sign of love for one’s land and traditions.

Criticism and Controversy

Despite its popularity, the rodeo has been the subject of increasing criticism and controversy. One of its main opponents are animal rights organizations which argue that using an animal for entertainment cannot be ethically considered a sport due to the cruelty involved. While those in support of the rodeo argue that the padded walls of the medialuna and the constant monitoring of the calf’s ability to continue insure minimal damage to the animal, animal activists point out that as a result of the heavy force of the horses’ strikes the calf is still likely to be left with bruises, rib fractures or internal bleeding, not to mention psychological damage.

The horses may also suffer lesions and bruises from continual blows against the calf. The calves rarely enter the medialuna willingly and hence are often forced to do so with the use of kicks, slaps, tail twisting or electric shocks, according to Mauricio Serrano, spokesman for the NGO Animal Libre. While it is true that the Chilean rodeo is more humane in the sense that the animal is not killed, it is the lack of agency of an animal to participate in a violent sport that raises ethical issues for many opposed to it.

Animal rights groups have been very vocal in their condemnation of the sport, often entering the medialuna mid-competition which has resulted in violent confrontation with the huasos. In 2010, a female seventeen-year-old protestor was lassoed, beaten and dragged out of the medialuna.

On September 16, 2018, thirty activists from the NGO Animal Libre entered the medialuna in Parque Intercomunal – Padre Hurtado La Reina with placards in protest of the event. Twenty three were arrested but later released.

Only for the Elite

The rodeo has also been criticised as being elitist and a false representation of the traditional cowboys, inevitably exposing deep-set socio-economic inequalities. The rodeo came from humble beginnings as a local gathering of unassuming ranch-hands displaying their abilities. Ranch-hands were traditionally hired by farmers to assist with various duties for what usually amounted to a small salary for long days of hard work. Their lives were rarely an equivalent to the romanticized ideals of the rodeo and the fame of the modern huaso heroes.

While enjoyed as a spectator sport by many around the country, only the wealthy, or at least well-off farmers, can afford to participate in the rodeo. The strict regulation that require the use of a well-bred horse and immaculate huaso garb mean that many who cannot afford these luxuries also cannot participate in the sport. In addition to the horse and the clothing, the rider must also be able to afford to keep land and purchase the necessary equipment, all this as well paying the fee needed to enter the competition, which can be as much as $2,500,000 Chilean pesos, a cost that is unrealistic for many.

The conflicting nature of the rodeo is that the term huaso, when used by city dwellers, carries a connotation of the poor, yet traditional farmer, while the actual huasos that are preserved by the competitive rodeos are the affluent farmers in perfectly kept costumes riding on highly prized horses. Invariably, the rodeo points out the fact that, while Chile enjoys being hailed as the most developed country in South America, it is also ranked as the most unequal in the OECD, with the most affluent members of the population earning 27 times as much as the least fortunate.

An Uncertain Future

The Chilean rodeo is a ball of intricately tied and conflicting connotations. It is a national sport with humble origins that is arguably reserved for the elite; a tradition that distances itself from other rodeos in which the animal is killed and yet condemned for unethical treatment of animals, and yet, at the crux of it, the rodeo is surrounded by images of the idyllic countryside and the traditional amusement of a simpler past, which may or may not have actually existed. Arguably, these are images that any industrializing country always desires to keep close to its heart whenever it needs to tap into its national pride and nostalgia.

The rodeo is unarguably enjoyed by large crowds all across Chile and exhibited to all visitors as one of the country’s most proud symbols, and yet only time will tell whether the new generation’s changing perception of animal rights and class differences will dislodge the rodeo from the popularity it currently enjoys or whether it will simply continue to endure as Chile’s beloved national sport.

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