THE GAUCHO DERBY

THE GAUCHO DERBY

“He has taken his first lessons in riding before he is well able to walk,” said David Christison in the 1882 Journal of the Anthropological Institute. Christison was referring to the South American Gaucho, a renowned free-roaming horseman revered in legends, folklore and literature.

Reputed as being brave and at times unruly, the Gaucho traversed the pampas (grasslands) of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil on horseback herding half-wild cattle that had escaped British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese traders in the mid-18th century.

Horses were the cornerstone of the Gauchos’ existence and were intrinsic to their way of life. It is believed that ancestors of the modern horse arrived in South America 3 million years ago, making their way across the isthmus of Panama from North America. However, around 10,000 years ago (approximately Late Pleistocene) – the time humans were thought to have settled in South America – the native Equus (genus of mammals in the family Equidae that includes the domestic horse) died out. Equus, in the form of the domestic horse (Equus ferus caballus), was reintroduced following the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and colonists in the 16th century, and it was descendants of these horses upon which the Gauchos roamed the pampas.

Over time, the life of the Gaucho changed; by the end of the 18th century they were skilled animal handlers for private owners who had acquired the half-wild livestock and by the later 19th century when the pampas had been fenced into huge estancias (estates) they took on farmhand roles. Although the true, free-spirited Gaucho of the 18th century eventually ceased to exist, the culture has lived on and has been celebrated in the arts and as a national symbol – particularly for Argentina and Uruguay.

The pioneers on their way to the first vet check. © Richard Dunwoody

Technical riding through woods. © Erik Cooper

REVIVAL OF THE GAUCHO

The legend of the Gaucho has lived on and most recently has been reflected in an unusual equine challenge through the wilds of Patagonia, a region of pristine wilderness encompassing the vast southernmost tip of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. The Gaucho Derby involves navigating some of the wildest terrain on Earth, and it’s not for the faint hearted.

After running the Mongol Derby (a 1,000km trek across the Mongolian steppes dubbed the world’s toughest horse race) for a decade, The Adventurists – curators of thrill-seeking events around the world – decided it was time to grow the sport of ultra-endurance horse racing and went in search of the next world beating adventure.

They didn’t just replicate The Mongol Derby with new scenery, but designed a new race from the ground up, based on the landscape, culture, history and horses of Patagonia and the Gauchos, and created, what they believe, is the “greatest test of horsemanship and wilderness skills on Earth”.

In early March, before COVID-19 restrictions halted events around the globe, 24 riders lined up at the start of the Pioneer Edition of the Gaucho Derby; over the next 10 days, the race certainly lived up to its billing.

The nine-stage race crossed 500km of Patagonian wilderness, including high mountains and pampas lowlands, making the event not just a test of riders’ skills on a horse, but pushing their navigation skills to the limit and testing their physical endurance and ability to handle the wilderness.

Whilst the Gaucho Derby is also a multi-horse race, it differs from the Mongol Derby. The race, dubbed “the greatest test of horsemanship and survival skill on Earth”, is broken down into 40km legs, but riders don’t change horses at every section (as they do in the Mongol Derby). The high mountains are a test of skill, not flat out speed, so the horses don’t run out of steam and can cover several legs at a time. On the flatter pampas sections however, where horses can eat up the miles quickly, riders swap to fresh horses regularly.

Riders also do large sections with pack horses, to carry extra kit into the mountains just as the Gauchos once did. This makes riding, well, different. Riders always have a fresh horse with them and can carry more supplies, however it means they have two horses to look after; it’s a true test of horsemanship. Much of the time, if riders can handle the horses well, the pack horse can run free – however, in some sections they do need to be led, adding a complication to the whole proceedings. It’s not the fastest way to travel on flat open country, but it starts to make serious sense on long mountainous regions. The Gaucho Derby did not require riders to travel with two horses the entire way, just through key sections; this allowed competitors to reduce the strain on horses through the slower, more technical sections.

Horse welfare is monitored constantly, with vet checks every 40km as well as race marshals and emergency and roaming vets to ensure that no rider puts their own competitiveness before the welfare of the animals: “We would rather nobody wins than someone wins by pushing too hard. Riders seen making bad decisions, riding too fast across difficult terrain or not presenting horses in great condition will get penalties or be disqualified.”

THE RACE

The first Gaucho Derby began with a fast valley ride for some. Other riders took what they believed was a short cut through the mountains, only to have to turn back and lose any hopes of an early lead when they met unpassable terrain. Temperatures were hot, with riders wondering why they’d bothered packing so many cold weather clothes, luring many into a false sense of security as to what was to come.

Over the next few days, navigation remained a key part of the race. Riders traversed some breathtaking, but “pretty gnarly” countryside, with trails through passes, river valleys, dense forests, and bogs presenting challenges – all whilst individual riders tried to chivvy along a packhorse and keep their own horse on an even keel.

Then came the storm! Drama unveiled as the race headed through the mountains and a ferocious snow storm swept in. Local Gauchos helped guide riders to safe passage and an emergency shelter was created in a forest, with some riders (most to re-join the race later) air lifted out as a precaution.

With further bad weather forecast, the race was reset on day six, with riders carrying forward their accumulated times from the previous stages, before the storm hit. Some faster riding, without pack horses, ensued and in the end, it was Marie Griffis (a 2016 Mongol Derby veteran who runs an annual equestrian trip into the US mountains back home in Montana) who crossed the line first, having “weathered the storm well” and ridden confidently ever since.

“It was like a dream, as we crossed the river to the final vet check and finish line all I could think of was there’s no way I’m getting my feet wet again!”

Marie was full of praise for the horses, and the cooks: “The horses were the best bit! They were such athletes, ripping through the countryside on them was thrilling. They were really well cared for and highly trained. Plus Andy and Luly, who own them, were the best! The cooks we had, I have great respect for them.”

And it seemed, for her at least, the snowstorm wasn’t the hardest part of the race. “The forest (was the toughest part), bashing through it… as it was on an incline, with bogs literally everywhere. I had a dead tree fall on me en route to (checkpoint) three!”

An amazing effort to triumph in such a challenging race! Despite some adverse weather, the inaugural Gaucho Derby was a resounding success and will be back next year for equestrian thrill-seekers. EQ

If you believe you have what it takes to ride in next year’s Gaucho Derby, visit www.theadventurists.com/adventures/gaucho-derby for more details.

Riders in the morning light. © Anya Campbell

Marie Griffis over the top first. © Anya Campbell

Clare King in the foreground, on an Arab horse on one of the latter stages. © Richard Dunwoody

Riders with pack horses coming down from the mountains. © Anya Campbell

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