The Chilean Horse (for Conquistador Magazine) Print E-mail

       It is truly ironic that a breed like the Chilean Criollo is virtually unknown to anyone outside of the meridional South America. The fact is that this breed is the oldest registered native American breed, the oldest registered horse breed of any kind in South America, the oldest registered stock horse breed in the entire Western Hemisphere. This “antiquity” comes from the fact that the Chilean Horse registry was officially inaugurated in 1893 when formalizing breed status was still a new concept in the Americas.       

       In spite of all the notoriety that the early registry of Chilean Horse caused, the Chilean Horse really goes back much farther than that. Ever since 1544 when the first Chilean Horse breeder, Father Rodrigo Gonzalez Marmolejo, started breeding equines in what was then known as New Toledo, the emphasis was on quality. As horse numbers grew, the town council made decrees that required their approval of superior crosses. Whatever demands for quality were not made by government, were imposed through the practical demands of war. From the onset of the conquest, the Spanish settlers had to confront a very aggressive Mapuche tribe that put up an energetic defence of their lands for nearly 350 years. Unlike other colonies that fought less intense “Indian wars” in regions distant from populated areas, Chile’s struggle was always made tangible by it being within 500 km of their capital.       

       By the turn into the 16th century the Mapuches were outstanding horseman with growing numbers of horses that were trained innovatively as efficient war mounts. Such a respected opponent created a dire need for quality horses for the soldiers of the Spanish crown. Wisely, the governors chosen for Chile were expected to have strong military backgrounds and many were internationally respected horsemen. This type of leadership continually motivated Chilean Horse breeders to reach new heights by sponsoring public scenarios in the form of parades for high-schooled horsemanship, mounted bull fights and equestrian war games.       

       Unlike other Criollo breeds on the other side of the Andes, the Chilean Horse’s genealogy all originates in the Vice-Kingdom of New Castile (Peru). Most of the horses came from the fertile valleys of Charcas (now Sucre, Bolivia), but some of the finest stallions for the personal entourage of Chile’s second governor, García Hurtado de Mendoza, were selected from throughout the vice-kingdom. The difficult passage from Peru to the central valleys of Chile not only had to traverse over the Andes Mountains but also across the world’s driest desert. These incoming journeys were a brutal culling process that only permitted the entrance of horses that were impeccably sound with excellent hooves and energetic yet tractable temperaments.        

       By the 17th century Chile had very defined types in parade horses, pacers and trotters. Chile gained the reputation of having the best horses in South America and Chilean specimens were not only exported back to the headquarters of the vice-kingdom but also throughout the continent and occasionally, even into to royal courts of the “Old World”. During this century, the country was divided into 30 large “encomiendas” (royal land grants) where cattle raising were the main enterprise. The Chilean Horse had been involved in open-spaced cattle ranching since the onset, but in the huge “encomiendas” their cow herding skills were tested to new limits for over 300 years.        

       By the 18th Century the yearly roundups that had been required by decree since 1557, took on massive dimensions. The pens that received the bovines herded down from the mountainous terrain needed to have a capacity of no less than 7,000 head. Sorting the cattle by ownership, designated use, and requirements for castration and branding resulted in herding and pushing cattle down long alleyways into classifying pens. This gave rise to the aptitudes now used in the modern day Chilean Rodeo that are performed in a crescent-shaped arena known as a “medialuna” (half-moon). Chilean Horses were selected for lateral dexterity, courage to confront and pin belligerent cattle and an even temperament that permitted a high degree of trainability while conserving needed energy for a long days work.       

       The escalating acreage in wheat during this era gave rise to select groups of mares that formed thrashing teams of between 50-100 animals. These mares performed a demanding task that required surefootedness and boundless energy. Any animal that stumbled or slipped to its knees was sent to slaughter. Within a circular confine, with wheat up to their knees, these mares were expected to move on their own accord. These were the dams of some of the best “corraleros”(rodeo horses) of the time. By the late 1700’s there were farms such as Pricipal, Catemu, Quilimuta and Alhue that kept orderly records of the genealogy of the specialized horses they were breeding.        

       Throughout the 19th century, Chile’s independence from Spain brought on a clear preference for the stock and/or warhorse. This “blue collared” equine variety that had always dominated the country’s inventory, now also became the most prestigious breed elected to represent the newly formed Republic of Chile. In this period Chile had its most influential breeders. They more closely defined the characteristics of the Chilean Horse, as well as introducing a greater selection for speed, as match races at sprinting distances became popular throughout the country. To this day, speed rather than endurance is the criteria by which “huasos” (Chilean cowboys) value their horses. Although the registry was established in an effort to protect a “national treasure” that was being endangered by the crossbreeding promoted by American enchantment with anything European, the Chilean Horse already had more than a century of selection along specific family lines.       

       The end of the nineteenth century brought with it a decline in agrarian property sizes, the use of thrashing machines that extinguished the need for thrasher mares, railroads and automobiles that greatly limited the use of the horse as a means of transport and the growth of specialized breeds that substituted the Chilean Horse in draft, carriage and racing needs. The saving grace of the Chilean Horse breed was the upsurge in the popularity of the Chilean Rodeo. Ever since the turn into the 20th century, the sport of rodeo has become bigger and more organized. Meanwhile the aptitudes required to excel in this sport were increasingly implanted in the breeding of the Chilean Horse. Nothing has assured the purity of this breed more than its specialization in a sport for which it has been exclusively selected for over 150 years. Outcrossing to other breeds has never been a temptation since the Chilean Criollo is without a doubt the best breed for the Chilean Rodeo sport.

       The Chilean horse prior to 1850 was a closed breed type, due the absence of European breeds in a country that was convinced they had the best horses in South America. The isolation that resulted from the geographical definition of its borders also made imports less probable. When modern transport made new breeds more accessible, Chile was one of the last places in South America to see them arrive. Even so, the innumerable mountains, ridges and valleys over a 4,300 km (2,700 miles) long landscape assured that the purity of many Chilean Horses remained intact. Faithful traditional breeders also were critical contributors to breed purity by not succumbing to the temptations of crossbreeding. The critical period that popularized the use of other breeds was shortened even more when Chile became the first country to register their national breed. The real stroke of genius was formalizing and popularising a sport where no other breed could be its equal.        

       Like many other native breeds across Latin America, the Chilean Horse is extremely hardy. It has a low metabolism, a high threshold for pain, a great immunity to disease and a remarkable rate of recuperation. Their hooves are strong and their thick double haircoat makes them well suited for both cold and dry/hot weather. It is doubtful any other breed surpassed their productive energy level. Although abundant manes, tails and forelocks are characteristic of all Iberian breeds in the Americas, none can compare with the volume and thickness that typifies a good Chilean Horse specimen. All breeds of Iberian origin also have some incidence of semi-convex facial profiles, but the Chilean Criollo breeders proudly state their preference for this characteristic.        

       What distinguishes Chilean Horses most is their innate athleticism, trainability, courage and cow working instinct that have been the product of 460 years of selection. Unlike the other native breeds of the Americas, the Chilean Horse has never strayed far from the influence and service of man. While the “baguales” of the pampa, the “trochadores” of the “llanos”, or the mustangs of the American far west, evolved during centuries of natural selection, the Chilean Horse was being selected for the specific purposes required within the confines of the mountainous terrain of Chile. There is not a more sure-footed mountain traveller and their less significant size (13.1-14.2 hands, or 1.36m-1.48m) has proven it can take any reasonable adult riders up and down the most demanding gradients.         

       Is is important to realize that “Caballo Chileno”, or Chilean Horse if you will, is not just the oldest stock horse breed in America. It also is the only stock horse breed that has maintained a closed registry since its inception. Moreover, the breed type that was clearly present before the creation of the formal registry in 1893, which was precisely described in the first Breed Standard for a cowhorse breed in 1921, is still evident in the horses you see today. In an age when “breed” registries seem to be convenient unions of horses of different breeds and origins with loosely defined genetic and phenotypic parameters, it is admirable to realize that the Chilean Horse has held steadfast to the definition of a TRUE breed. The result of this honorable heritage as the oldest and purest of stock horses, gives rise to a prepotent breed with the trainability, cow “saavy”, courage, hardiness, durability and longevity that was inherited from its exclusively Iberian ancestors and honed to perfection over 460 years by a country that has held it in highest esteem

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