Arriero Rigo riding in the Andes mountains near Santiago, Chile.
Arrieros in Chile come low in the employment hierarchy. They are paid and treated more or less the same as agricultural labourers in Britain.
This has always surprised me as they have very specialist skills. I suppose in the days when horses were in normal everyday use the skill of horseman and mule handler was not so out of the ordinary, but these days it is quite a special skill involving knowledge and experience which the majority of people don’t have. Their special skill, in addition to being excellent horsemen, is handling and loading mules. Mules are difficult animals and if badly loaded they acquire sores on their bodies.
Today’s arrieros have mostly been brought up to the life from childhood, accompanying their fathers or uncles into the mountains as young boys. The mountain life has an effect on their personalities. They are usually fairly silent, except when drinking around a barbecue when the high-pitched laughter tends to ring out. They don’t find it very easy to communicate. Once in Argentina when we, as tourists, had been arrested by drunken Argentinian military and one of our guides taken hostage, a young arriero was sent to find out what the position was at the Argentinian headquarters. Some hours later he rode into camp, said not a word and having dismounted from his horse began to unsaddle it. I asked a Chilean fellow tourist why the arriero didn’t tell us what had happened. He replied, ‘He is telling us. This is huaso speak. He is unsaddling his horse, so he is staying here, which means it’s going to be all right.’
In the days and nights spent working and sleeping out in the cordillera, under a poncho, with the sheepskins from the saddles as pillows, they also learn a resignation and acceptance of life which is instructive to an impatient Englishwoman. I don’t believe in being passive or giving in to life too easily, but equally it is good to understand the tranquillity which comes with acceptance of the inevitable. When I tried frantically to drive the birds off some newly sewn alfalfa seeds they told me ‘Es la vida, Rose’ or ‘es la naturaleza. Los pajaros tienen que comer tambien que nosotros’ – it’s nature. The birds have to eat the same as we do.
These are characteristics, not skills, but their skills are also legion. Although, as products of a past tradition, sometimes their literacy is not very sophisticated, that has never been important in the mountains, and indeed not to be able to read probably sharpens the other faculties and makes them more sensitive to the messages of nature and the cordillera. As well as understanding and mastering horses to a very sophisticated level, they can cope with and load the much more difficult mules. They can light fires in the pouring rain, track missing horses by their footprints like the Red Indians of cowboy films.
They know most of the cordillera routes and can find their way even over unknown terrain, by reading the landscape and following its messages. They can cook and bake and clean, wash clothes, mend clothes, sew saddles and bridles, plait leather to make reins and lassos, and come up with a solution to almost every practical problem. There are no blacksmiths – they shoe their own horses, cold-shoeing and often in the mountains the street theatre includes shoeing a horse in the open air. Most arrieros can also handle goats and make cheese and carry out all the normal agricultural labourer’s functions like fencing and ditching, ploughing the land, making hay and looking after cattle.
Usually excellent horseman, it is a treat to watch their quiet handling of the animals even when under pressure to get a big tourist ride moving off quickly or a difficult mule loaded into a trailer. The best arrieros have a way of calming horses even under stress and although the manner of breaking-in horses is tougher here than in England (based on dominance), the best arrieros establish and quiet and loving relationship with their horses. This makes the horses wonderfully well-mannered and easy even for first-time riders on a day trip. They are also sure-footed and sturdy and thus perfect for the longer rides when you camp with horses overnight in the higher mountains
Most have a passion for riding in rodeos, the most popular sport, and even the poorest who cannot afford this costly sport can usually borrow a horse for a local friendly event, even with little chance of winning.