father and son ride in rodeo togetherOctavio with son Cristobal in a rodeo

In Chile the occupation of arriero, or huaso, is disappearing, especially from the central zone, and the Cajon del Maipo in particular. The arrival of refrigerated lorries makes it unnecessary to drive cattle over the mountains from Argentina and the shrivelling of agriculture and the replacement of horses with agricultural machinery for the little that remains, means that although horses are still used and highly valued in this area, there are fewer of them and many are kept for sporting purposes, or for tourist activities.

That said, the ancient sport of rodeo, corriendo, is alive and strong. There are at least five media lunas in the Cajon, not including Pirque, and rodeos are well attended. It is here that the huasos exhibit their skills, and also their clothes which are traditionally a sombrero, manta, a short jacket, pin striped trousers (as worn by lawyers in England) , chaps, boots and spurs, and a lasso on the saddle. Many huasos are tremendous dandys, and this is their moment.

Octavio's son CristobalOctavio’s son Cristobal, also on La Fianza at a rodeo

It is not a dying sport. I have been struck by the number of young riders entering the media luna, and often doing well. Also, unlike England where every child desires a football uniform, here the little boys delight in dressing up as miniature huasos, down to chaps and spurs. What is more, their parents are happy to expend good money dressing them like that for special occasions. And at the end of the day you see three and four year olds dancing the cueca with the best of them. I have been to many rodeos in the cajon and on one occasion went to the championship in Rancagua. Gradually I have been able to unravel the mystic art of corriendo, and I think I understand it. I know that many Chileans do not. What sometimes looks at first like two men on horses charging around after an animal in a somewhat disorganised way becomes much more interesting when one understands what they are trying to do, and what the scoring system entails. Also of course if one has a horse or a friend running.

Children as young as 10 years old sometimes ride in rodeosYoung boy riding in a Chilean rodeo

The two riders have to work as a very close pair, and work better still if the two horses know each other. They have to wait at the gate for a steer to be released. Then they chase it round the smaller enclosure 3 times, to hot it up, and exit at the gallop. One point for a good fast entrance into the media luna. One rider then has to chase the animal and the other tries to keep it in against the wall, so that when they arrive at the padded bit they are in a position to turn it. This is done by the other rider, who has been galloping his horse sideways and at the correct moment, attacks, to pin the animal against the wall and induce it to turn. If this is done without touching, or by using the head of the animal, the score is zero points. Neck brings 1 point, shoulders 2, stomach area 3 and hindquarters four points, because this is the most difficult. If the animal is not turned and races on there is a negative 2 bad points. This has to be done 3 times. There are other ways of earning bad points, such as tijera (scissors) when the steer doubles back between the two riders, but these are the basic.

In official rodeos like those at Rancagua the riders are like race jockeys. They do it as a profession and in between rodeos simply practise. And the animals (steers) are fat and heavy and relatively slow moving. It is easier to follow what is happening. But in the cajon the riders are working men, doing it for sport at the weekend. And the animals come down from the mountain skinny and light and have been described as ‘lievres’ – hares – in comparison with the official ones. This inevitably means that there are plenty of puntos malos – minus points – as the animals often escape the grip of the riders and race around the ring.

The oldest media luna in the Santiago area, in the Cajon del Maipo is El Toyo. It was built in colonial times, pre-independence (that is early nineteenth century) when the land belonged to the Subercaseaux family, ancestors of the current dueno, Pedro Guillon. It is modelled on the Spanish equivalent and is, uniquely, built of stone, originally lined with mud. It fell into disuse at some point and was revived about 30 years ago, but the mud lining was not replaced. This meant that if a rider fell against the wall he hit the stone with possible disastrous consequences. Also when the steers tried to climb out of the ring to escape the pursuit, they sometimes succeeded. Not only did they cause havoc in the crowd, but often caused stones to fall into the media luna. This made it dangerous and there were huasos who refused to ride there.

The club de huasos of El Toyo, with the assistance and support of Pedro Guillon, have recently re-furbished the media luna. It has been lined most beautifully with wood, painted in the tricolor, and great efforts have been made to clear the sand of any remaining stones.

On the first day of the May Day weekend in 2007 the new media luna was launched to a great fanfare, followed by a rodeo on the Sunday and Monday 1st May. The celebrations marked the great effort which the club de huasos have made and was graced by the Mayor and dignitaries of San Jose. At a party afterwards Las Brujas (a women”s group from the 70s) sang and on Saturday people danced all night, as usual. What I like about festivities after a rodeo is that the floor is so crammed with cueca dancers that there is hardly room to join them. In the country at least, the cueca survives, as does the rodeo and media luna. Long may it last.

Some of the same men who ride in these rodeos for sport are our guides on Day Rides in the Andes and camping trips in the mountains on horseback.