Go Get Your Cow! - Sierras de Rocha
Part of my Uruguayan fantasy life included time in gaucho country. Time spent on gentle green hills along rocky peaks, among trees offering shade to grazing cattle. All in a soft leather saddle. So before we could leave these parts, I had to find an estancia (ranch) and go horseback riding.
We have loved being on horses on this trip. It's much more free and much less regulated than in the States. However, the treatment of tourist horses down here – from malnourishment to downright cruelty with a stick or whip – has made me very selective on where we ride. I look for a place where horses are a passion, cared for and loved, and not just a source of income. After a little research I found such a place called Caballos de Luz. I shot off an email asking for a daylong outing, something a little different than the standard trail ride. Lucie, the owner, emailed back, “If you arrive by ten we will have you on the horses by 10:30. We stop somewhere along the way, with a picknick lunch at a nice spot. Back by 5 or so, and then dinner. I have been missing two horses and we can ride and look for them if you want some adventure.”
We arrived at the ranch just before 10 am on a sunny, crisp morning. As we got out of the truck, a pack of dogs rushed up to us barking, tails at attention, talking all over each other. They sniffed us; each taking a pee on the truck tires and wandering off.
Lucie came out and greeted us with hugs and a kiss on the cheek. She is originally from Austria and married an Argentinian, Santi, and together they run this ranch/guest house. She has an open warm smile and I instantly liked her. Then she introduced us to each and every horse. From the little mare who stopped growing named Bonsai, to John’s horse named Ojala, (pronounced Oh-ha-la, an old Spanish phrase meaning, “Let’s hope so, or "God willing"). They are clearly her family. She invited us to explore the organic garden where lunch and dinner (all meals are vegetarian) would come from. There are a few thatched roof buildings, fruit trees and the horse pastures. A peaceful energy permeates the place.
Photos from www.caballosdeluz.com
We chatted while she got the horses ready. We talked about our trip, and our plans to head home after Patagonia. She told us of the hard work and struggle to build the ranch. We asked how she came to be here in Uruguay. “I traveled. I traveled the world, just like you both are doing and then I stopped. I stopped here,” she said.
We can see why. Lucie started the ranch 10 years ago, when she bought in with 13 other people who collectively own hundreds of acres of land in these Sierras. The goal for all was a sustainable life, living off the land. She has traveled all over the world, including some 2000 km on horse back, much of those alone with just a horse and a packhorse. Tall, with long blond dreadlocks under a worn leather riding hat, she looks like a princess warrior, ready for battle.
Before we mounted our horses, she gave us the basic instructions. “We kiss the horse to make him go and shush him to stop. Drag the reins lightly up his mane and he will go. Only if you have asked nicely more than a couple of times and he isn’t listening, do you use your legs,” Lucie told us. These horses have no metal bits, and turn easily by gently pulling the reins across their neck to change direction. Lucie subscribes to violence free, natural horsemanship and it shows in how utterly responsive these animals are to our voice and touch.
Just before we headed out, Lucie told us one more thing. “Oh, and I have a friend who needs to move some cows, so we’ll help him at the end of the day. It will be fun.”
Even more fantastic!
We set off and Timbo, a shaggy black dog who turned up one day and refused to leave, joined us for the day. He ran off into the hills, circling all around us and then coming back to trot within inches of Lucie's horse's back hoves.
Within a short time were stepping down steep muddy embankments and crossing deep rivers. Rivers deep enough that I had to pull my knees up to my chin to keep my feet dry. In one crossing, I felt my horse, Rani, stumble, then swim a little before she found her footing and pulled us out of the water. It was then I knew for sure this wouldn’t be a run of the mill day.
We were on the look out for her missing horses so we meandered all over the hillsides. Sometimes on trails, mostly not. The horses picked their paths carefully through the mud and rocks. At one point mine stumbled again and jolted me sideways. My saddle shifted, then shifted a little more, and then slowly slid right off my horse’s back. I went down with it, and quite unceremoniously fell hard on my ass into a grassy bush. As I got back on my feet, a little dazed at what just happened, I looked up the hillside behind us and saw - one of Lucie’s missing horses!
My saddle strapped back on Rani, we set off to lasso Lucie's missing horse. Once we had him, he fell in line easily, stopping only once to take a quick roll in the mud. We brought him to his proper pasture and set him loose among his horse friends.
Still looking for her other horse, we rode out to a community garden project where a group of young friends are creating a sustainable community. Part commune, part organic farm project, they are reusing abandoned homes and property with permission of the owners. It was fun to see this kind of communal living project happening in the hills of Uruguay. We rode for a little while longer, finally stopping for lunch well after 2:00. After lunch (delicious spinach & tomato frittata and homemade bread), we set out to find the friend with the cows.
Community garden in the middle of no where. Communal living looked kind of peaceful.
Now, when Lucie said we needed to "move” some cows, in my mind I thought we might help corral a small herd from one pen to another. Maybe with a few gauchos we could help, you know, “shoo” them along. Well, as is the case in much of our lives down here, things can get lost in translation.
We met up with Lucie’s friend, Francisco, around 3:30 at his pasture where at least 20 cows were roaming around. The gate opened, and Francisco wrangled five cows down onto the road. I thought oh, ok, only 5 cows. No problem. However, never having herded (is that a word?) cows before I had no idea what we were getting into.
here they come...!
Francisco rode over to us, talked with Lucie a bit, and we discover these are five pregnant cows and they had to be moved a couple of miles down the road to his house, to be close when they had their babies. That’s when things got interesting. Immediately they started wandering all over the place. John and I started scrambling after them, extremely thankful our horses were so responsive.
Francisco and his band of merry mama cows.
"Paula, go get your cow!"
We got them moving down the road all together but it didn’t last long. They bee lined into ditches stopping to eat or turn around, looking for a break in the fence to bolt. I heard Lucie yell at John, “John, that’s your cow!” As he took off to get his, I saw one make a break for it, back toward the pasture, so I went after it. But I could see it was speeding up, so as I galloped down the road after my pregnant cow, I got a little freaked out. I was going pretty fast and I didn’t want to fall off my horse. Or lose this guy’s cow! Francisco and Lucie caught up to me (thank God!) and we got the little mama turned around. We had to keep all the cows running a little to keep them moving. Timbo barked and nipped at their heels, inciting the cows to stop, turn around, and try to gore him. At one fork in the road, two scrambled up a hillside and Lucie went after them. Another found a small hole in the fence along the road, too small for a horse so while Francisco went back around to get our escapee, we chased after the other two. It was pretty hilarious. And pretty difficult. I'm surprised we have any photos at all because it was crazy to have a camera out while trying to hold on to the reins and gallop after a cow all at the same time.
On the way back from chasing down my first cow!
John and I worked our horses in and out of the ditches, wrangling our little mamas down the road, hootin’ and hollerin’ at them. We were having the best time - exhilarated at being totally out of our element. I remember trotting close behind one cow, her big pregnant belly swaying back and forth as she ran, thinking, I will never forget this moment. These are the unexpected gifts of travel.
He was laughing his ass off I think...
A tractor came by and stirred everybody up.
Fork in the road...things went a little haywire here.
John's "mane cam"
The sun was beginning to set when we finally got to Francisco’s place. Our little herd trotted right in to the pasture and our job was done. Our horses were lathered up and breathing hard - and so were we. Lucie suggested we walk the horses back to her ranch to give them a break. I was more than happy to oblige. John and I had been in the saddle over 6 hours and my legs were toast. A neighbor’s ranch provided a water stop, and then we walked slowly the mile or so back to Lucie’s place.
Mission Mama Cow Move complete!
That was a LOT of time in the saddle.
After the horses were settled, we sat down with Lucie to a delicious vegetarian dinner and a glass of homemade wine overlooking the gentle green hills and rocky peaks. It was a pretty incredible day. As we made our way back to Jose Ignacio, I still felt reluctant to leave this country. Our next stop is Buenos Aires, another place we are excited to see, so my Uruguayan life had to come to and end.