How to Ride in Argentina
Italian Long Rider Valerio Ceconi made an equestrian journey across Argentina in December, 2016. He began his solo ride at El Calafate and reached San Martin de los Andes three and a half months later.
Finding your horses - Finding good horses for a long ride in not easy and might take a long time. I suggest to start searching for your horses once already on the spot with the help of a local horse-person of proved trust.
Ideally you need to get good horses with good training at a fair price. Everything else might lower your safety, rate of success and enjoyment.
If you are planning a solo journey of a certain intensity I suggest to get two horses, one riding horse and one packhorse. For group rides I believe one pack horse each two riders could be enough.
Your horses must be well trained for the conditions and environment you are planning to deal with, emotionally reliable, and forward-going.
Ideally the riding horse and pack horse should be interchangeable, because you might face any kind of situation and overall flexibility is a key factor.
Keep in mind that usually horses aren’t used or trained as packhorse. Dealing with a bad packhorse will dry your energies and confidence, it's dangerous in critical situations and ultimately can make your trip not enjoyable.
Consider to get in touch with people that organize trail rides as an option.
Once you get the horses make sure to try them out taking yourself all the needed time to get tuned with them, your equipment, the environment, people, local culture and main local issues.
My ultimate advice is to hang around with serious gauchos, following them on field work, as they really know how to avoid danger and get safely away from any situation you might have to face, plus it’s a great experience and fun.
Take your time, breathe deeply and head off whenever you feel ready for it.
I am firmly convinced, based on research and discussions, that good mules with good training would be a much better option than horses in several conditions, but I still have to make my own experience before passing suggestions.
Planning your route - Unless you are planning an extreme ride, I suggest to plan your route and journey being flexible and open to what each day brings you.
As the Long Riders’ Guild says, “It’s never about the miles!”
I don’t see much sense in pushing yourself or your horses hard if you’re not dealing with critical situations.
Enjoy the experience you are living by living the moment.
In my case I had a rough idea about where to go and found extremely important to share ideas and maps with locals. I only got maps from the Automobile Club Argentina as I wanted to have a “low tech ride” but I strongly recommend a good GPS and tracking device for much better mapping and safety. I just used maps and local encounters as a guide, but it might be not enough and definitely not safe.
Please be aware of the fact that paths easy to find for locals can be almost impossible for you. Locals know the area and the environment like the back of their hand which is not your case.
Also be very careful when taking shortcuts. Write down on a paper the key spots and points of reference asking twice when you are discussing the route to follow.
Wired fences, unclear paths, weather, fatigue… all that works against you and there is nothing more frustrating than getting lost.
Weather - Riding along the pre-Cordillera requires you to start your trip in late spring through the end of the summer. I guess the ideal period would be roughly between November through February so that you avoid rain, muddy and sandy mountain passes, snow, and colder weather.
I found climate change to be a main issue. Rain wasn’t a concern at all.
Unfortunately we are getting less snow in winter and water during the rest of the year. This, along with overgrazing, is a main problem as I hardly found decent spots for letting my horses to graze properly.
Since horses will primarily eat grass over the trip, and only have an overnight rest they need to have good pasture available and accessible.
Gear & Tack - Due to political issue and import fees, finding good quality gear and goods in Argentina, especially in Patagonia, is a real challenge and it’s really expensive. Good saddles for example are just not available and if so they would come at really high price tags.
Whether you need a good rope, boots, small pocket knife, snap-hook, camping gear… get everything from home!
Good equipment is an investment that makes you (and your horses) enjoying the journey and last longer on the trail.
Riders always have the option of selling or trading solid equipment in Argentina after the journey as there is a need for it.
A cheaper deal could be using a local saddle and equipment (gaucho style). I managed to put together what I needed but it was far from being the ideal equipment for a long ride. I’ve been riding the “gaucho way”, which is really cool and gives you a lot of knowledge but I definitely do not recommend that for a long ride, especially if you have hard, brand new leather equipment and no experience.
On the medium-long run this kind of equipment wears on you. It is not good for the horses and is often just not practical for your purposes.
Don’t bring anything you don’t really need!
That said some of the extra tools I didn’t have and I consider important are:
- Good pocket size nippers: in case horses get tangled in fencing wire.
- Clinch gouge: to avoid local “farriers” cutting all the way through the hoof wall before bending nail tips.
Horse care - Pure Criollos and Criollos del campo horses are very tough, they can endure extreme conditions eating only grass. Always make sure your horses have enough time to eat, especially if the pasture is scarce and/or of bad quality.
In several places you can buy from locals dried “alfalfa”. It’s a great thing to have as it‘s nutritious and comes readily available for the horses to quickly eat on the spot.
I strongly recommend to get your horses used to eat grain and horse feed. In several occasions that would be the only available feeding source. In fact local people usually give some grain at the end of a day of work, no matter what.
Corn in a ration of 1 kilogram for a day needs to be soaked in water overnight so to help the digestion. Avena in a ration of about 4 kilogram is also better to be soaked for about 1 hour.
In order to get grains properly digested and assimilated people suggest to give with a 4 hour gap before or after before dry grass/pasture. The daily grain ration would be better to be given in two times, like morning and evening.
Horse feed is extremely rich so be careful in the way/quantity you use it in order to avoid colic.
Riding time can vary a lot according to the horse, terrain, speed, weather, feeding, load carried, extent of the trip, miles already done, etc. You need to consider all of these and get tuned in with your animals.
Daily check your horse coat brushing with a soft rubber brush only when needed in order to preserve its health. Don’t brush just for the sake of it.
Horse shoeing is necessary, you will go through very hard terrain, roads, etc.
Unfortunately many gauchos don’t generally do a good job at all but you might have to deal with that as shoeing equipment and irons are very heavy to be carried. I just tried to get to a decent sized town, or a good estancia, and ask for the best guy around. But be prepared to wait a few days.
Tying your horses with a good rope is necessary. Hobbling horse using local leather made hobbles (maneas) is also a good thing, especially in the unfortunate case where you don’t completely trust them as well as while working around them, stop for whatever reason, or you get stuck.
Another important aspect during my trip was that my horses had a strong bond, always watching out for each other. This allowed me to secure just one horse leaving the other one free to eat, drink and relax, alternating them each day.
Learn from the locals - To me dealing with local people, in the field, has probably been the most intense experience of the journey. I strongly recommend that you get some basic Spanish before-hand or within your first few weeks of preparations. It will open a new world to you.
Even though I wanted to go through remote areas, so as to avoid human encounters as much as I could, it’s only thanks to those “one man a day” encounters that I could really bond and understand what I was seeing and experiencing.
Santa Cruz in particular has a very harsh landscape; strong winds, huge open fields, and a “primitive” horse culture which will provide you an old style and useful knowledge. Many things you’ll see about animal welfare might be unpleasant but I just loved to sit over a fire eating cordero and drinking maté with these people, talking about horses, dogs, hunting, climate change and of course about the old times.
Whatever your background, listen to what these people suggest to you about horses and safety. Most of the time they are right about what they say.
People from the field are generally real, hospitable, helpful and generous. When you get close to town and bigger settlements the magic fades away, but still, you’ll usually get what you need.
Food - I always found good water for me and the horses without using any particular attention beside common sense. I didn’t need to carry much as I was looking for puestos or estancias where to spend the night. Puestos are medium-small cabins generally used as dwelling by employees (puesteros) from the main (far away) estancia to check summer pastures. You can basically ask day by day where the next puesto is. In my case I rarely had to travel more than one day to get there.
I suggest you prepare a mix of honey and chopped dried fruits, about 2 kilograms, as an energy boost. I recommend you include dry plums, bananas and apricots too. You can find honey in local shops. Dry fruit is hard to find, but very light to carry, so get a full bag of it from home.
I never cook at lunch time. Breakfast, lunch and snacks were either based on cold fatty meat (from the previous host), the energy boost, or bread.
Safety - Be careful and never overestimate your skills, especially in a new environment. Common sense and some luck are the elements I found essential.
I never had any bad experiences with local people. The only dangerous situations were caused by my own mistakes, horses not trained for the task and traffic on the suburban and urban areas.
Phone reception and internet will be not available for several days to weeks, according to your route.
I want to point out that I started this trip without any significant experience in horse riding. I strongly recommend you to not follow my example and that you have equestrian experience before you begin your journey. I’ve been lucky and by the end of the trip I realized how many things could have had a different end.
Whatever your riding level, a good warm up period with local gauchos is definitely a good way to go.
The photo (top) is provided courtesy of German Long Rider Roland Berg, who also rode across Argentina. It shows Roland’s horse, Pichon, looking at the Argentine pampas.