A horse called Coihueco

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Jimmy Langman/Patagon JournalJimmy Langman/Patagon Journal
[ Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Issue 3 of Patagon Journal. We only publish on our website a small portion of the articles from our print editions, to read more subscribe or purchase this edition at our online store and participating stockists. ]
Author's Preface: Horses and gauchos are synonymous with Patagonia: solitary, perpendicular figures in a horizontal landscape, riding across the steppe with a pack of woolly-haired dogs yapping at their heels. Like knights in medieval Spain, they are somehow emblematic of the place.

Their horsemanship is extraordinary. I remember watching one day, a few miles out of Chos Malal, as a team of gauchos herded a flock of sheep across a vertiginous, rocky escarpment. Slipping and sliding on the loose scree or vaulting over boulders they raced their steeds up and down the hillside in a swirling cloud of dust.

I am one of those lucky people that are good at most things I turn my hand to. Not riding, though. Horses and me are like oil and water. We just don’t get along. Of course, like many children, I had a brief, horsey phase when, aged nine, I drove my parents’ mad one summer in England, shrieking, every time our car passed a pony: “I want a pony! I want a pony!” Sensibly, they did not acquiesce, though they did offer me riding lessons at a stable. The stables were owned by a grumpy, ex-British Army colonel called Jock Williams. Once a week I turned up in my shiny, new jodhpurs and boots to ride a black pony called Jet. For a while things went all right. Then one day, cantering along the grass verge beside a main road, I slipped in the saddle and nearly went headfirst over Jet’s head.

Since then I have rarely ventured onto a horse’s back. But I was determined not to be a passive spectator on the Veranada. So when the opportunity arose for me to accompany a group of gauchos up into The Mountains Of The Wind, I leaped at it. With hilarious consequences, as you will read …
- Simon Worrall                                            
People say horses are beautiful, that there is nothing so rewarding as the bond between man (or woman) and horse. Maybe it’s true. For them. But for me, horses are like oil and water. We just don’t get along. I don’t like them. They don’t like me.
But I was determined to play my part in The Veranada and not just be a passive spectator. Claudio, our host in Chos Malal, reacted skeptically. But he eventually agreed to provide me with a horse.  So, as we prepared to leave the corral, I watched with eager anticipation as he saddled up a horse called Coihueco, pronounced Coheeko.
It was the stocky Creole horse typical of the region, with a clipped mane and broad hooves. On its back was the traditional gaucho rig: a long, broad leather saddle with a pommel, cushioned on two sheepskins.  “Es muy tranquilo,” Claudio assured me. “He’s very quiet.” 
I patted Coihueco on the neck and made the appropriate clucking sounds. Coihueco stared back at me from an eye as black and impenetrable as a mountain lake. Claudio held the bridle for me to mount, using a rock to stand on. At first, I could not get my leg over the saddle. But after a few embarrassing attempts, and lots of ribbing from Claudio, I managed to get up on Coihueco’s back.
The next thing was to get my feet in the stirrups. If that sounds easy, it wasn’t. These were ring stirrups, narrow enough to fit the pointed toe of a leather riding boot worn by a small, light-boned man. But I am 6 ft. tall, weigh 196 pounds and was wearing size 12 hiking boots, with rubber toes. After nearly falling off the horse again several times as I reached down to try and guide my foot into the stirrups, Claudio came to the rescue.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he said, with a grin, ramming my feet into the stirrups.
The leader of the gauchos accompanying us into the Mountains of The Wind was a man named Fernando. With his bright red corduroy jacket, beige bombachos and flat, black hat, he could have graced the front cover of a tango CD. He was only about five feet five but his horse was the tallest: a magnificent bay with white hooves and a flowing tail. It pawed the ground like Pegasus.
We set off along a dirt track. At first, things went well enough. Coihueco ambled along beside Fernando’s magnificent bay. Dogs yapped. Dust flew. It was like an Argentinean version of “Rawhide.”
Then all hell broke loose. The steers went charging up a steep mound of shingle and rock. Wheeling away after them, Fernando clattered up the bank in a cloud of dust. For one heart-palpitating moment, I thought Coihueco would follow. To my relief, he didn’t.
“Good boy,” I said, patting his mane.  “Good boy.” 
My sense of wellbeing was short-lived. For a start, I was now alone. The other gauchos had raced off in pursuit of the steers, leaving Coihueco and I down in the bottom of the valley. That would have been fine, but ahead of us was a group of nine unsaddled horses and half a dozen mules, which were also going to be taken up into the mountains. Because they were riderless, the mules and horses could stop or trot as slowly – or as fast - as they wanted, and wherever their fancy took them.
Being a herd animal, Coihueco naturally wanted to stay close to his chums. So when they stopped and cropped the grass, he stopped and cropped the grass. I tried to relax and let him have his head, loosening the reins so that he could do as he pleased. I felt a renewed sense of optimism about my abilities to have a mutually fulfilling relationship with a horse. It was all about balance; give and take; trust.
My reveries were interrupted when the loose horses and mules took off at a sharp trot. Coihueco, naturally, did not want to be left behind and set off in pursuit. I yanked on the reins. Coihueco angrily shook his head from side to side. I yanked harder. Coihueco stretched his neck towards the ground so that I was almost pulled out of the saddle. So much for give and take. Our relationship was in freefall.
Luckily, the loose horses slowed to a walk. Coihueco followed suit and we enjoyed a few more minutes of peaceful coexistence, clip-clopping along the track in the warm sunlight. I patted him on the neck. We had weathered the crisis.
“Good boy,” I cooed in his ear.
The words were barely out of my mouth when disaster struck. Spooked by a sudden gust of wind the loose horses and mules took off at a canter and disappeared around a corner. Coihueco grew desperate. He neighed and whinnied. His kicked his hind legs. He strained and tugged at the reins, shaking his head from side to side. Up ahead was a road with cattle trucks thundering along it. I saw us hurtling towards it, a truck bearing down on us, like that scene at the beginning of the movie The Horse Whisperer. I would be pitched out of the saddle, my spinal column would be shattered, I would never walk again …
Jimmy Langman/Patagon JournalJimmy Langman/Patagon Journal
“Whoa there, boy!” I called, doing my best to sound like a cowboy.  “Steady now.” 
The moment I loosened the reins, Coihueco tried to take off again. And the further away his chums got, the more agitated he became.  He pawed the ground, he wheeled around in circles, he snorted. Sweat poured down my back. Coihueco could feel my fear and like all horses – this is why I hate them! – he was quick to exploit it. Any moment, I thought, he is going to rise up on his back legs and throw me backwards off the saddle onto the road, leaving me lying there, paralysed. Like Christopher Reeve!
I spotted Claudio’s white Toyota pick-up truck. Taking off my hat, I waved it frantically in the air. But they were too far away to notice. So I decided to turn round. But where was reverse gear? I pulled sharply on the left rein. Coihueco stood his ground. I hauled even harder on the reins, forcing his head round until his neck was almost at ninety degrees to his body. Any moment, I thought I would tear the bit right out of his mouth. But still he refused to turn.
“We’re going to turn around, Coihueco,” I hissed, through gritted teeth.  “Whether you f***ing well like it or not!”
Pulling on the reins with all my might, I managed to turn him. But he merely wheeled around so that he was again facing the direction his chums had disappeared. In my mounting desperation, I began to send Coihueco seriously mixed signals. I yanked on the reins, banged my heel into his flank. It was like flooring the accelerator of a car and simultaneously pulling on the handbrake.
There was only one thing for it. I had to get off this crazy horse. The trouble was: I couldn’t. My boots were stuck in the ring stirrups. I leaned over in the saddle and tried to tug the right boot loose but only succeeded in nearly falling off.
At that moment, two men appeared ahead of me pushing a bicycle. From their dress – baggy trousers, white work shirts, boots and flat caps – they looked like farm workers.
 “El Caballo! El Caballo!”  I gibbered, like a madman, waving my hat. “The horse!  The horse!”
The two men stared at me.
“El Caballo!”  I yelled. 
Si, si senor.” They nodded and smiled.  “Que es un caballo …”
Yes, it’s a horse. And?
I pointed frantically at the stirrups. “Un caballo! Un caballo!”
Finally, the two men understood. They grabbed the reins and held Coihueco still. I reached down and tugged first one, then the other, boot free and jumped to the ground. My legs were trembling, but I was back on terra firma.
Muchas gracias, senor!”  I said, pumping the hand of the man holding Coihueco. 
He held the reins out to me.
I shook my head, raising my hands in that sheepish, it’s-nothing-to-do-with-me way that Italian soccer players employ when they have just committed a foul. The men looked at each other, bemused. Then the four us began to walk up the track. My legs felt like jelly.
Coihueco ambled along contentedly, relieved to have the madman off his back.
“Maybe you want to ride in the pick-up, after all?" said Claudio, with a chuckle, as he drew level with us in his pick-up truck.
I grinned back. And silently vowed I would never, ever, for the rest of my days, get up on a horse’s back again.     
British writer Simon Worrall has written for National Geographic, London Times, Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Conde Nast Traveler, among other publications. In Issue 3 of Patagon Journal's magazine, we published an excerpt from his book, “River of Desire: A Journey Of The Heart Through Patagonia.” The book stemmed from research he did while working on his January 2004 National Geographic magazine article about Patagonia.