“Of the many cowboys of the Americas, none remains as shrouded in mystery and contradiction as Chile’s huaso,” says Richard Slatta in Cowboys of the Americas. Certainly the huaso holds a special place in Chile’s perception of its national identity. But the definition of the huaso is somewhat confused and subject to differing interpretations. The one you’re most likely to come across is that of the “gentleman rider”, the middle-class horseman who, while not a part of the landed elite, is a good few social rungs up from the landless labourer. This is the huaso you’ll see in cueca performances and at rodeos.
These gentlemen riders are part of a romanticized image of the Chilean countryside and a far cry from the much larger and perhaps more authentic group who carried out the real horse-work on the land. More akin to the Argentine gaucho and the Mexican vaquero, this other type of huaso was a landless, badly paid and poorly dressed ranch-hand who worked on the large haciendas during the cattle round-up season. Despite the harsh reality of his lifestyle, the lower-class huaso is also the victim of myth-making, frequently depicted as a paragon of virtue and happiness.
All types of huasos, whatever their social status, were renowned for outstanding horsemanship, marvelled at for their practice of training their horses to stop dead in their tracks at a single command (la sentada). A skill mastered in the southern Central Valley was that of the bolas – three stones or metal balls attached to long leather straps, which were hurled at animals and wrapped around their legs, bringing them to the ground. Huasos also developed a host of equestrian contests including the juego de cañas (jousting with canes), the tiro al gallo (a mounted tug-of-war) and topeadura (a side-by-side pushing contest). Today these displays have a formal outlet in the regular rodeos in the Central Valley. As for the working huaso, you’ll still come across him in the back roads of rural central Chile.