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Heroes of the Pampas

by CuChullaine O’Reilly

When John Labouchere rode 5,000 miles through the Andes mountains, he cited one man as his inspiration.  When Tim Severin rode from Paris to Jerusalem on a two-year trip, he credited the same equestrian explorer as his hero.  When I rode more than 1,000 continuous miles through the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan, I offered him my silent thanks.  Margaret Leigh rode the length of England and fondly remembered this man as her guiding light.  Robin Hanbury-Tenison rode along the Great Wall of China.  And Vladimir Fissenko rode from Patagonia to Alaska.

All because of one man – Aimé Tschiffely – the world’s most improbable equestrian hero!  

Seventy years ago a quiet unassuming Swiss man with no previous equestrian experience set the high water mark against which all 20th century equestrian explorations are still compared.   These maps show the route taken by Aimé, Mancha and Gato from Buenos Aires to New York.

Click on images to enlarge them.

And he did it on descendants of the horses of the Conquistadors.

The story of Tschiffely, Mancha and Gato, the heroes of the pampas, is the unlikely tale of a man and two horses who the world mocked.  Decried as a suicidal Don Quixote with two old horses, their Cinderella story has passed down into modern legend as the most important equestrian travel tale of the 20th century.

Yet it was a legend that almost never came to be.

Perhaps it was in fact because he had no prior equestrian knowledge to fall back on that 29-year-old Tschiffely ignored the legion of critics who told him his quest to ride 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Washington D.C. in 1925 was “impossible” and “absurd.”

Not only did this brash neophyte propose to attempt this equestrian suttee, he said he was going to do it on two elderly horses, ages 15 and 16, owned by a Patagonian Indian, who were currently unbroken and running free on the Argentine pampas.  In his own words, “they were the wildest of the wild.”

It was no wonder he had more skeptics than supporters.

Tschiffely, who had only recently learned to ride, may not have known the difference between a hackamore and a halter ……. but he did know his history.

Decades before the world rediscovered the legitimate importance of the Spanish horse – Tschiffely, an amateur historian, set out to prove that one breed, the Criollo, was the hardiest horse alive.

He wrote, “The Criollos are the descendants of a few horses brought to Argentina in 1535 by Don Pedro Mendoza, the founder of the city of Buenos Aires.  These animals were the finest Spanish stock, at that time the best in Europe, with an admixture of Arab and Barb blood.  That they were the finest horses in America is borne out by history and tradition.”

Later, when Buenos Aires was sacked by Indians and its inhabitants massacred, the descendants of these Spanish horses were abandoned to wander over the desolated country.  They lived and bred for hundreds of years by the laws of nature.  Hunted by Indians and wild animals, they learned to survive with droughts and a harsh climate that allowed only the fittest to survive.

 A Life of Danger

Almost four hundred years after the sacking of Buenos Aires, Tschiffely stood ready to swing into the saddle, determined to prove that the two weather­beaten Criollos which Emilio Solanet had just purchased from Chief Liempichun, (“I Have Feathers”) were the legitimate descendants of Don Pedro Mendoza’s once-proud bloodline.

In a 21st century era, wherein the majority of horses are pampered pets, it is hard for many people to realise that the wild Criollo geldings, Mancha and Gato, travelled more than a thousand miles across the Pampas before reaching the Solanet ranch.  Little did they know they had another 10,000 miles to go!

Local horsemen who told the press, “The man’s mad,” can hardly be blamed for their initial skepticism.  Up till then Tschiffely’s most grueling task had been teaching in a posh school for boys outside Buenos Aires.  True, he had knocked around the world, leaving home at an early age to immigrate first to England, before taking the teaching job in Argentina.  But his only experience with expeditions of any kind had been acquired from the safety of an armchair, as he read of the early exploits of the Conquistadors and their equine companions.

His lack of equestrian skills or exploration credentials never bothered him.  Remarkably self-assured, the slightly-built red-head balanced the skepticism of his critics against his own need to discover the wild parts of the South American continent.  His plan to ride Criollos to Washington D.C. was the natural outgrowth of his years of research into South American Spanish history.

He wrote, “Eventually there was only one thing to do:  screw up my courage, burn all the bridges behind me, and start a new life, no matter whither it might lead.  Convinced that he who has not lived dangerously has never tasted the salt of life, one day I decided to take the plunge."

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