The draft of the new Chilean Constitution – which will be submitted to a plebiscite on September 4 – recognizes animals as “sentient” beings and “with the right to live a life free of abuse.” If the text is approved, article 23 could have an impact on the Civil Code, where they are defined as “movable property” capable of moving by themselves. Also in one of the oldest traditions of the South American country: the rodeo, which consists of a couple of riders, mounted on Chilean horses, accumulating points according to how and where they hit a steer against a padded area in a crescent. This practice, recognized as a sport since 1962, is not governed by the animal protection law. The regulations stipulate that they must respond to their “respective regulations”, a factor that causes hives among animalists, who are increasingly vocal in their fight to eliminate the rodeo.
60 kilometers south of the former National Congress of Santiago, where the future Magna Carta is being written, dozens of people wait impatiently for a piece of lamb or a pine pie to be brought to the table. “We were expecting 100 and 200 arrived,” excuses one of the three waitresses who serve the diners, practically all of them men. It is Sunday at the crescent of Valdivia de Paine, in Buin, and the atmosphere is festive. The huasos that circulate are of the same cut: tall, well-groomed and clean-shaven. Then their last names will be heard over the loudspeakers: Barros, Allende, Ruiz-Tagle, Ugarte. They wear the shirt inside the straight pants, short and fitted jacket, leather shoes and chupalla [sombrero de paja].
One of the riders is Cristian Moreno, 62, former president of the Chilean Rodeo Federation (Ferochi), the largest and most competitive of the six that exist in the country. Together, they number 40,000 members. The membership of the Ferochi has a value of 5,800 dollars per year. With this, members can participate in competitions and accumulate points with a view to the national championship held in Rancagua, 100 kilometers from the capital. The last edition, which took place a month ago, gathered 40,000 spectators. According to the federation itself, two million people attend annually as a public, being the second sport with the largest attendance. There is no ministerial count to support that figure.
Moreno gets off the horse to defend that it is “obvious” that animals are sentient. “The problem is another: if it is that sentience implies that one can or cannot use horses or animals in general in sports or production issues.” “We do not believe that it is reasonable to claim that animals are subjects of rights. What there are are obligations of the holders, ”he adds.
The article on animals approved by the constituents was born from a proposal presented by the Vegetarians Today Foundation. He got almost 26,000 signatures. Its president, Igancia Uribe, affirms by telephone that, although the ideal for them is that the rodeo be eliminated, their priority now is that it cease to be financed by public contributions. Each year, the rodeo receives about a million dollars “with the excuse that it is a national sport, but that money could be used for much more inclusive sports.” Uribe raises, and adds: “We believe that if it were stopped, the rodeo would come to an end by itself.”
“Indeed, there are many local clubs of low-income people who apply for municipal funds,” says Moreno. In 2018, the communes of Vitacura, Las Condes and La Reina, the three richest in Chile (Urban Life Quality Index), contributed about 20% of the income received by the rodeo, according to figures collected by the Vegetarian Foundation Today through the transparency law.
On inclusion, Moreno is blunt: “In Chile there is no sport that is more inclusive than rodeo.” He defends that they practice it from hill climbers to people who hold important positions and who, if it weren’t for the sport, would never have met. “It’s very violent when someone says ‘this should go away because I don’t like it.’ You ask someone from the rural sector which sport they feel closest to”. In the study Chilean Survey 2019, from Cadem, 26% identify with the rodeo. The rural population is 11.4% (2,247,649) and the urban, 88.6% (17,430,714), according to the National Institute of Statistics.
One of the riders calculated that he spends about $17,000 a year considering just one horse (animal transfers, trainer, membership, among other costs). “I have people hired to train the horse every day,” says Moreno. “If I have that possibility, I have an advantage, obviously. And if someone arrives and also hires two employees who are good horsemen, they have another advantage, that’s how it is”, he acknowledges. But he points out that this is one of the two ways to achieve success: the other is to be a good rider, with innate talent, who by standing out gets hired to compete. “It’s exactly the same as soccer,” he notes.
In recent years, the federation has made several changes to the regulations in favor of the steer who, as a rule, only runs once in his life. The objective of the modifications is to value technique more than strength. And the sanctions, for those who do not comply, are more serious than before. But Uribe, from the Fundación Vegetarianos Hoy, clarifies that they are not looking for an improvement in the conditions of the animals. “It’s a sport where you win points by smashing a small cow with a horse into a wall. There is no way to do it without animal abuse.”
Dr. Beatriz Zapata, general secretary of the Chilean Veterinary Medical College (Colmevet), believes that “it would be very healthy” for the rodeo if they were not the ones to supervise. “I don’t think there is any bad intention, but it is always good for an external body to monitor how another works, as happens with accreditations and certifications.” Zapata, director of the National Animal Welfare Commission of Colmevet, clarifies that the trade association does not have a consensus position regarding the rodeo and that she speaks in a personal capacity.
Moreno does not agree with a regulation controller. “How is another entity going to come that comes from I don’t know where, that is chosen by I don’t know who, to say what I can or cannot do in my organization. Obviously not.” The former president of the Chilean Rodeo Federation repeatedly defends that they comply with legal regulations. “If one reviews the regulations, one realizes that there are several things that could violate the welfare of animals,” says Zapata.
In 2020 the federation published an animal welfare manual. In it appear permitted elements to facilitate the herding of the steers, such as bags and plastic bottles with stones inside, something that is seen in Paine’s crescent when the cow does not want to move. They also pull them by the ears and tail. Decree 29 prohibits “throwing” or “dragging” from the queue. When nothing works they can go to the electric prod, “only a low voltage one”.
Regarding the apprehensions of the rodeo world, the general secretary of Colmevet states that the country is “in a moment of change, which always produces fear”, but sends a message to calm the waters: “In countries where animals have a different status there has not been an absolute revolution. No one has stopped eating meat and no one has stopped using animals for sport.”
The woman gets back on the horse
Michelle Recart, a country woman, was born on top of the horse. Her father, also a rider, introduced her to the world of rodeo in the 1980s. She came naturally to him. She was good. Great. By then, the rules of the sport stated that the hair could not touch the shirt. She didn’t talk about genders, but it was assumed that it was a male practice. Recart made a bow and began to compete. And to win. A week before she went to the 1983 Rancagua national final -and became the first woman to reach that instance-, the federation changed the regulations: the sport was only for men.
“In 2009, several ladies got together and organized a promotional women’s rodeo,” recalls Recart by phone. They invited a jury from the men’s federation to see them compete. Once again Recart won. Her father, who was a leader of the rodeo federation, started a campaign to include women, a conquest that was achieved in 2010. Why did it take so long to add them? “Because we are macho, no more, that is the reality,” says Moreno. In 2012, Recart was the first woman to qualify for the National Rodeo Championship and to reach the Rancagua final. A decade later, a second woman managed to repeat the feat of qualifying, but she did not make it to the final.
Recart and his father have steers. About 5,000. They rent them out for rodeos: $58 per animal. If it has to be sent to a destination far from their field, they charge 116. The rodeos usually last a weekend and on average they use 200 steers, so it is a significant income. “Every rancher lives off the kilos of meat he takes to the slaughterhouse. If they mistreated the steer, we couldn’t sell it later. It would not suit and no one would, ”she remarks.
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