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The Chilean Horse,outside of the country of Chile, is hardly known to any people other than criollo breeders and admirers of criollos.
This breed is the oldest South American registry and has over a hundred years of official history, as it dates back to 1893.
The breeding program evolved in response to the stringent demands placed on horses for cattle ranching and especially for the war that Chile fought with its native Indian population, the Mapuche, for over three centuries. The war created the necessity for maintaining the breeding of exceptionally hardy and courageous horses, ready for battle.
Government recognition for the breeding program of the Chilean Horse was granted as early as the late 1800’s. This breed is therefore the oldest one of the various Criollo registries, generally the oldest horse registry of South America, and even the oldest stock horse breed in all the Americas. However, like most American breeds, it really goes back farther than that, as its ancestors were Iberian horses brought over by the conquistadores.
The first breeder was Father Rodrigo Gonzalez Marmolejo, who reportedly bred these horses as early as the 1500’s. Even then, the government exerted influence on quality requirements, as the practical demands of war imposed an uncompromising selection. Breeders of Chilean Horses produced horses tough and agile and brave enough to counteract the Indians, and eventually subdue them.
This breed is said to have originated in Peru (the Vice Kingdom of New Castile), with many of the foundation stock having come from what is now Bolivia. Some of the best stallions had been picked, however, from everywhere in the Vice Kingdom for Chile’s second governor, Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza. The severe screening of the foundation stock had already taken place, because to get to central Chile, the horses had to cross over the Andes Mountains and conquer the world’s driest desert.
Chilean Horses trace back to the hardy animals that survived that kind of test at the outset, culling anything that was not completely sound and did not have the toughest hooves and legs, and tons of energy to boot.
These horses came to enjoy quite a reputation in subsequent centuries, and were sometimes even exported back to the Royal courts in the Old World.
WHY AND HOW THE BREED CHANGED
With cattle raising the main enterprise in Chile, the breed evolved in open range cattle ranching, with the cow herding skills honed with every generation. Huge yearly roundups were the rule by the 18th Century, where the Chilean Horse proved its cow sense and athletic ability. From these works derived the modern-day rodeo disciplines in Chile. The horses were selected for agility and courage in confronting and pinning untamed cattle, while maintaining their level-headedness, and their ability to sustain long days of work.
Reportedly, as early as the late 1700’s, there were farms that kept pedigree records of the horses they were breeding.
When in the 19th Century Chile’s independence from Spain resulted in a new demand for war horses, the “lowly” working horse advanced to be elected to again represent the Republic of Chile. During this time, the Chilean Horse’s characteristics were further defined by influential breeders. Also, match races at sprinting distances became popular throughout the country, similar to North America, and even nowadays does the cowboy of Chile, the “huaso”, evaluate his horse more by its speed than its endurance.
Along with a certain decrease in agricultural estates and the introduction of machines and automobiles, the use of horses was in decline just as in other countries. What saved the breed was a great increase in popularity of the rodeo in Chile.
IN TODAY’S WORLD
Since the turn into the 20th century, the rodeo has become ever bigger, and the Chilean Horse is more and more bred to be able to succeed in the sport. Experts attribute the survival of the breed to specialization for the rodeo, demanding skills for which it had been selected for centuries
There has never been a move for the use of outside blood in the breed, because those participating are convinced that no other breeds can hold a candle to these horses’ ability in the traditional rodeo of Chile. Other breeds, especially European breeds, were largely absent anyway in this country that always considered its horses the best in South America.
The isolation which the Chilean Horse enjoyed, also results from the geographical situation, with borders that were always hard to cross. By the time modern transportation made new breeds available, Chile was one of the last South American countries affected. Traditional breeders were unwavering in their determination and did not succumb to the temptation of crossbreeding, and the founding of the registry helped much to preserve the national breed. But the decisive factor was the establishment and popularization of the kind of rodeo that everyone felt no other breed could be similarly successful in.
Criollo breeds are generally known for their hardiness, and the Chilean is no exception. With a low metabolism, a high threshold for discomfort, great immunity to diseases and a remarkable recovery rate, strong hooves, and abundant energy, they are true workers
A somewhat convex head profile, typical for all breeds of Iberian origin, reportedly is a preference among the breeders of Chile. Aficionados of the breed think that it is set apart from other criollo breeds by its natural athleticism, trainability, courage and cow sense, which are, after all, the product of close to 500 years of selective breeding.
In contrast to the other Criollo breeds of the Americas, the Chilean Horse has continuously been under the influence and service of Man. Depending on one’s outlook, this may be considered a plus or a disadvantage, but the “baguales” of the pampa, the “cimarrones” of the “llanos”, or the mustangs of North America evolved during centuries in a wild state, that is through selection by Mother Nature. El Caballo Chileno, however, was built through selective breeding by Man for specific needs in the mountainous terrain of Chile. It is known for its sure-footedness up and down mountain slopes, and in spite of its unimpressive size (13.1-14.2 hands, resp. 1.36 m-1.48 m), the Chilean Horse has proven it can carry an adult rider through the most demanding country.
This breed, known as the “Caballo Chileno”, shares a strong genetic and cultural background with the Criollo registries of other South American countries, and cooperates with them to a degree. The breeders in Chile feel that their breed is of unique status, and they run a closed studbook. What is clear is that there is a huge amount of national pride involved with “the horse of Chile” - like one enthusiast in Chile said: “The true name of this unique breed has always been Caballo Chileno - Chilean Horse, words that represent something historic, unique, admirable, and very ours”.