HORSES AND HORSEMANSHIP
People who visited California in the 1830s and 1840s said that no one in the world could surpass the ranchero (rancho owner) and his vaqueros (cowboys) in their horsemanship skills. Little boys began riding when they were four or five years old. Girls also learned to ride horses, but it was the boys who were expected to become skilled riders. It was said that a ranchero's home was on the back of a horse.
Many of the vaqueros were Indians. The California Indians, too, became excellent horsemen. Many had learned to handle horses at the missions, and became skilled riders.
Horses were brought into California from Mexico by the Spanish soldiers who came to protect the missions. They were Arabian horses that had originally come from Spain.
Over the years, the number of horses increased greatly. By the early 1820s there were herds of wild horses, all descended from those first Mexican horses. There were so many wild horses that they became a nuisance, taking grazing areas away from the cattle. For this reason, many of the wild horses were killed by the rancheros.
Because horses were as numerous as dogs or chickens, they were not considered to be of great value by the rancheros. One visitor reported, "Horses are the cheapest thing in California, very fair ones being worth about ten dollars apiece, and the poorer being often sold for three or four dollars."
The horses were tough, and the rancheros rode them hard. Each rancho had many horses. There were no stables. The horses ran loose, grazing wherever they wished. Like the cattle, horses were branded with the rancho brand to show where they belonged. Also, the horses usually had long leather reatas (ropes) attached to their necks, dragging along behind them on the ground. This made it easier to catch a horse when it was needed.
THE RANCHERO AND HIS HORSE
The ranchero seldom became attached to a particular horse. A man would catch a horse in the morning, throw a saddle and bridle on it, and use it all day. At night, he would let the horse go loose, and then catch another one in the morning. The ranchero usually kept a saddled horse at his door. He seldom walked, even to the closest neighbor, but always jumped on his horse when he wanted to go anywhere.
When making a longer trip, the ranchero would take extra horses. When one horse was tired, it would just be turned loose to graze, and the ranchero would ride another horse.
It was not common for horses to be used to pull heavy loads. The carretas or carts used to haul loads were pulled by oxen or donkeys.
Part of the hospitality of the Spanish Don was to offer horses to any guests as they left. The guests could ride the horses to wherever they were going, then just let the horses go. It was said that a man could ride from one end of California to the other without any money or a horse of his own, and live well on the hospitality of rancheros along the way.
The saddles used by the rancheros were big and heavy, with large pommels (knobs) in front. The pommel was used to coil the reata when it was not in use. The saddles were often decorated with silver designs. Behind the saddle was placed a half-moon shaped piece of leather called the anqueta. This piece of leather covered the horse's hindquarters. The side next to the horse's hide was lined with sheepskin and the leather side was stamped with designs.
The bridle (harness around the horse's head) also had much silver on it. Stirrups were cut from a block of wood about 2½ inches thick. The spurs were inlaid with gold and silver. The spurs were made with four or five sharply pointed rowels about one inch long. They were heavy spurs, capable of hurting the horse.
Because of the silver used to decorate the saddle and bridle, these items were worth a great deal of money. Rancheros were as proud of their saddles as they were of their fine clothes. It seems that the rancheros gave more care to their saddles than they did to their horses.
The men frequently gave exhibitions of their skill in horseback riding. Riding competitions were a usual event at fiestas. Riders liked to show their strength and skill by leaping into the saddle from the ground, without using the stirrups to mount the horse.
Rancheros and vaqueros were very skillful in using the reata. They were proud of the fact that they could lasso any animal -- cow, horse, bull, wild deer, grizzly bear. They often competed with each other in lassoing contests.
Children learned to use the reata by lassoing chickens with heavy string. Young men were taught to make reatas, a skill that was valued. Four or six half-inch wide rawhide strips were worked until they were soft and flexible, then braided.
Catching wild horses was a way for a young ranchero or vaquero to show his skill at horsemanship. It was dangerous to be among the wild horses, for a herd of them could trample a rider to death.
When a new batch of horses was needed on a rancho, a group of young men would go into the valleys to catch some wild horses. The riders preferred to ride bareback (no saddle) when they were trying to catch wild horses. Each rider followed one wild horse until he could get close enough to lasso it around the neck. Then the rider held his horse still while the wild horse fought against the rope. When the wild horse tired, the rider could lead it back to the rancho.
Horse racing was very popular with the rancheros. Races were often held on Sundays, or in connection with a fiesta. Race horses were groomed, their manes and tails braided and tied with ribbons.
A course was laid out, and the starter called "Santiago!" to begin the race. Crowds always gathered to watch a race, and many people bet on who would win. A ranchero might win or lose several hundred cattle or many acres of land on one horse race.