Travel: How I earned my spurs with the cowboys

Jasper Winn wanted to join some Spanish 'vaqueros' herding their cattle. He was in for a rough ride
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The Independent Travel
HOW FAR DO you have to go to be a cowboy? Well, you've got to wear some pretty damn-fool hats, and learn how to walk in spurs, for a start. But geographically you only have to make it as far as Spain to be able to do some pretty authentic cowboying, and with much better wine than any American ranch has to offer. All this makes sense - the Spanish conquistadores with their horsemanship, gun-backed swagger and habit of filling the freshly subjugated New World with cattle, were the root stock for the myth and the reality of the Wild West. And they left plenty of proto-cowboys behind to mind the farm back in Europe.

Even so, I was surprised to find Spanish vaqueros - cowboys - in the western province of Extremadura, were still herding cattle on horseback, moving long-distance between winter grazing grounds in the lowlands and summer pastures high in the Sierra Gredos. Each June around 30,000 head of cattle strike off for the north, and fresh grass. Some of the herds, which can cover 300km or more on their annual trek, number only a few dozen animals, others several hundred. For thousands of years this annual transhumance of cattle has been the response to a climate described by the Spanish as "three months of winter and nine months of hell". It was this combination of weather and movement that created the first cowboys.

Seven years ago I set off, on the first of many trips, to play the B- movie greenhorn. By vowing to ride anything with four legs, I was able to join a bunch of vaqueros on their gruelling cross-country trek through the heart of modern Europe. I had a pair of riding boots, a harmonica, and a stockman's hat.

On our first night out, in the darkness before dawn, I pulled my wet blanket closer. Cold rain dripped from my hat brim into the smoke of a sullen fire. I was with a team of cowboys hired to drive 290 of the Marques de Valdueza's pedigree cattle north, and the vaqueros were still mistrustful of this stranger in their midst.

Beyond the feeble light of the flames, the cattle shifted restlessly in a discord of brass bells. Dionisio, the head vaquero, stirred himself to walk around the herd; bow-legged, cigarette glowing, whistling softly. Manolo, the horseman, haggard after 12 hours in the saddle and a sleepless night, reached out to shake me fully awake. "Oiga, hombre! Desayuno - breakfast," he croaked, passing me a bottle of brandy.

We drank breakfast before splashing through the mud to tack-up the horses. Emiliano and Fermin were ghostly figures in the rain, urging the couched cattle to their feet. There was the clunking of heavy iron stirrups as we swung up into our saddles, and then the harsh cries of: "Vaca! Vaca! HOOOOOOO-UUUUPP vacas!" As the herd gained momentum the bells on the lead cows rang out louder and the erratic clanging became a regular tolling. The sun was already drying off the ground and our clothes.

Over the following days, as we rode through the heat, I fell into the rhythm of the cattle's slow progress towards the mountains. Our route across the plains, rivers and hills of Extramadura was ordained by long usage, and marked by familiar landmarks. The scimitar-horned, black cattle moved at the speed of a thunder-head across the plains, grazing as they went. And we, seemingly invisible on the flanks, were part of the natural world riding among azure-winged magpies, great bustards and hoopoes.

The canadas - cross-country drove roads - we followed were a unique environment, and the passing of the cattle was an important part of their ecology. Kites and kestrels pounced on insects and rodents flushed by the pounding of a thousand hooves, and vultures circled down on those cattle, (always from other herds, Dionicio, was quick to point out), that had been lost en route.

Having failed to master the rough local cigarettes or the acidic wine spurting from the communal wine skin, my last chance to win acceptance into the inner world of the vaqueros came in the shape of a horse.

Mustapha offered his infrequent riders a menu of upsetting tricks, bucking, rearing or bolting as the fancy took him. I, marked down as cannon-fodder, spent a morning being flung skywards and occasionally picking myself off the ground in a rough-riding style dubbed the metodo irlandaise by the fascinated vaqueros. This, due to luck in landing on my feet, they saw as a cunning way of wearing down a difficult horse by dismounting at great speed before resolutely climbing aboard again. It was enough to earn me my spurs in the cowboys' minds, and to give me work on subsequent drives, coaxing awkward horses into something approaching submission. I'd become a card-carrying vaquero.

The life that I came to share with the vaqueros had changed little over the centuries. Long hours in the saddle; stews of chorizo and beans ladled out of a cauldron from atop a campfire; the pleadingly aggressive cries of cante jondo sung as the sun slipped down over Portugal.

Though the motivation for the cattle drive was mainly economic - it was cheaper to drive the cattle on foot than to truck them, and made for a finer, leaner meat as well - there was a romantic undercurrent to the trip. The Spanish felt that the transhumance with its cattle, horses and men moving through a harsh landscape summed up the soul of their country. Friends of the herds' owner, many of them English, would come out to ride with us at weekends as paying guests. Most were excellent riders and well-versed in the Spanish skill of having a good time. Impromptu parties would spring up under the trees, with flamenco as the soundtrack, even more and better wine flowing from the botas, and horses being raced alongside the cattle.

The pleasures of the transhumance were those of rural Spain, and as they had been for generations. But the dangers were of our own century. No longer the wolves and bandits of the past but now the four lanes of traffic where, for two miserable days, the herd was forced to cross and re-cross the Madrid-Lisbon highway. The vaqueros became Don Quixotes, wracked by chivalry, tilting at the juggernauts and speeding cars with their varras held like lances, forcing the traffic to a halt as we galloped the cattle, packed tight as a can of spam, from one side to another.

It was when we finally breasted the pass of the Puerto del Pico and the cattle flooded into belly-high grass, that we felt the full magic of the transhumance. Over our 12-day trek we had beaten time itself. We had turned the calendar back from the searing summer of the lowlands to a lush spring that here, high in the mountains, would last until the first snows of winter.

I had entwined my seasons with those of the vaqueros. Having shared the wine, the songs, the jokes, the hardships, and the dangers of their trek on my first season cowboying, they counted me as a companero, and assumed I would return. They were right; each spring I sense the tolling of the cow bells, feel my legs bowing to take the shape of a horse and find myself drawn again to Spain, always arriving in time to mount up and ride out behind the cattle.

And since hitting the ground one night in a bar in Navalmoral I've had my character sealed in the clear acrylic of humour-edged legend that passes for history among the vaqueros. As Dionicio delights in recounting, I am a remarkable man: "Un hombre who can ride the worst horses, the most difficult animals, but ... and this is strange ..." always the long pause and a trago of wine before continuing, "... he gets thrown by a bar stool. Muy raro - very strange?"

cowboy fact file

Getting there

Flights to Madrid with IBERIA (0171-8300011) or BA (0345-222111). Train to Badajoz/Caceres or hire car to meet up with vaqueros. An estate driver can follow in the client's hire car, carrying luggage and providing transport to accommodation.

Accommodation

Guest vaqueros stay in paradors, hotels or pensions close to the route. The vaqueros themselves camp out or stay in rough huts - guest vaqueros can also camp in tents on some nights.

Food

Being a cowboy is not a good occupation for vegetarians. Cowboys live on a diet of almost unrelieved cholesterol: wild boar sausages, pata negra ham, manchego cheeses, rich stews and local wines. Guest vaqueros have the added luxury of a supply car loaded with an ice-box full of beer, and any fruits and vegetables half-hearted cowboys feel they need.

Riding

The horses for guest vaqueros are Anglo-Arabs - superb rides but only suitable for those who are experienced at all paces. Though guests are able to ride shorter days than the vaqueros, (there is a horsemen to saddle and de-saddle, and take over horses if guests need to get back on solid ground), the hours are long and riders need to be fit. The terrain crossed includes dehesa woodlands, river crossings, roads and steep inclines. Saddles are Spanish style with high cantles and pommels, wide Crusader- type stirrups and sheepskin padding.

Kit

Guest vaqueros need a wide-brimmed hat against the sun, comfortable trousers (Wranglers are the cowboys' choice), well worn-in leather boots; a good waterproof coat or poncho. Clothing has to cover all weathers. R M Williams, (0171-6296222) supply excellent moleskin riding trousers . A sleeping bag, water bottle, Spanish dictionary, light binoculars for bird-watching, a multi-blade knife and camera are essential. All riders must have suitable insurance.

Costs

Horses, saddlery, the services of a horseman and guide, mid-morning 'second breakfast', lunch and wine are included in a daily fee of pounds 125 per person. Camping with an evening meal can be arranged for some nights at a nominal cost.

Group size

Minimum four guest vaqueros - maximum eight.

Dates

Guest vaqueros riding with the Azagala herd fit in with the movement of the cattle. Dates offered for 1998 are 17-19 June inclusive (lowland dehesa with good bird watching), and 22-25 June inclusive, (crossing rivers, into the hills).

Booking and information

For enquiries regarding riding with the Azagala herd on the 1998 Transhumance, fax Alonso Alvarez de Toledo, in Madrid on 00 34 91 3084034 (English spoken).

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