It wasn’t so much that my legs hurt, everything hurt. I dismounted from the saddle and staggered around the horse, removing sheepskin, gaucho saddle, cinches and blankets before removing the halter and allowing my horse to wander the inside paddock for the remainder of the evening. I had successfully completed my first day as a gaucho on a working sheep and cattle ranch in northern Uruguay. What a fantastic day!
After a 9 hour, 2 bus journey from Colonia, I was picked up at the Tacuarembó bus station by the owner of Panagea estación, Juan Manuel – a George Clooney look-alike*. A Swiss guy and I were going to be the only guests at the ranch for the week, and so we hopped in the pick up to head the hour north to Panagea, a 3rd generation Merilin sheep and Brangus cattle ranch.
Uruguay is an hour ahead of Argentina, so at 7.30pm it was still golden summer light. The longer hours are fortunate considering the ranch does not have electricity (the network does not reach this far) and a generator provides light for 4 hours in the evenings. There is no cell coverage at the house (gauchos are experts at riding horses with one hand, the other held in the air to find coverage), no internet and solar heated showers.
Once the generator stops, the darkness is absolute – save for thousands of stars. Going to bed early is no hardship though – after 7.5 hours on a horse and chasing cattle around the yards, I as yawning at 9:45pm, and slept like a stone the entire week.
As Panagea is a working ranch, we joined gaucho Balinga and Juan Manuel to carry out the scheduled activities for this time of the year. Luckily I had missed sheep shearing by a week (so. much. work). Every day we saddled up our horses gaucho style under the watchful eye of Juan Manuel. Gaucho saddles are a lot flatter than western saddles, and you add a sheepskin to the top which makes for a much more comfortable ride.
Each day our jobs were different: we mustered cattle into the yards for tagging, spraying and checked and administered to infection. We mustered cows with new calves into different paddocks, treated infections and wounds (blurk: maggots) weaned lambs, drafted off the older sheep and cows and moved them back through other animals to their new paddocks.
I was surprised how precise you can be on a horse – you can move a mob of sheep through another mob in a paddock and not lose a single one!
We went out in the truck to pick up a calf that needed antibiotics and re-built part of the garage the wool truck hit. We worked from 8:30am – 11:30am, after lunch had a siesta, and saddled up again at 3pm, getting back in around 7:30pm.
Riding gaucho style is also different to western riding. The reins are held in one hand, and the horses either walk or trot. To direct the horse left or right, you move the reins in the direction you want to go, and the very very well-trained horse will obey. Eventually I found I wasn’t even thinking about directing the horse, we were naturally stopping breakaway cows on the edge of the herd as they started moving. It was like being in the Matrix.
Every evening after shedding stinky horse- cattle- and wool-smelling clothes and after a much-anticipated shower, we sat with Juan Manuel and chatted over salami, cheese and crackers before dinner. Juan Manuel is an auto-didactic self-styled guru – able to converse on any topic at all. His specialty? Romance advice.
By the third day in the saddle I felt like I knew what I was doing, and we were even trusted to open and close the road gates from our horses. My body was starting to feel the accumulated work though – especially after days and days of extended bus travel. It was a really nice feeling to be of use again. Now I just need to work out when I can return.
* Yes, I promised the ranch owner Juan Manuel that I would write that