Venezuelan horse race preserves cowboy customs

Apr 5, 2012, 10:02 PM

Associated Press

SAN FERNANDO DE APURE, Venezuela (AP) – At the blast of a whistle, a half dozen horses plunge into the Apure River and set out for the distant shore in a unique annual spectacle commemorating a historic battle.

Thousands of cowboys and their families gather to watch each year on the anniversary of a 1819 battle fought by soldiers led by independence heroes Simon Bolivar and Gen. Jose Antonio Paez.

Paez and about 150 soldiers swam across the river alongside their horses, then attacked and defeated a force of more than 1,000 Spanish troops who had been sent to quash their rebellion, which eventually led to independence.

Today, only the horses do the swimming, as competitors in canoes guide them across the river.

Spectators lined up along a bridge to watch last weekend’s races. Ranchers and other participants compete for bragging rights as well as cash prizes.

Marcos Briceno, one of the judges, said the race is a way to keep alive traditions in “Los Llanos,” the sparsely populated plains spanning much of central Venezuela from the Orinoco River to the Andes.

The river is about 1,800 meters (more than a mile) across, depending on recent rainfall, Briceno said.

The race begins when a whistle blows and horses jump into the water. Two competitors man each canoe: One of them paddles furiously while the other holds a rope attached to the horse’s neck and encourages the animal to swim faster.

Dozens of horses compete every year, with five to eight participating in each race.

“We cannot allow these traditions to be lost,” said Francisco Perez, a 54-year-old competitor. “It’s splendid. … The people are the winners because they get so excited.”

When the race is over, competitors and spectators head for the nearby fairgrounds, where they feast on roasted beef, drink cold beer and listen to traditional folk music called “joropo.”

Adults watch bullfights, children play games for prizes such as stuffed animals and vendors sell cowboy hats, leather belts and boots.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Venezuelan horse race preserves cowboy customs