Name of breed: Criollo, sometimes called the Argentine Criollo
Country of origin: South America – Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay
Breed origin: The Criollo is synonymous with the gaucho (the horseman and cowboy of the pampas) – the saying goes that a gaucho without a horse is the same as a man without legs. The Criollo’s history dates back to 1535, when a shipment of 100 purebred Andalusian stallions arrived with the Spanish conquistadors in Buenos Aires. When the hostility of the natives forced the Spanish to abandon Buenos Aires just five years later, they were forced to release some of horses into the wild. This was far from the only occasion when horses escaped during these tumultuous years of war, conquering and settlement; and when Buenos Aires was resettled in 1580, the baguales (feral horses of the pampas) were estimated to number 12,000. The baguales also mixed with horses passing through the region as people migrated between Brazil, Uruguay and Chile, including Dutch and Portuguese horses such as the Lusitano. With natural selection quickly sorting the strong from the weak, the baguales adapted to the harsh conditions of the pampas and developed incredible hardiness, disease resistance and stamina. For four centuries, they ran wild, gradually becoming indispensable to the local Indigenous people, who raised semi-wild herds to use for hunting, herding, transport and games. Towards the end of this period they also became the favourite mount of the gauchos, and between the wild herds, the horses of the Indigenous peoples and the horses of the settlers, the Criollo wove itself into the very fabric of South America. Gaucho culture evolved around the Criollo, from the recado that doubles as both the gaucho’s saddle and his bed to the poncho that keeps him warm and dry.
In the 19th century, British Thoroughbreds, coach horses and French Percherons were introduced to South America, and a huge percentage of the Criollo population was crossbred to create either a lighter, more elegant horse or a larger, heavier horse. By the end of the century, the purebred Criollo was threatened with extinction. Thankfully, at the beginning of the 20th century, Dr Emilio Solanet spearheaded the preservation of the ‘creole’ horse. In the southern provinces of Argentina, a group of 200 purebred horses was found in the care of an Indigenous group, and Solanet bought them as the foundation stock of his breeding programme. After amassing around 2,000 Criollos on his estancia, Solanet selected the very best and created an official breed standard based on their characteristics. The breed registry was formed in 1923 and the purity of the Criollo has been safeguarded ever since. In the intervening years, it has proven itself invaluable to the gauchos of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, remaining one of the strongest symbols of the region and a celebrated part of everyday life on the estancias.
Distinguishing features: The Criollo is a tough, hardy horse with a strong and very well-muscled body, a broad chest and sloping shoulders. While there is some variation in the shape of the head, it is generally straight or slightly convex, with a wide forehead, fine muzzle and lively, expressive eyes. The average height is 14.1 to 14.3 hands high and a vast range of colourings is seen. Primitive markings such as a dorsal stripe along the back and zebra stripes on the legs are common, and some Criollos even have curly coats! The Criollo is intelligent, willing, brave and sensible. It is famed for its stamina, as well as its ability to tolerate extremely harsh conditions, thriving on little fodder and being very resistant to disease. Their movements are smooth and agile, with some able to pace rather than trot, making them supremely comfortable to ride. This combined with their speed, agility and innate cow sense makes them perfect for the gaucho way of life.
Modern day Criollo: Today the Criollo is used mainly as a working horse, with much of South America’s cattle work still undertaken on horseback rather than with vehicles. It is also used in many traditional games such as polo and rodeo events, as well as long distance races, which have always been a means for Criollos to prove their mettle. However, the breed is so naturally adaptable that it can be – and is – used for a wide variety of purposes, from trail riding to western riding to reining to endurance.
You can ride Criollos on several of our horse riding holidays, too! Pictured above is our guide Jakob with his beautiful Criollo on The Patagonia Trail – and there’s also the Estancia Ride in Torres del Paine and Canyons & Waterfalls, Brazil.
Image credits: Globetrotting, J. G. Martini.