A horse trek from Buenos Aires to New York
The pan-American journey of a Swiss adventurer and two Criollo horses: Gato and Mancha.
In the early XX c., the historical Argentine horse breed, the Criollo, was being forgotten and faced extinction.
A couple of enthusiasts recognised its features and were determined to save the breed that made the gaucho the free man of the Pampas and Patagonia, the one breed that fought in wars and helped the aboriginals endure the hardships of the coming of the Europeans. A great publicity stunt was needed to put the hardy Criollo ponies back on the spotlight: the longest one-way trip ever on horseback.
It was the Swiss Aimé Felix Tschiffely, recently relocated in Argentina as a teacher, who took upon himself this mission. Tschiffely was not a particularly experienced rider, but he had discovered the gauchos and the freedom they transmitted as masters of the vast Pampas; and also their humble ponies and marvelled at them, their endurance, hardiness and loyalty. Horse-breeder and estancia owner Emilio Solanet, the main sponsor of the Criollos and friend of Tschiffely, assigned him two middle aged horses that had not been broken yet, Gato and Mancha.
Gato and Mancha were around 15 years old when they were bought (with several other horses) by Solanet from an aboriginal chief from distant and rough Patagonia and taken to Buenos Aires to be tamed. Their personalities were evident, Gato was calmer and quiet, Mancha was alert, energetic and unwelcoming to strangers, both grew to love and accept only Tschiffely who trusted them, quite literally with his life.
In april 1925 the trio departed to New York. They would cross first the Pampas, and then jungles and deserts several times! Aswell as many different environments in between. They would both climb and cross the Andes, again several times, face up to 5.500 m of altitude (18400 ft), temperatures ranging from -18°c (-0.4° F) to 52°C (125° F), survive wild animals and endure insects, walk on ledges, and avoid quick-sands.
People in Argentina followed eagerly their adventures thanks to the letters that Tschiffely sent to the newspapers every time he got. Each anecdote of the odyssey came to highlight to the eyes of the readers the great qualities of the original Argentine breed. Argentina had always been a horse-culture country, but in the latter years most of the interest was on European breeds that were faster or more elegant, and the Criollo, smallish, calmer, not too speedy, was overlooked. Gato and Mancha were now reminding the country of the features of the Criollo: strength, stamina, resistance to disease, low requirements when it came to food, intelligence, and loyalty. The old Argentine saying, “la patria se hizo a caballo” (the motherland was built on horseback) did not recognise that it wasn’t just any horseback, it was on the horse born out of the Pampas and bred with the gauchos themselves.
Eventually, the trio got to Mexico. Having succeeded on many trials and adventures it is ironic how it was a simple burro that broke the team. An ill-tempered donkey kicked gentle Gato and hurt its foot. Tschiffely and Mancha had no choice but to leave it behind (after finding a proper caretaker for the time being) and promising to retrieve it.
Once on southern US, Tschiffely came across cowboys. Upon seeing Mancha they assumed it was a Mustang and could not but be very surprised to find that it actually came all the way from Patagonia. The cowboys were not so mistaken. Criollos and Mustangs have the same origin, one could say they are cousins. Both breeds are descended from the war horses the Spaniards brought to the Americas during the conquest in the 16th c., and in both cases the animals got loose or were lost and had to survive on their own, going through the natural selection that made of these breeds such resistant animals. By this time, both the Criollos and the Mustangs were facing the same problem of being unappreciated and left out, becoming rarer and rarer, only found in distant places and their roles in the local cultures forgotten.
Finally, in September 1928, after 3 and a half years of travelling, Tschiffely and Mancha reached New York, they had trekked through 20 nations and covered 21000 km (over 13000 miles). They were received as heroes, met the president and were escorted by the police mounted police from Broadway to the Central Park, and attempts were made to convince Aimé Tshciffely leave Mancha there, but he decided that what both Mancha and Gato most deserved was to come home …by ship!
Thanks to the exposure of Mancha’s and Gato’s achievement Emilio Solanet was able to certify the Criollo breed and initiate a Criollo Breeder’s association that still today ensures its preservation.
Aimé Tschiffely struggled to but eventually was able to publish their story in the book “The Ride” (aka “From Southern Cross to Pole Star”), with the support of the legendary Scottish traveller, writer and fellow Pampas lover, Robert Cunninghame Graham. Tschiffely’s tale would later go to inspire yet another seemingly impossible trip in the ‘90s, led by North American traveller Louis Bruhnke, who in 5 years trekked the whole continent from the southernmost tip, Tierra del Fuego, to Deadhorse, northern Alaska. Again, Bruhnke used Criollos, his being called “Sufridor” (the sufferer/endurer).
Mancha and Gato were left to live the rest of their lives in peace in green fields, occasionally visited by Aimé, whom they would recognise from the distance and run to greet. They would die at ages 36 and 40 respectively, showing that the trip had not affected their health. In their honour, each year on the 20th of September (date when they reached NY) Argentina celebrates the National Horses Day.