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Home / Articles / News / News /  Dust in the wind
. . . .
Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010

Dust in the wind

Can Mexico’s national sport survive in the U.S. amid increasing animal-welfare regulation?

By Enrique Limon
news-a A charro roping a steer
- Photo by Tim Hardy /
A man on horseback salutes a large crowd of onlookers by bringing his right hand up to his sombrero. He slaps the side of a bull that’s running beside his horse, and, in a few short moments, chases the beast down at full gallop and fells it by grabbing its tail and wrapping it around his leg. The spectators roar with applause.

It’s Sunday afternoon at a bustling ranch on San Ysidro’s Hollister Street, and these folks have just witnessed colas, one of the demonstrations that make up a charreada, an event that’s perhaps the closest one can get to the Roman Coliseum in the United States.

Inaccurately called “Mexican rodeo”—for lack of a proper translation—the world of charrería (the larger cultural umbrella that includes charreadas) has already gone through one major overhaul north of the border in the wake of animal-abuse allegations. Now, thanks to colas, it faces its second.

Composed of nine dexterity tasks called suertes, a charreada, laced with pomp and regalia, consists of two teams of charros—male contestants on horseback—pitted against each other. You’ll find no clowns here. Steeped in tradition, the competition that dates back to the days of the Spanish conquest is the official national sport of Mexico. An official with the Federación Mexicana de Charrería, the sport’s governing body, said it has roughly 20,000 registered athletes.

Here in San Ysidro, the sun is blistering and Playas de Tijuana’s bullring and towering lighthouse are in plain sight in the distance. A patchwork of neighs, chatter, laughter from children lassoing one another and the ever-present hum from a portable diesel-powered generator used to juice the PA system fill the air.

Smiling, Rigoberto Campos, leader of Charros de San Ysidro, makes his way toward Luna, his 4-year-old quarter horse, noticing that a spectator took it upon herself to braid the gray steed’s mane.

“She looks like a model,” Campos says. Unfazed, he jumps on his horse.

Campos got his professional start at 16; now 51, he’s the quintessential Mexican caballero—an imposing mix of Clint Eastwood and Pancho Villa. He’s also part of a dying breed, and he knows it.

He’s dressed to the nines. The nap on his suede, Greca-pattern-trimmed pants perfectly brushed, the gold thread on his quill-embroidered sombrero sparkling in the sunlight.

“There are three types of suits: a working outfit—de faena— half-gala and gala,” explains Campos, who took the reins of Charros de San Ysidro six years ago. “De faena, like the one I’m wearing, is the most affordable and averages around $500. The hat is worth a thousand, the chaps $500, and so on.

“Right now I have around $2,000 on me.” And that’s just the duds. Securing a first-rate horse is where the bulk of the expenses go. Campos explains that horses for Cala de Caballo, the first suerte in a charreada, can cost anywhere from $12,000 to upward of $15,000. A horse for the third suerte, Colas en el Lienzo, can cost around $7,000, he adds. Each team needs at least eight horses.

People in the crowd, munching on tostilocos and corn on the cob drenched in Valentina sauce, are also decked out. Ladies with cutoff shirts and over-sized designer shades walk about while guys rock bejeweled T-shirts and $300 jeans, their stiffly gelled faux-hawks rivaling the number of Stetson hats of the more conservative ranchero types. All don a hot-pink entrance wristband, an odd color choice for a sport awash in hyper-machismo.

A ranch hand makes his way around the raggedy lienzo, the circular arena where the event takes place. Carrying a PVC

tube with a sifter on one end, he makes chalk marks on the dirt as the announcer instructs the crowd to be seated. As the first notes of the customary “Zacatecas March” play, the show begins.

The 30-member home team and its Escondido rival enter the circular ruedo for the opening parade. The mixture of applause and cog rattles is deafening. Many charros have their own cheering squads, especially the young heartthrobs.

It’s time for the Cala de Caballo. With his horse galloping at full speed down an arena-adjacent corridor called the manga (sleeve), the charro pulls the reins as soon as he crosses the 60-meter mark, forcing the horse to stop abruptly and slide, sending up a dust storm that cloaks the crowd. Several full turns and half-turns follow and the steed then walks backward in a well-choreographed waltz, bringing the maneuver to an end.

“Twenty points for execution, plus seven additional ones, minus two for infractions equals 25,” the announcer says.

Subsequent suertes seem less artistic to the untrained eye. For example, during Piales en el Lienzo, the second of the suertes, a scrawny mare runs out from a trap-and-chute system and has its hind legs roped as it runs through the charro’s lasso.

“They’re not mean,” says Sharee werner, a Nestor resident who stands out in the crowd with her blonde hair.

“They’re humane, even when they’re roping the horse’s legs.” werner’s brought along four guests, who, she says, aren’t put off by anything unfolding before them. “They’re amazed!” she says. “It’s so different from American rodeo. American rodeo is a bit more precise, while Mexican rodeo is really guttural; it’s all about soul.”

But there’s a lot the crowd doesn’t see, such as a hefty dose of behind-the-scenes manhandling and the unsparing use of an electric prod to rouse animals before they exit their holding pens.

“The legal word for it is ‘torment,’ and, unfortunately, it’s a real hard one to prove,” says Lt. D.J. Gove, an officer with the San Diego Humane Society’s Investigations Department.

Though she’s aware of three active charrería groups in San Diego County, abuse claims, Gove says, are pretty much nonexistent due to charrería being a largely private “cultural sport.”

“They have two classes of horses: the horses charros ride and the ones that have gotten down to the bottom of their lives,” Gove says, adding that without any documented complaints, her department’s duties are limited to ensuring that the animals are vaccinated and properly fed. “If it’s legal, it’s legal,” she sighs.

“When training their horses, they don’t look for an agreement; they tell them what to do instead of asking.”

Gove rescued and rehabilitated a charrería horse 20 years ago. “They never fully recover,” she says. “If I reach for her face quickly, she’ll pull her head straight up because she’s expecting to get hit.”

Still, Campos is adamant that everything is done on the up-and-up. “There is no animal abuse in charrería. Above everything else,

it’s an art,” he says. “To anyone out there who thinks otherwise, I’d say it’s not so. There might be people out there who abuse animals, but charrería has strict rules, bylaws and penalties that range from monetary to, in the worst cases, expulsion from the association if anyone is caught deliberately hurting the animals.”

During his 30-plus-year career, he says, he’s only witnessed one expulsion, and it wasn’t due to animal cruelty but, rather, a fight over a judgment during competition.

Officially sanctioned since 1970 by the Federación, stateside events experienced their first changes in the mid-1990s with the outlawing of suertes known as manganas, in which a mare is roped by the front legs and brought down. The practice, sometimes referred to as “horse-tripping,” earned the sport the label of “bone-breaking cruelty” from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

It was then when Eric Mills, coordinator for the Oakland-based Action for Animals, was handed a flyer promoting a charreada in Sunol, a tiny rural community in Alameda County.

“I’d been monitoring rodeos for over 10 years, and I’d never paid more than $6 to get in. This rodeo was $20, and everybody got frisked for weapons. That had never happened to me before,” he recalls.

“It was a lot of fun; it felt like a visit to Mexico.

There was a Mariachi band, costumes, grandmothers, children—it was very festive and colorful.

“Then I witnessed the horse-tripping event and just about lost it. It was some of the worst stuff I’d seen at that time,” he says.

What Mills saw ignited what would soon become Assembly Bill 49x, which, when signed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, effectively banned horse-tripping and required the presence of an on-site veterinarian at all charreadas.

“They had small horses—Arabian fillies, just beat to hell, ribs showing and covered with open wounds and blood,” Mills says. “They were trying to avoid getting roped by doing somersaults, slapping onto the side of the arena, urinating and defecating on themselves in fear and screaming. You ever hear a horse scream? It’s quite something.”

After the bill passed in California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Maine, Florida, Illinois, Texas, Arizona and Nebraska followed, and groups like Campos’ adapted.

But Campos is aware of events where manganas are still the main draw. “There are some troupes out there who still practice it—using charrería as a front—and call themselves associations when they’re not; they have no respect for the sport and are just out to make a quick buck,” he says.

Campos is concerned about increased regulation. “As it is now, the future of charrería is uncertain at best,” he says. “I’m now hearing of some states also trying to outlaw colas.”

Mills is behind that, as well. He says he hopes to convince a Latino legislator to bring to the floor a bill banning colas—bringing a bull down by the tail—during the next session of the Legislature.

“Think of it this way,” Mills says.

“The tail is an extension of these animals’ spinal cords, and oftentimes tails are broken or have the skin peeled off, which is called ‘degloving.’ The fact that an expression even exists for it I think is indicative of how often it’s happening.”

In charrería’s defense, degloving is a general term that refers to avulsion on an array of mammals, both induced or in some cases—as with some reptiles—voluntary, to avoid capture.

“The sport as such would end, because it wouldn’t meet the requirements needed to aspire to a national tournament,” Campos says of the proposed ban, as hour four of the charreada approaches. “We’re OK with the limitations that we have, but adding more to the list would make it increasingly difficult to conform.”

“What is the purpose of it, really?” asks Lt. Gove of the Humane Society. “What purpose could ringing a cow’s tail have, other than entertainment? If it was a dog, cat or any other domestic animal, there would be an uproar. Sadly, it seems to be acceptable for livestock, and when you think about it, they’re built the same way.”

Campos says that each steer is used a maximum of three times during an event and that people running coleaderos libres—all-day, non-charrería-related tail-twisting free-for-alls—are to blame for this new black cloud floating above the sport.

Still, Mills, who’s preparing a speech on the practice for Desert Paws—an upcoming Oct. 9 Newport Beach animal-rights conference—would like to see it eliminated.

“They have nine scored events. If they lost one, so what?” he says. “If they were to eliminate it [in the U.S.], it could be to their advantage; otherwise, they could lose it all.

“When legislation against manganas started, the charros claimed it was like taking away the third base in baseball, and it would finish the sport,” Mills says. “Now, they just release the rope instead of tripping the horse. Perhaps they could be equally as creative with steer-tailing.”

For Campos, however, the spirit at the sport’s core is in peril.

“We wouldn’t be practicing charrería anymore,” he says, “but a limited, half-breed version of it.”

Campos reaches for words to describe his worry. “I don’t know how to describe it,” he says, pausing. “I can just tell you it’s not a good feeling.”

If and when the day comes, he says, letting go altogether won’t be an option.

“I can’t retire because, for starters, I’m an animal lover,” Campos says. “Besides, even if I wanted to, I can’t retire from what undeniably is in my blood.”

Click here to view a slideshow of photos by Tim Hardy.

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