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A year and a half travelling across four continents. Riding the best – and the worst – of horses. Spending time with friends in Patagonia and Argentina and Spain and Morocco and Mexico. And all expenses covered. How does that sound?
Reader, it sounds like I took the offered job. I became the story consultant, location scout and horse ‘wrangler’ for the Trinity Films IMAX documentary Ride With Cowboys (finally launched as Ride Around the World). IMAX is big screen cinema. Purpose-built IMAX cinemas – there are four hundred around the world, including a good number if Europe, though none in Ireland – have screens close on twenty metres high and thirty metres wide. An IMAX screen is as tall and wide as a six storey building. If you’re making a film about cowboys, it can make a horse look as big as aeroplane.
Though most IMAX cinemas are in North America and despite the popular association of cowboys with the United States, the film’s director, Harry Lynch was keen to show the variety of cowboy cultures across the Americas, from Canada to the southern most tip of Patagonia, as well as the origins in Morocco and Spain of the horses, the saddlery and the skills that eventually went to form the reality – and the myth – of the modern cowboy.
We started by filming in South America, choosing the most inhospitable and climatically challenging location – the very tip of Patagonia, ‘next stop Antarctica’ – to roll the camera for the first time. We were going to film friends of mine, Chilean baqueanos who break horses, pack supplies into remote corners of the Torres del Paine and cowboy on the remote estancias. I was confident that I could rely on Chechin, Moncho, Pato, Chapa and the rest to provide the kind of dashing horsemanship we needed. And the patience required when filming. The challenge with shooting IMAX film – and especially action shots – is the short duration of the film magazines; just three minutes. For our opening scene the baqueanos drove a herd of close on a hundred horses at full gallop across a shallow river and exploded onto the bank mere feet from the camera, which was positioned down at knee-height. I’d mounted a horse and showed the cowboys which line to take, whilst assuring Rodney the Director of Photography, that horses wouldn’t step on anything squashy soft, like a human, or hard like the camera if they could avoid it. Trustingly, and courageously he crouched down in the path of 400 galloping hooves. The shots were magnificent, with the baqueanos guiding the herd of thundering horses within feet of the lens before veering off. The film was underway.
It became apparent early on that casting was of the greatest importance. Though we only filmed authentic cowboy work, the need for multiple takes to get different angles meant we needed a certain amount of ‘acting’ skills from our amateurs. ‘Stars’ began to stand out in Chile, as they would in all our locations. One of our baqueano shots needed a young colt herded in from the plains to be roped from horseback in a corral. Difficult enough at any time, we wanted Moncho, the head baqeano, to rope the same, ever more wary, colt at the same point time after time.
“Es muy dificil,” he muttered, before shaking out his lasso and then three times in a row roping the horse in exactly the right place whilst remembering directions as confusing as ‘…turn your horse to the left when you throw the rope, and then look past the camera towards that tree over there, and let the colt run to that mark on the sand over there…but don’t actually look at the mark…before pulling it to a halt.”
From the south of Patagonia we went to the North of Argentina and the province of Corrientes. Working conditions changed from sleet showers and gale force winds to sub-tropical heat and clouds of mosquitoes. Our story in this area of wide rivers, lagoons and marshes was the work of the gauchos who swim horses and cattle anything up to five kilometres at a time to reach far banks or distant islands to graze.
Filming in Corrientes brought its own challenges. Water and cameras are a poor mixture, as is trying to drive a large herd of loose horses into a wide expanse of water and then herding them across to the far bank. We had endless rehearsals to try and get things right before shooting expensive film stock. I spent most of the week in my togs, on a horse at the head of the herd directing the aquatic gauchos, only getting out of way when the camera was actually rolling. There was plenty of waiting around in the water. I’d got used to the alligators cruising around further out in the waters but when I noticed El Tiburon, our star swimming gaucho, sitting on his horse next to me with his bare legs drawn up right out of the water I wondered what the problem was. He pointed down into the murky water. There were quick flashes of metallic red and blue stripes, darting into and out of sight. “Piranha,” he said. It seemed a good idea for me to pull my legs out of the water too.
After Argentina whilst the crew returned back to shoot branding, roping and cattle round-ups on the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas I went on to Mexico to scout locations for the next sequence. In 1524 the conquistador Hernado Cortez landed the first horses to arrive on the American mainland in what is now Vera Cruz province. The Mexicans were the first American cowboys, and their horsemanship, their saddles with the heavy roping horn adapted from the heavy wooden trees found in the Moroccan and early Spanish saddles, and much of their skills and vocabulary went on to influence cowboying through North America.
Above all the Mexicans are masters of the lasso, and horseman extraordinaire Samuel Sanchez had built his own lienzo, a keyhole shaped arena on his farm for the rodeo events that characterise the ‘charreria.’ Paramount amongst these are the masterful lassoing competitions. Samuel’s son Raphael was a Mexican champion and we filmed him as he jumped back and forth through a spinning loop, his leather chaps flapping and his wide sombrero rasping its brim against the rope, before with a casual flick of his arm he’d send the loop out at just the right moment to catch the legs of a colt speeding round behind him. As the full force of the horse hit the rope Raphael would hitch the end of the rope around his bum and, spurs ploughing through the sand, drag the horse to an abrupt halt.
But the Mexican rodeo gave us other stars. We wanted to film the ‘jump of death’ where a rider leaps off his own mount onto an unbroken horse and without saddle or bridle rides it to a halt. Difficult and dangerous enough to do once we wondered if we would find a charro willing – and able – to do it several times. Local advice is always the best recommendation and the other charros reckoned that Chavin Salvador Peregrina was our man. Chavin listened as I showed him the point were he would need to jump from one horse to the other to be in shot. He got the jump first time, though was thrown with a shattering crash a few paces later. We changed the camera angle and once again, stiff and grimacing with pain, he mounted up and once again nailed the shot. For the final take we needed him to jump and ride the bucking horse once around the ring and then stop – this on a horse that had never been ridden before with nothing attached to its head – exactly in front of the audience and dismount. He slipped at a gallop from his horse onto the colt galloping beside him and then careered on around the ring – the horse bucking wildly. He sat it for a full circuit before with a modest flourish jumping off at the exact spot we’d hoped for. Miraculously he also stopped the horse beside him with what looked like – but certainly wasn’t – a casual arm locked around its neck. There was no need to direct the audience to cheer. He deserved it.
Mexico, too, gave us one of the few chances to film women in the world of cowboys. We had been aware from the beginning that making a film about cowboys was going to be skewed – because of history and because of the subject matter itself – towards a macho, all-male story. But the escaramuzas of Mexico put the traditions of earlier colonial times into a modern and dashing musical ride. Typically a team consists of eight women, all riding side-saddle, and wearing either long flamenco-type dresses, or Marlene Dietrich style ‘men’s’ riding suits.
Moves are done at a fast canter, and include split second weavings and braidings as horses pass in between and past each other at full speed. As always in film we had decided to raise the bets, and I’d asked two teams to combine forces and come up with a 16-woman musical ride. The problem was that the teams I had commissioned lived four hours of mountainous driving apart and there had been little chance for them to practice the new bigger format ride until the day of filming. We needn’t have worried, the women led by their two captains, Laura and Alejandra, half in jackets and tight trousers, the other eight in bonnets and long flowing dresses as if an octet of Catherine Zeta Joneses from El Zoro, whirled through the moves with split second timing. The precision turned the swirling horses into a kaleidoscopic image of hypnotically repeating patterns.
The escaramuzas were exactly the kind of subject we wanted to find for the film. Ride With Cowboys was meant to challenge the preconceptions, the stereotypes and the Hollywood image of cowboys, and show something of the history and different traditions of all those who worked with horses.
And to show the routes of that history, our last locations were in Morocco and Spain where we filmed Berber cavalry demonstrating the agility of the Barb horses, controlled by the curb bit and ridden under wooden-tree-ed saddles. It was these horses and that style of riding and similar tack that were brought to Spain during the Moorish conquest, and then further refined to be taken – along with cattle – by the conquistadores to the New World and the continent of the cowboy.
The film and the story of the cowboy had returned to its beginnings.
BlueGreen Adventures was involved in the local support for the Chilean part of this film working with Jasper and the film crew to ensure the best locations and horses were filmed and to assist in the sourcing of the baqueanos themselves. Filming was a lot of fun – and as you can see from the footage on the trailer, the images on the film are nothing short of spectacular. If you would like to purchase the full film which is highly recommended, please contact us or search for the film which is titled Ride Around the World on Amazon or another source. The film is available worldwide.
If you would like to go one stage further and buy the experience then contact us! You too can don your cowboy boots and gallop across the endless pampas with an expert guide and the famous cowboys of the south by signing up for our end of season round-up known as the Horse Moving Ride. With fast riding to wild glaciers and iceberg-filled lakes and authentic, intimate lodgings to rest your tired limbs this is the perfect trip for all those wannabe cowboys and cowgirls out there!