Travel: A riding holiday in central Argentina

The riding holiday of a lifetime at Estancia Los Potreros, Argentina

Many of the estancia’s horses are Criollos, a sturdy and muscular breed that are South America’s main working horses

Endless views of pampas grass hills from the back of a perfectly behaved and incredibly comfortable horse, and the knowledge that a claw-foot bath, a fantastic meal, world-class red wine and a comfortable bed await after your ride.

Sound like bliss? It is. Argentinian bliss. Riding bliss. Foodies’ bliss. Travellers’ bliss.

From Buenos Aires, the first part of the journey to get to this blissful place was a 10-dollar taxi ride from my hotel to the airport. Just over an hour later, after gawping at the huge expanse of flat countryside below me, (think Canterbury plains x 999,000), I was greeted by Louisa Begg at the shiny new Cordoba airport, and a few minutes later we were winding our way up the hills to the 6000-acre beef and horse farm, Estancia Los Potreros.

The ranch (or estancia in the Portuguese language) has been in the Begg family for many generations, and Lou became part of the family when she came out from England for a riding holiday, and never left, marrying her host, Kevin. Los Potreros is located in the Sierras Chicas, the small range between the Andes and the pampas.

Our hosts, Kevin and Louisa Begg

Between the very sociable couple, they have further developed the accommodation business, and built up an impressive number of Angus cattle and 130 plus horses.  There was vague murmurings of breeding horses to sell, but not a lot of selling seems to have gone on. Instead, they have a great number of lovely horses who are all beautifully trained by the gauchos.

Having this many horses means their workloads are light, which is sound management given that the pasture is poor – the stocking rate is about one cattle beast to 10 acres, and supplementary feed is exorbitant, if you can source it to buy in the first place. So, the horses are run in herd in huge paddocks – 1000 acres plus! – to forage what they can.

On my arrival at Los Potreros, a refreshing glass of home-made lemonade greeted me, along with the smiling assistant chef Claudio, who was in his first week of employment. Pato, the always-smiling head chef, has been with the Beggs for more than 15 years.

The other guests returned from their ride, and two more arrived just in time for lunch. We now had the full crew who I was to spend the next three days with. Riz and James were from London, both riding for only the second time, and loving the experience. Jenny had ridden a lot, but her son Robbie had only limited experience. He was soon right into it, and having him there was like having our own junior David Attenborough, as he was very interested in the considerable bird life around, being part of his way through a zoology degree. By the time lunch was served, we were all ravenous, as we had been teased by the lovely smells of the meat being slow cooked on the BBQ. A nice glass of local wine to have with lunch? Why not.

My first ride was scheduled later that afternoon, just what was needed after such a wonderful long lunch. We met at the tack room, were kitted out with helmet, boots and chaps, and had a lesson on riding, gaucho-style. This involves reins in one hand, and a more Western approach including neck reining.

Estancia Los Potreros guides cross a stream in the Cordoba countryside

The horses were amazingly responsive and soft-mouthed, and at no time did they ever pull or resist. My first horse was Margarita, a small bay mare about 14 years old with easy brakes and accelerator. The gaucho style doesn’t involve a gentle nudge or application of the leg aids; a short quick kick worked instead, then it was legs forward, sitting as deep as you could in the saddle, weight back. I rode on a lose rein the whole time.

Margarita was a good horse for the two-hour ride; her preferred paces were walk or canter. She’d march along at a good pace, and had no issues stopping while I took photos or admired some of the bird life that Robbie had spotted. Daniel, the head gaucho, lead the way and opened all the gates. On our return, we helped bring the youngstock into the yards overnight to protect them from marauding night-hunting puma, who apparently have quite the taste for foals and calves.

After the ride, just in case we were hungry again, it was into the sitting room for a really good cup of English tea and cake. There was just enough time to clean up for dinner, and get back in time for the special entertainment. Two local lads entertained us with Argentinian songs, played with many instruments, all with a lot of gusto. The music was beautiful, especially the tango. No, we didn’t spoil it by trying to dance!

Dinner was perfect: tasty nibbles, followed by a beautiful risotto and salad, dessert and fruit and a truly lovely local Malbec wine.

The picture-perfect view from the verandah

I got up early the next  morning to take advantage of the camera-friendly light and watch the older horses coming in and the young ones heading out, and looked forward to a full cooked breakfast.

My ride today was Terros, a Peruvian gaited horse who is one of the most comfortable I have ever ridden. The gait was fabulous for the long distances, and his transition from walk to canter was Valegro-like. He didn’t do trot; it was walk, amble, or canter. He was, and needed to be, very sure footed as we picked our way up and down rocky hills.

View across the Sierras Chicas

We headed towards the city of Cordoba, which we could see in the distance once we reached the top of the hills. Our mission was to bring in a herd of horses from one of the biggest paddocks on the place, about 5000 acres. It took a bit to find them, and they were in three separate groups, so we helped herd the groups together, and shepherded them towards the large yards some kilometres away.

The horses had obviously done this before, and obliged us by heading directly there, but for me, this was a first, galloping alongside a herd of about 60 horses. It has gone down as one of my most exhilarating equestrian activities ever!

Our work wasn’t done, as there was one bunch of stragglers still to come in, and it took a bit more skill convincing these last 10 or so to relinquish their freedom.

Bringing in the herd

The horses were checked over in the yards, and assessed in case any were in need of closer scrutiny. Meanwhile, we enjoyed a picnic lunch of home-made empanadas (a kind of beef turnover) and an opportunity to try the local Mate tea which was a bitter concoction served in a traditional gourd cup.

The horses were released again and we made our way back to the ranch. The cup of tea and cake on arrival was much welcomed, and then dinner that night was another magnificent meal, topped off with poached pear in red wine with crème anglaise. We all enjoyed a wine or two, but didn’t last past 10pm, after the day’s physical exertion. 

The next day was the much-anticipated game of polo. The trek down the road to get to the polo field was a chance to warm up and get to know our horses. I had Adela, who was a quick and responsive little chestnut, perfect for the game. After a quick lesson from Lou, we were divided up into teams, with one of the gauchos, Enzo, making up numbers in the boys’ team. He was handicapped by riding a horse that had never played polo before, and he wasn’t allowed to “tackle” the guests. Just as well, or Enzo would have won the game single-handedly. We all had a great time and I absolutely loved it. Perhaps I did get a bit enthusiastic, and perhaps I did inadvertently foul a couple of times…  and the girls triumphed. It was a lot of fun.

Having a go at polo

We went out for what I thought was going to be my last ride late that afternoon, just we keen die-hards. We headed at a fast pace to the ‘Top of the World’ – the highest vantage point on the estancia. Unbelievable views, and my horse for this ride, Garancho, was one of the bigger ones, and that bit of thoroughbred in him enjoyed the hoons up the hills. But still no problems with any brakes!

That night we also had another treat, helping cook some of the dinner in the magnificent kitchen. Well, if that’s what you call making empanadas and ravioli with all the carefully laid-out ingredients. As well as eating our own unusually-formed creations, we had some of the best steak I have ever eaten. The cheeses and desert wine to finish certainly finished me off.

I was sad to have to pack up the next day, and because of having to get to the airport late morning, there was no time to go for one last ride. Or was there? Our host Kevin bought out two of his prized possessions, his highly decorated and engraved show saddle, complete with wooden stirrups, and his lovely Paso Peruvian stallion, Super Mario (proper name Andariego Corregidor). With one of the gauchos on another fine young filly, the horses showed off their paces.

Paso Peruana horses showing off their fifth gait, the paso

When Kevin offered me the chance to have a ride, I couldn’t get on fast enough. Just a couple of twirls around the paddock, and oh, I was impressed. What a fabulous horse to ride. I reluctantly handed Super Mario back and it was then off to the airport to head back to Buenos Aires for some city time. In hindsight, I would have preferred to stay at the estancia for longer, so I’ll know for next time!

Horses of the estancia

The horses at Estancia Los Potreros are either Criollos or Paso Peruanos (crossbreds). Percheron and thoroughbred bloodlines as well as quarter horse have also been introduced.

The horses are run in herds in huge paddocks to forage what they can from the poor pasture

The Criollo is sturdy, compact and muscular, making them idea for being South America’s main working horses. Hardiness, endurance over tough terrain and ability to carry weight are useful on the estancias as well as on the polo field.

The Paso Peruano shares a common ancestry with the Criollo in that the breed originates from Spain. These horses were developed and bred in Peru with little cross breeding which is part of the reason that its fifth gait, the ‘paso’ (pace or amble), has been preserved over the centuries.

The fifth gait is genetic rather than learned and is a lateral four-beat gait. It can look as though both legs on one side are moving forward together, although in actuality there should be a slight difference in timing of the hoof hitting the ground. The pace can sometimes be faster than a canter, and some Peruvians lose one gait altogether, usually the trot.

The horse is typified by a high extravagent flicking action of the front legs and they can stay in their paso at some speed over long distances and varied terrain. The pace is extremely comfortable for the rider.

The tack used is English, with sheepskins over polo or British army saddles.

The saddles used have sheepskins for added comfort!

When to visit:

I was there in winter (late August), and had the most glorious week of sunshine.

While the days were perfect, it did get a bit colder at night, so the big fireplace in the sitting area was a welcomed feature, and rooms are warmed by small wood stoves.  The hot water bottle tucked into the bed was a nice touch too!

Winter is the dry season, and after early spring rain, apparently the place greens up and the wildflowers come out. In summer the pool is available, but you don’t have to worry about the temperatures getting too hot for riding, as it remains very pleasant.

Electricity is generated through windmills and solar power. Only limited internet was available but frankly, to enjoy all there is to offer at the estancia, you’ll get over having no internet!

Guides

The gauchos are also assisted by guides on the rides. These guides are volunteers who stay for about two-three months at a time, working (which includes helping with some kitchen work) for their board and keep, and getting the experience of a lifetime! If I was younger…

Trip details

Air New Zealand fly into Buenos Aires directly from Auckland. I’d suggest staying a few days in the city before and/or after your visit to Estancia Los Potreros. Recoleta is a very central place to stay in Buenos Aires, handy to all the main tourist attractions, good restaurants and I felt very safe there. Palermo is the place if you are keen to try out a wide variety of bars and restaurants and experience the vibe. If you have the time while in South America, Iguazu Falls are supposed to be amazing, and Mendoza is a beautiful wine region. Both will require you to fly from Buenos Aires.

Contact details:

www.estancialospotreros.com

  • This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony. Images are by Tony Clerkson, Alice Gipps, Astrid Harrison and Jane Thompson