To Ride a Horse, To Be a Horse

Having roamed Mexico long before the Spaniards’ arrival, horse fossils dating back to the Pleistocene era have been found in northern Mexico. At the time, stretches of thick forests and pasture covered the land where the “megafauna” lived. Unlike the contemporary horse, this equine species, which became extinct during the ice age, was rather small and comparable to the size of a cat. Indeed, the steed known as Molinero that disembarked on Veracruz and rode through the conquest alongside Hernán Cortés was not the first horse to gallop through Mexican lands.

The story of the horse is quite similar to that of our post-colonial era: it has been clouded, fantasized, and groped at the whim of whoever happens to hold power. Described by many as the prime bellicose weapon of the conquest, the horse’s incursion into the Mexican landscape could serve as an analogy for other phenomena that have shaped the social fabric of our contemporary history.

Historically, horses have served as a symbol of status and power. During the Aztec era, the Tlatoani armies would terrorize the population with the heart-wrenching sound of a death whistle—the prologue to an invasion that would shed vats of blood—and during the Aztec conquest, the horse became the physical substitute for this sonic terror.

But not all horses are fine and dandy. There have always been savage breeds that refuse to let themselves be saddled and trotted through lovely gardens confined within the gates of ostentatious fountains and powerful barriers, curbing the naturally furious step of this species. Cimarrón was the colonial term for a horse that escaped, and mesteño would denote any savage horse that was impossible to tame and, less so, domesticate—these horses were left to roam free, and few would want them back. The cimarrones and mesteños made their way to northern Mexico before the Spaniards came to civilize and evangelize the area, where the rebels had to rough the strange and dry environment and high temperatures while dealing with the area’s great predators: the wolf and the coyote. These horses turned wild, and when the first colonial haciendas were built, these animals were a constant threat, invading lands and devouring harvests and grasslands.

The grave population crisis of 1525 (90 percent of the Mesoamerican population was killed during the conquest and its subsequent years) implied that Spaniards not only had to import many more horses, but also slaves. African, Filipino and Chinese people also faced the trouble of adapting to this new environment. And many of them also rejected the yoke of slavery, becoming a threat to Mexico’s colonizers. They irreversibly joined the culturally and genetically mestizo race, mixing the Indian and the Spanish in our new identity. Explaining our reality—leaving the syncretism other races produced in our history aside—is a brutal act. Attempting to understand the horse as a domesticated, elegant and refined being, or as a status symbol, is to mutilate our history and our own reality under a national project. Porfirio Díaz rode Águila, his polished stallion, in a fine trot, while Francisco Villa stole horses that galloped freely throughout the Mexican desert, such as his famous mare Siete Leguas. In Chinameca, Emiliano Zapata’s stallion, As de Oro, began a race that never ended after its owner was shot in the back.

Not all horses are equal. Not all concepts of Mexicanness are equal. Not all histories are equal. And not all realities are equal. The powerful co-opted an animal and turned it into a token of good taste and distinction, while using it as a symbol of folklore and Mexicanness, as a coarse postage stamp, as a fair fetish, and as a sidekick in movies about charros who barely know how to ride. And riding a horse can mean vastly different things, too: one can ride through geographies and inhabit various conditions in a subversive act, or one can ride in a political gesture of the elite. Being a horse can also mean vastly different things: being a thoroughbred is not the same as being a mix of past cultures that have been enveloped in misery and slavery until the death of their tired and malnourished bones, abandoned in the very desert where the horses of the Pleistocene era once lived, and being, like so many other things, ignored by a present that would rather leave out those uncomfortable parts of history that few are willing to ride.

José Jiménez Ortiz
Mexico City, October 2016