Female rodeo riders in Mexico, known as ‘escaramuzas,’ perform highly choreographed equestrian dances, with many from families often choosing to do business and marry among themselves. One writer takes a look inside their fascinating world.
Hooves paw the paddock nervously, releasing dust clouds that drift lazily through the Mexican sunshine. A crowd sporting their best sombreros and agave-fibre lassoes files into the stadium and their excitement is palpable: they know they’re about to see stunts that are as slick as they are dangerous. Manes are given a final brush until they shine like silk, riders sit sidesaddle with as much ease as if in their favourite chair. The team’s captain, La Prieta, watches calmly, checking each horse is as primed as a Vogue cover star and giving words of encouragement to the younger riders. Although this scene could be unfolding in any charro club (Mexico’s answer to rodeo culture), there is a crucial difference. The Las Alteñitas team is made up of women – or escaramuzas as female charros are known – dressed in floor-length dresses inspired by designs from the 19th-century.
I’m in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city (which nestles in the epic highlands of Jalisco) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Las Alteñitas, one of the oldest escaramuza clubs in Mexico and indisputably the best with five national championships and six second places under their silk sashes. In true charro style, they’re celebrating with a weekend long tournament that draws together the 17 highest ranking teams in Mexico and sees fiestas lasting until dawn.
As I settle on the bleachers, the surrounding families seem amazed to find a Londoner in their midst and leap up to pump my hand and offer chunks of fruit topped with chilli salt. The escaramuza world is both exclusive – each dress costs £220 and riders need a minimum of two horses – and clannish, with families often choosing to do business and marry amongst themselves.
The teams, including children as young as four, canter into the ring to the sound of a symphony orchestra forming elaborate shapes like the beads in a kaleidoscope. When they’re in position, Ana Maria Zermeño Barba, better known as La Prieta, rides out on an imposing chestnut horse. Sombreros are doffed and petticoats rustle as the crowd rises to its feet; even the judge briefly puts down her cigar so her bejeweled hands can meet in rapturous applause. At the age of 70, La Prieta is not only the oldest woman riding (alongside her daughter and granddaughter), she was also one of the first ever escaramuzas and founded Las Alteñitas.