September 20, 2013 7:05 pm

Postcard from . . . Venezuela: rodeo at the Coleo World Championships

A cowboy pulling a cow's tail©Corbis

A competitor at last year’s world championships

The rider, having timed his release to perfection, watches the furious bull spin, trip and crash to the trampled earth. The stands, silent with anticipation moments before, explode with sound. Recovering his position in the saddle, the rider holds his arm aloft in proud acceptance of the acclaim. “Yes sir!”, screams the voice from the public address system. “The bull has fallen!”

This is toros coleados (or “tailed bulls”), the only sport that is truly native to Venezuela. It originated among the cowboys of los llanos, the vast grassy plains east of the Andes. The cowboys developed a technique for halting runaway cows by pulling their tails, and it has evolved into the Venezuelan equivalent of the rodeos of the western US.

In recent years, the sport has become so popular that it has spread across Venezuela’s borders and throughout the region. So wide-reaching is its appeal that next month a US national team will compete for the first time at the Toros Coleados World championships, to be held in Villavicencio, Colombia. Despite the fact that the US team draws heavily on expatriate Venezuelans, the US presence is nevertheless a strong sign of a growing interest in Latino cowboy culture.

“It’s great that the United States will be competing,” says Ramón Abreu, president of the Yaracuy Toros Coleados Association, during a break from officiating at the Champion of Champions event in Yaracuy earlier this month. “We want to see our sport celebrated. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to go easy on the gringos – it’s a matter of national pride.”

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I have come to the coleo in Yaracuy, a region of jungled hills and rolling grasslands 200 miles west of Caracas, for a taste of Venezuela’s homegrown cowboy culture. Away from the action, cowboy-hatted crowds of families mill from tent to tent, sampling barbecued food and shopping for hats, belts and other ranchwear. Competitors, each in the uniform of their home state, draw admiring glances as they ride their mounts to the practice area beside the arena’s entrance. Those bored by the watery beer prepare for the main event by downing tequila-like cocuy.

The action takes place on the manga de coleo, a corridor of bare earth about 100 metres long, bordered by fences on both sides and by seating for spectators. Some risk their shins for the best view, sitting atop the fences beside the bull’s entrance, legs dangling perilously into the manga.

The excited commentators stand on a bridge linking the stands above the dirt track, screaming in the high-pitched, almost impenetrably accented Spanish of the plain states. The crowds cheer as the next rider enters and nears the small door from where the bull will enter. From the loudspeakers blasts the accordion-based soundtrack of traditional coleo music, heralding the start of the competition. In the stands, spectators who have been distracted by drinking and chatting, are immediately rapt as the bull makes its entrance.

“It’s only for real men”, says Antonio Andueza, a spectator beside me who says the tradition goes back generations in his family. “It’s as old as Venezuela itself and we take the same pleasure from it that our ancestors did.”

The technique for toppling a charging bull is as impressive as it is dangerous. Taking firm hold of a running bull’s tail from behind, the mounted competitor hangs from his horse’s saddle as he overtakes the charging beast from behind. As horse and rider move ahead of the bull, the rider pulls on the tail in order to spin the bull as it runs. With perfect timing and velocity, the speeding bull is tripped by its natural inability to sidestep. Points are awarded according to the quality of a rider’s technique, and should the bull roll following its fall, it is considered the ultimate achievement.

Unsurprisingly, the sport has been the subject of controversy following accusations of animal cruelty but, as yet, there have been no bans such as those imposed in some regions of Spain. Unless injured, bulls in Venezuela are not slaughtered following their outings, and no bull is ever used more than once. But it is a dangerous sport – and it is not just the bulls that are at risk.

“A competitor’s life expectancy isn’t long,” long-time competitor Pascual Cuevas, 68, tells me, as he spits tobacco-stained spittle into his empty beer can. “I’m one of the last. Every time I’ve needed medical attention, it has been my own fault.”

Cuevas, with his unkempt eyebrows, three national titles and 25 children by multiple mothers is a perfect example of the sport’s “old guard” of wild-man coleadors. But things are changing, and a new breed of professional is emerging, forgoing cocuy-drinking sessions in favour of early morning training, high-protein diets and intense travel schedules to continent-wide championships.

Out on the plains, too, interest in Venezuela’s cowboy culture is growing and many cattle ranches have started opening their doors to tourists. At Hato El Cedral, a ranch near the town of Mantecal in Apure state, visitors can go horse-trekking, stargazing and wildlife-spotting. “You haven’t seen wildlife until you’ve seen a rancher heave a three-metre anaconda out of the grass”, says Australian tourist Rob Ehret.

As the coleo begins to wind up for the day, the crowd seems wistful. “The llanos and everything they produce is in our blood”, says Arnaldo Arnas, a clean-cut coleador who has managed to trip three bulls during the day. “If you want to see the real Venezuela, you’ve got to come to where you’ll see us at our finest.”

The Coleo World Championships will be held October 11-14 in Villavicencio, Colombia, a two-hour drive from Bogotá. See www.mundialcoleo.com.co for details. The US team will also compete in Maracay, Venezuela – dates to be confirmed

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