My helmet tumbled to the ground and rolled far away from the horse beneath me. Oh shit. Everyone else had ridden on ahead, following behind the cattle. Green pastureland stretched out in front of me, unbroken besides a handful of furrows and hills. Bulbous sheep drifted along under the blue winter sky. Two collies raced across the range between groves of eucalyptus, splashing through creeks and having the time of their lives. The herd rambled toward a low rock wall at the opposite end of the field.
I sat in my saddle alone. How the hell was I going to rescue my helmet? I couldn’t leave it there like trash — but I also couldn’t get back on the horse by myself. My initial vault onto the saddle had required a fence, a friend and two firmly placed hands. These short legs were no match for the tall animal.
What if I couldn’t get back on? Would I be stuck doing a walk of shame beside my horse all the way back to the ranch house?
And if I did — could I still call myself a Texan?
I had never ridden a horse before I traveled 5,000 miles to Uruguay. Sure, I’d taken a trail ride as a kid, but a nose-to-tail circle around a track doesn’t count. This was honest-to-God horse riding on wide-open land at Estancia Panagea, a traditional cattle and sheep ranch located well beyond the beaten path. I felt as wild and free as the wind — apart from the whole “stuck in the saddle” situation.
Wedged between Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay is part of the vast lowland plains of South America known as the Pampas. This is gaucho country. It’s a rough, rural landscape where mornings are early and pleasures are simple: hot stew, honest conversation and a welcoming fire at the end of a ride. The horse-based gaucho culture here values humbleness and a hard day’s work, grit and authenticity.
Sound familiar? The Texas cowboy and South American gaucho are kindred spirits, connected by the same self-sufficient ethos that fuels hardy individuals from Texas to Uruguay and Montana to the Australian Outback — all the rugged, tough places of the world that breed rugged, tough people.
Panagea is hidden deep in Uruguay’s north-central interior, a bumpy hour’s drive from the nearest town. The Pampas boasts plenty of fancy-pants estancias with marble baths and luxury spas. This isn’t one of them. Panagea is a real, working ranch. Not rustic-chic — just plain rustic. Simple yet comfortable. Spread over 2,400 acres, the estancia is home to 1,100 head of cattle and 1,800 sheep, along with pigs, rheas and the occasional turkey. Ibis nest in the trees.
The ranch is owned by Juan Manuel and his Swiss wife, Susanna, who live there with two young daughters. The couple met years before while traveling through Nepal. Curious and cultivated, they welcomed us warmly and conversed like friends. Juan’s epic patience teaching newbies to ride was matched by his no-nonsense personality and dry humor. He implored us to solve our own “crises,” including empty coffee pots in the morning and wine bottles that needed opening.
There was no mobile service, either — a lack of Wi-Fi meaning we had to talk to each other — and electricity ran for only a few hours every evening. Boiling hot showers were on drip status with a three-minute limit, and we brought in well water to flush the toilets. Heat for the winter nights came from a fireplace in the living room and a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. We slept in dormitory-style rooms, with the guys in a bunkhouse outside. A Tennyson quote was tacked up beside a notice for “Princess Complaints: Press the Button” — followed by a stubby wine cork.
I woke up toasty warm on the first morning, snuggled under a down duvet and three wool blankets. Daring to reach outside my cocoon, I lit my bedside candle and read the thermometer: 44 degrees. I ripped off the blankets like a Band-Aid and launched into a frenzied race to get dressed, shoving on every layer I had packed. After DIY bacon and eggs, I pulled on a pair of bombachas de campo (baggy gaucho pants) and wellies (rubber boots for the mud). Cowboy hats were also provided, but I grabbed a helmet instead — insurance against my lack of coordination.
Juan taught us how to saddle up gaucho-style, cinching four layers around the horse: a blanket, pad, leather seat and a fuzzy sheepskin on top. Gauchos sit higher on the horse’s back than Western cowboys, with longer stirrups and wider legs. Once we mastered the skill of staying upright, the real fun began. Over the next few days, we drove cattle from one side of the ranch to the other. We herded lambs into a corral to notch ears and dock tails. We cut calves from their mothers and gave them tags and vaccinations. We rounded up loafers and strays.
Hearty, homemade meals followed every morning and evening ride, cooked over wood in the kitchen or outside on an open fire. We feasted on lamb with beans, grilled pork chops and scalloped potatoes. Hammocks and basketball followed. Mate tea and Tannat wine flowed freely as we talked over candlelight deep into the night.
By the fourth day, our group of riders had dwindled from a dozen to four. Some stayed behind to watch Netflix downloads on their smartphones, and some just wanted to sleep. One guy turned around after feeling the biting wind on his face. For the rest of us, it was one last chance to go gaucho, to immerse ourselves in the soul-lifting fellowship of nature and beast.
Every hour in the saddle deepened my newfound appreciation for the art of the cowboy: reading the landscape, anticipating animal behavior and responding with proper subtlety or strength. Between moments of sheer exhilaration, I glimpsed the meditative magic of the ride. I gained confidence with each step, embracing the powerful connection with my horse and an inherent love of the open and free.
But on that first morning when my helmet fell off, this tenacity had yet to be born. And there was only one way to learn: I hopped off the horse and scooped up my broken helmet. The moment of truth had arrived. Could I haul myself back on? I shoved my boot into the stirrup, gripped the saddle and took a deep breath. Then I flung my leg toward the sky with everything I had and landed firmly on top of the horse.
I knotted the helmet to my saddle and trotted off to rejoin my friends, riding just a bit higher than I had before.
Words and Photos By Shilo Urban