Coleadero: steer wrangling in Chihuahua

Northern Mexico is cowboy country, sanctuary to bandits and revolutionaries alike; and Chihuahua is its untamed beating heart. Capital of Mexico’s eponymous largest state, Chihuahua is a kitschy mix of white- and blue-collar workers, Rarámuri Indians, blue-eyed Mennonite farmers, and fashion-forward charros (cowboys) on cellphones. And nothing riles up locals faster than a good old-fashioned coleadero, a tricky steer-wrangling game.

Rider waiting in lineAll you need are two parallel walls to form a bull run, a river of Tecate beer to maintain the machismo, and a Norteño band to wail corridos (ballads) as you charge after a shell-shocked cow at maximum velocity. Oh there’s no rope, sissy: cola means “tail” – you chase down the steer, seize its tail, loop it around your leg, and veer your horse left to sweep the cow’s legs out from under it and bring it down. Points are awarded for flair, time, and roll of said cow.

Cattle wranglerAs the only gringo riding in the weekend’s coleadero, I sprung for local garb: brand new stingray-skin boots with shiny spurs, matching belt and white straw hat. When I arrived at the ejido (communal land) on the edge of town, the Mexicans looked ready to tangle and I looked ready for a camping trip on Brokeback Mountain. I was given a tall horse named Ruano, some sticky glue for my right hand, and pole-position at the front of the practice line. I was told to lose the spur from my right boot so I wouldn’t rip my leg off when it caught on the tail.

I jammed my horse in the chute door and the calf was loosed! Wry grins and elbow nudges accompanied my first 10 failed attempts, and after the next 10 the dread set in: these were one-year-old calves, used for practice, and I couldn’t even catch the steer once! The real coleadero would feature adult cows, bigger and infinitely more pissed.

SteerAs hundreds of people in pickups flowed into the ejido, the tension mounted. I’d had two hours practice at a sport the other riders had been participating in most of their lives. Three mariachi-clad rodeo queens took the stage, waiting to pin Mexican flags with mini-tequila bottles on the arms of victorious men. I was doomed. But then something unexpected happened – the Norteño band kicked in a corrido about Domingo Corrales in my honor, and my friend Jorge, sensing my angst, upgraded my ride. Tequila was the new horse’s name, and she ran as if chased by federales. On my first break-neck run in front of the assembled mob, I caught the calf and touched the tail. I came away with a hand full of cow manure and a healthy respect for the rock wall whizzing past that could deface me in a blink. But I also earned cheers from the crowd: "Vaya el Gringo!"

Five more attempts, but always the tail slipped from my frantic grasp. A crusty vaquero slurred, "Mingo – you’re running too fast. Get the tail, slow down, break left, the horse will do the rest!"

ColeaderoI steeled my jaw, the steer broke, Tequila bolted, I locked the tail, and somehow looped it around my right leg, reined in and veered left, and held on for broke while my fingers bent in unnatural ways. The cow went down in a cloud of dirt. My adrenaline erupted, Pancho Villa gave me a high five and people I’d never met screamed "Viva Domingo!" as I screeched to a halt by the rodeo queens. I was ecstatic to finally be worthy of the boots, but the real treasure was experiencing this rite of passage from the inside – not as a spectator, but as part of the spectacle. I learned my cowboy lesson: sometimes you have to take a chance, albeit terrifying, to have a travel experience unlike any other.

Dominic Bonuccelli travelled to Mexico on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.