Do Horses Bite?




Tupiza, Bolivia
Shhh! Do you hear it? Barely audible? Wait… Yes, the thurram-thurram-thurram, that terrible sound, is growing, coming, gaining ground. Onto the horses! The thunder of hooves is ricocheting off the canyon walls. Lightning speed: they’re coming to catch us; no time to lose!

Did you ever imagine how it would be, in the American Wild West, in the movies? I did. Robbing a bank or a stage coach, flying away on horseback in a hail of bullets, red-check handkerchief over the mouth, disappearing in a cloud of desert dust? And if the trail ever became too hot, if the sheriff was too close or the Pinkerton Detective Agency too diligent in their hunt for the stolen loot, for the thieves and the bounty for capture, one could always do as the infamous bank robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did in 1901, and escape to South America.

What better way to experience Tupiza, where Butch and Sundance finally met their ends, than to hire a horse and gallop like a train, fly like the wind, through a desert canyon, past a cactus or two? Thurram-thurram-thurram: that was the idea.

Helpful hint: of course it would be better to know beforehand how to ride a horse.



Nong Khai, Thailand
It was just yesterday, several years later, I was remembering that afternoon on horseback, how it had been. It was a world away from Bolivia, with the steamy, monsoon Mekong idling by, beyond the cabana. Tourists gathered to chat and sip on drinks, to take the edge off the Thai afternoon humidity. Across the river were the distant houses and tiny motor cars of Laos; on the river were long canoe-like fishing boats. It’s strange I happened to chat with Annie; that Annie was there: she was exactly the person to resolve the riddle of Sanchez, from that long ago day.


Tupiza, Bolivia
Come to think of it, Tupiza, my first full day in Bolivia, never quite fit with the image of a faraway land. You don’t imagine, for example, finding lunch in a small restaurant by the main square, having to knock on the door to wake up the staff from their afternoon siesta, only to sit at a red and blue vinyl bench eating pizza to the sound of Boney M’s By the Rivers of Babylon. It’s a little off-putting.

Still, I clambered boulders at the edge of town, followed a goat trail past the Stations of the Cross to a hilltop. The mountains are thousand-pleated like the inside of lung, ironic given the altitude’s shortness of breath. To the south, three red rock houses with little stone goat yards clung to a canyon wall; to the east, a cemetery of white crosses, artificial flowers and tinsel. To the west, traffic uninterested in Tupiza’s bridge drove instead along the dry riverbed.

I followed a veinlike gully that zigzagged into the hills, in parts so narrow you could touch both walls at once. The rocks were pebble-filled, the olive green willows lit by the shard of late afternoon sky contrasted with rock red. Shadows climbed canyon walls. The air was still.

There was a stand-off in that canyon, but it wasn’t a pistol-toting Pinkerton detective that found me; rather a Doberman that suddenly appeared from around a bend, barking ferociously and running wildly in my direction. The canyon walls too steep to climb, I tried to recall all I knew of dogs and did the only thing worth doing. I stood still.

Fortunately, seconds short of my leg entering its mouth and needing several rabies shots, the dog baulked. My bluff worked. Soon its human arrived, yelling, managing to ward it off. Did they have wild Dobermans in the Wild Wild West?

Like me, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid started their South American adventures in Argentina. Unlike me, they would appear to have staged their biggest bank robbery of all, in Rio Gallegos in 1905, making off to the north and eventually hiding out in Bolivia. Witnesses recalled two English speaking bandits.

At San Vicente outside Tupiza in 1908 came the showdown. Trapped in a house, three soldiers of the Abaroa Regiment of the Bolivian Army’s cavalry, the police chief and local officials sought to arrest the fugitives. The bandits opened fire. There was a gunfight until, at 2 a.m., from inside the house two shots were heard, minutes apart. Two dead, bullet-ridden bodies were later found. It appeared that one had shot the other, who was probably already mortally wounded, before turning the gun on himself.

Tupiza: there should at least be a bit of galloping.

Like Butch and Sundance we were two: there was another Australian tourist, Richard. The hostel offered a lazy triathlon: a first leg by bicycle, all downhill, the second on horseback and the third by jeep, along a dirt road far up into the mountains.

I had only one question. ‘Do they have a really docile, placid horse available?’ I’d barely ridden before. They said they did: a dirty-white horse with a kindly disposition and his name was Sanchez.

We were led into empty country, from a stretch by the railway into just the kind of dry, rocky terrain where an American movie about the Wild West could be filmed. It was picture perfect for galloping, flying off in a trail of dust. But of course, there’s a difference between how things are imagined and reality.

Thurram-thurram-thurram, imagined, is not always how it turns out.

Sanchez was quite good but it wasn’t without trepidation that I sat up there on his back. I was pretty strong on the reins, thinking he should know I was in charge, and far short of galloping, if Sanchez even attempted a light trot, much less a canter, I became nervous and pulled him back. In the country of Butch and Sundance, there was a lot of slow walking that went on. On that day, Sanchez may as well have been a donkey.

Yet there was something more worrisome about his behaviour. He kept trying to twist his head around towards my leg. I didn’t mind if he only wanted to sniff it but I couldn’t be sure of his intentions so I pulled his head back to the front with the reins, just in case. If Sanchez is the placid horse, I’d hate to try the other ones.

‘Do horses bite?’ I wondered.

Nong Khai, Thailand
It’s not often that one needs to consult a horse expert. They’re not like doctors or hairdressers that everyday people visit time to time. Even the tom-tom owning Dhakaiyas probably know enough about horses not to spend much time consulting experts. Indeed, should I require a horse expert I wouldn’t know how to go about finding one.

So it was odd that as I was re-considering Sanchez and the day in Tupiza, Annie sat beside me. She was a British horse-riding instructor living in Hong Kong, where she taught at a riding school. She was on holidays in Thailand. It was the perfect circumstance to clear up that Sanchez issue. ‘Excuse me, but do horses bite?’

She was polite enough not to laugh when I explained the afternoon I spent onboard Sanchez. ‘Horses do sometimes bite,’ she said, ‘but it’s usually when you’re standing in front. It’s very hard for a horse to twist its neck to bite when you’re sitting on it. Maybe you were pulling on the reins too hard?’




Tupiza, Bolivia

Of course there are rumours about Butch and Sundance. It’s said they didn’t actually die in San Vicente. There are people who said they met them, years later, living discreetly back in the United States. It’s said they lived full lives and knew old age, and maybe it’s true: perhaps a final showdown, imagined, is not always how it works out in reality.




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This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Do Horses Bite?
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