San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Horsing around at Rancho Sacramento

From the print edition

Sophia Montero sat tall on her copper-brown horse, watching the other riders, trembling slightly. Was it from the cold or nerves? Both, she said. Her long braid stuck to her, as did the braids in her horse’s mane; it had been raining all day. That Saturday at the riding competition, contenders, judges and spectators all got a shower, but few cared. It was all about the horses.

The affair, hosted by horse-breeding foundation Acricamde, consisted of more than 50 riders, and their mounts displayed poise in barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping, team penning and other events. Nested in the hills northeast of San José near Coronado, Rancho Sacramento rises from green pastureland dotted with dairy cows. 

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Horse and rider.

Gabe Dinsmoor

“Costa Ricans are truly horse people,” said Michelle Basten, a spectator and rider who did not compete in the event. “You see entire families competing in these shows and entire towns turning out for topes.”

Topes are large parades of horses – a tradition of numerous Central American countries. Riders and horses appear in their best attire to stroll before an applauding crowd through a downtown area. These parades often double as fundraisers for various needs in the towns where they are held.

This weekend’s exposition was Montero’s first western-style competition. English dressage and jumping are her forte, yet she wanted to try something new. After all, she’s been on a horse since she was 5. Now that she’s about to turn 12, it’s time for a challenge. It’s only been a month since she started training for western riding events.

Barrel racers in her age bracket line up outside the arena. When her name is called, Montero and Pavaroti, her gelding, charge into the stadium, sand flying behind them. The two race a quick figure eight around the first two barrels. They head for the final barrel at the far end of the showground, pivoting quickly around it.

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Barrel competitor, Marisa Fernández.

Gabe Dinsmoor

On the homestretch she let Pavaroti have his head, and they flew down the arena and out the gate with the quickest time in her age group. Her fan club consists of her trainer, parents, sister and girlfriends. Once she’s out of the stadium her friends leap out of the stands and race to congratulate Montero and pet Pavaroti.

“It’s fun to be out with the horses and playing with the dogs,” Montero said. “Mom says there must be some horse in my blood.”

After the youth events, the adults take the arena with impressive speed and agility in horsemanship, where rider and horse walk through and across small logs, backing up and pivoting, as well as opening and closing gates. The speed of the barrel racers has the crowd cheering riders down the homestretch of the race. Pole bending and numerous roping events draw gasps and sighs from spectators as horses dance about the steers and lassos alike.

Manager of Rancho Sacramento, Jorge Muñoz, said despite the rain all riders put on a good competition.“It’s a passion,” he said. “We Costa Ricans love this.”

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