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Ecuador, Where Zorro Is Real

An unusual horse race in Ecuador turns the concept of fox hunting on its head

I stood behind interlocking metal barriers along with more than 100 other spectators. On a hillside above us, a man shouted, “Viva Ibarra!” and vigorously urged his horse to ignore its instincts and take a leap of faith down a nearly vertical cliff. At first the horse tried to halt its downward momentum, but as it started to slide, it accepted the inevitable and jumped down the incline, kicking up a cloud of dust as it landed a few yards below. Up on the hill, the next horse and rider were waiting for their chance to conquer this first jump of the 2015 Caceria del Zorro, or “Zorro Hunt.”

Every year, in the first week of October, the community around San Miguel de Ibarra, in northern Ecuador, celebrates the anniversary of the city’s founding with a weeklong party. The centerpiece of the festivities is the Caceria del Zorro, an event that is best described as a combination obstacle course and race on horseback. This year’s festival marked the 43rd Zorro Hunt, and more than 400 riders including men, women, and children, took part.

The Zorro Hunt takes the concept of a foxhunt and turns it on its head. Instead of hedges and moors, riders navigate mountain roads and precipitous drops (called piñearoles). Then everyone who has made it through these challenges without falling off his or her horse (or getting injured) can head to a specially-designed racetrack where, instead of a fox, they pursue a rider dressed as Zorro. What could go wrong?

The event had kicked off that morning with a parade that included riders of all ages and abilities mounted on horses that ran the gamut from prancing, purebred stallions to bedraggled work ponies. It was an impressive display of horseflesh, and many of the riders were eye-catching as well. The procession included local beauty queens, a full army band whose members played their instruments while in the saddle, members of fancy riding clubs who came out in matching riding gear, and a group of traditionally dressed chagras (Ecuadorian cowboys), the men in their signature woolly sheepskin chaps, and the women in traditional embroidered tops and fedoras. Horses and riders paraded through the streets of Ibarra, then many continued out of town and up into the hills to a rise called El Angel, where all that jumping off of cliffs began.

The centerpiece of the festivities is the Caceria del Zorro, an event that is best described as combination obstacle course and race on horseback. 

The Zorro Hunt began in 1966 and was supposedly inspired by the annual deer hunts that used to take place in the area (though that doesn’t exactly explain how it became a re-imagined fox hunt). Zorro means fox in Spanish, and the very first Zorro, a Mr. Ramiro Mie who chosen for his riding skills, wore a foxtail on his back and scattered paper behind him as he galloped to leave a trail for his pursuers.

Over time the event became wildly popular, and rules were instituted to regulate participation. The three piñearoles—which are built at 45 degree angles and drop between 6.5 and 20 feet—now act as qualifiers for a series of head-to-head races on a dirt track, with riders divided up by age and riding ability. Any rider who falls off during a jump is disqualified from racing at the track, and all riders must wear helmets, though the word “helmet” loosely defined. (While most riders I saw were wearing actual riding helmets, a few were sporting ill-fitting bike helmets or even motorcycle helmets.)

Ecuadorian cowboys paraded in traditional clothing: sheepskin chaps for men and embroidered blouses and fedoras for women.
The role of Zorro (and the costume) also evolved. Each race has its own Zorro, and riders now dress as the fictional character Zorro, the masked outlaw and crusader for justice (so named because he was cunning like a fox)—though they do still wear a small fake foxtail attached to their backs. Riders try to catch up with the Zorro, pull of his or her tail, and cross the finish line with it; whoever does wins the race and also earns the honor of being a Zorro the following year.

Nearly six hours after the event started, only a fraction of the riders who took part in the parade had made it through the jumps and down to the shores of the Yaguarcocha Lagoon to tackle the twisting, turning 1.8 mile long dirt track that was constructed just for the day’s events. Thousands of spectators filled the stands as horses and riders took a well-earned break and got the chance to eat and drink. When the races finally started, the Zorros were given a 250-foot head start, and the task of catching the foxtail proved to be incredibly difficult. I only witnessed one successful tail-pull during the entire afternoon of racing.

Riders must make it through a series of three jumps, called piñearoles in Spanish, in order to qualify for the main race.

What I did see were veterinarians everywhere along the parade route, at the jumps, and on the track. There are three official medical checks during the day, but the vets I spoke to said there had been no major problems with the horses this year. I was told that in recent years "doping" with caffeine had been a problem and had caused some horses to have heart attacks. Horses have also had to be "sacrificed" in past years because of injuries that simply couldn’t be treated.

This year, most horses and riders reached the finish line exhausted but in one piece. One rider got to the finish line first and started pumping his fist in victory but then toppled over the front of his horse, landing on his back with an audible thud. He got up on his own, but an ambulance took him away, his dreams of being Zorro crushed—possibly along with a few ribs.

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All photos by Eric Mohl