Families line the bleachers of a lollipop-shaped stadium. A woman called a charra, dressed in traditional Mexican attire is sitting side-saddle on an idling horse at the end of the runway.
With a swift start, the horse begins to gallop toward the arena and as it enters a chalked rectangle, the charra pulls on the reins. The horse rears back and gracefully slides 20 feet over the dirt with its front legs in the air. People cheer.
Videos of horse “slides,” or puntas, are going viral—while memes compare horse slides to extreme stunt driving. And recently, debate over the ethics of related practices have sprung up in California and elsewhere. National Geographic spoke to experts to find out whether the sport is harmful to the horses.
The slide is the highlight of the three demonstrations that comprise la cala— the first of nine suertes, or skills, that make up the Mexican horseriding competition known as charreada.
In the United States, many describe the charreada as a type of Mexican rodeo; however, the first charreadas pre-date any U.S. rodeo by centuries.
Early 17th century colonial Spanish haciendas in present-day Mexico held competitions where farmhands demonstrated horsemanship through games based on their daily activities, like cattle roping. These games evolved into the nine charreada competitions.
With the dawn light shining, a Denver high school senior Nidian Calzada stands in a school doorway wearing a folkloric dance dress from Jalisco, Mexico, and waits to shout El Grito ("the cry" of independence given by Father Hidalgo) at a Mexican Independence Day celebration. The school began the day with La Entrada, a morning walk-in ceremony.
Ashlee Watts, associate professor of large animal surgery at Texas A&M, says puntas and similar horse stunts like “reining,” in which riders use reins to guide a horse through precise patterns, are comparable to the stress human athletes put on their muscles.
The practice is safe “in the absence of pre-existing injury,” she says. “Moderate exercise is good for musculoskeletal health.”
Similar to a baseball pitcher who develops pitcher’s elbow, an injury caused by overuse and repetitive motion, horses competing in la cala occasionally develop arthritis in the hock joints in their back legs.
“You don’t touch the sliding horse for anything else,” says Christina Cabral, founder of Charra Internacional De Las Americas. “They have extensive training and go through lots of therapy,” she says.
Other criticisms are pointed at the bit used for the sliding horse, called the freno. A bit is a piece of metal inserted in a horse’s mouth to control its movements by pushing and pulling on reigns. Unlike the snaffle bit used in dressage and other types of riding, the freno has a curve in the middle to apply more pressure on the horse’s tongue. While all bits have drawn criticism from animal rights groups, Cabral says the freno has drawn further criticism because of the extra pressure applied to the tongue.
“These bits are similar to curb bits used on many horses in Western riding,” says Sarah Sampson from Texas A&M University’s equestrian department. “It uses a lever action in which very little pressure needs to be applied to the bit through the reins.”
In California, animal rights activists have lobbied to ban activities such as bull tailing (pulling the bull to the ground by its tail) and horse tripping (lassoing the front legs) from charreada. Animal cruelty legislation has focused on charreada events other than la cala, which includes the slide.
Cabral says the charreada has been unfairly targeted, pointing to what she calls an “undercurrent of racism.”
“They don’t care to see to the full extent how we handle animals,” she says. “I can’t say that there hasn’t ever been a case of abuse, but I can say that in our culture, that’s not what we are about. But we also want to innovate. If someone says that there is a better way to handle animals we will say: “Okay, let’s have a dialogue about it.’”