Travel and Sports Gold Winner: Sidesaddle Girls at a Mexican Rodeo

by Tim Leffel

In a hidden stadium at the end of a dirt road in central Mexico, impeccably dressed women ride in an intricate ballet of galloping horses.

We had already been there at least an hour, watching a few rounds of contestants showing off their equestrian skills, before we noticed the most amazing thing of all. “Wait a minute…are they riding sidesaddle?!”

With the ruffled skirts flying and the horses galloping by us in synchronized formations, it hadn’t even occurred to us that the women on top wouldn’t be straddling the saddle, feet in stirrups on each side. Once we noticed, it was clear that this rodeo event required even more skill than we had imagined. These wives and daughters of cowboys were no casual riders putting on a show for their caballeros. Doing figure eights at a full gallop and weaving between other horses is hard enough normally, but while sitting sideways?

Mexico and the American West share a rodeo culture that’s familiar to most through TV and movies, with manly men twirling lassos and showing their skills at staying on top an animal that doesn’t want them there. The iconic images play out from Alberta to Colorado and from Texas to Jalisco, in any place where there have traditionally been lots of horses and cattle farms.

This rodeo was a different animal, and not just because our taxi driver had to ask directions twice to find this obscure rodeo stadium at the end of a dirt road between Guanajuato and León. Sure, there were some  real cowboys in the stands watching, decked out in their finest hats and coordinated outfits with detailed embroidery. They were the spectators though. The stars of the show were downright stunning.

With their hair braided, makeup on, and intricate ruffled outfits fitted perfectly, these women looked more like beauty contestants than rodeo team members. As I watched them giggle and gossip in the staging area, I wondered what to expect. What can women dressed like this really do in that rodeo ring?

I underestimated them. Badly.

Each escaramuza team (the word meaning “skirmish” in Spanish) competed doing the same two exhibitions. The first one was for four team members to ride down a passageway of about 50 meters at full speed one by one, each bringing the horse to a complete stop within a chalk-marked rectangle in the middle of the rodeo ring. The shorter the distance required to stop—from a full speed sprint—the higher the score. At times this resulted in the horse being at a 45 degree angle or more off the ground as the woman pulled back hard on the reins. Did I mention that the riders were sitting sideways for all this?

The next step was the team exhibition. For this the team of eight or ten riders—all in matching outfits—would perform a choreographed and intricate riding routine with a soundtrack blaring. First riding together in the same direction, then splitting off in different directions, crossing each others’ paths, riding around in opposite directions in a tight circle, dispersing and coming together again. Amazingly, even though they were often passing within a horse’s whisker of each other and had to lean hard when rounding the turns, only one team had anyone fall off.

The escaramuza is a full-blown sensory spectacle. Hoofbeats mix with shouted commands from the group leader while the public address systems’ play-by-play and music soundtrack both compete with the cheering section in the stands. Swirls of color fly by while the dust from dozens of horses’ hooves rises into the air and enters the spectators’ nostrils. The smells you would expect from a rodeo—dust, manure, and wet dirt—mix with the smells from the food stalls outside serving up grilled meat, popcorn, tacos, and pork rinds. When the women come to a stop, however, everyone’s eyes can rest on the still beauty. Dresses mix bright colors and perfect white, with layers and layers of ruffles. The varieties of  suede hats are just so, without any sign of wear or imperfection.

This competition is unlike anything else in the rodeo culture world. In essence it is rehearsed choreography with horses and lively Mexican music. More ballet than bravado, more grace than grunting.

During breaks in the action we wandered around and took in the sideshow. We grabbed giant liter cups of micheladas, the uniquely Mexican concoction that seems to be perfect for a rodeo: beer mixed with spicy hot sauce, Clamato, chili powder, lime juice, and salt. We admired the fine saddles, whips and accessories on display, with boots and spurs next to fly repellent. Since the main sponsor was Los 3 Garcias Tequila, naturally there was a full bar as well, with fast men in cowboy hats delivering drinks to the stands.

Some of the items for sale barely warranted a glance from the regular rodeo crowd, but made us foreigners point and giggle. The best were the keychains and amulets that were brass ball sacks—yes, cojones. For good luck, one of the mothers hovering around assured us. Apparently if you mix this with prayer you’ll have especially good luck: at the side of the display a whole ring of brass bull testicles were hanging on a Jesus crucifix.

Back in the arena, I learned that the coordinated outfits and accessories are serious business. I got a stern shake of the head no when trying to land one of the programs a worker was handing out. I realized why after borrowing one from the father of a young woman who had finished her ride. The booklet was not a program for the audience, but rather a handbook for contestants to make sure their costumes met all the right requirements. Or more likely, to make it clear what would violate the rules. No piercings, no sunglasses, no bangs. No jackets, no see-through fabrics, no skirts without poofy ruffles underneath. No fluorescent or neon bows. Judges check all this out before the competition and if something’s not right, the team has to fix it before they can compete.

The most dramatic performance was when two people from the same team fell off their horses and the team had to start over. There was an ambulance parked outside in case things turned out badly, but both times the riders got back on and continued.

After all of the teams were finished, the judges went behind closed doors to add up the scores and decide on the winners. We took this as our cue to head home, not having a vested interest in who can up on top. We left the impeccably dressed cowboy husbands and brothers to cheer or mourn the victories and defeats. We headed back to Guanajuato pondering the strange discovery of a competition we didn’t even know existed. What else were we missing, hidden on back roads in the dry countryside? Whatever those events may be, it’s hard to imagine anything so graceful and beautiful coming out of life on a ranch, from people tending to the cattle.

Tim Leffel is the author of four travel books and is editor of the award-winning webzine Perceptive Travel. He also runs several blogs including

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