The Thrill of Being a “Charra for a Day”

Horses have been a passion of Donna Brownfield’s since childhood, so it was only natural that she would want to explore the horse culture here in Mexico. On her first trip to the Jaltemba Bay area in 2008, she informed her housemates that she was “going to look for a horse to ride.” The valley behind her house in La Peñita was a logical choice as she could see horses over there. While describing this trip Donna says, “I hadn’t walked for more than 10 minutes when I heard a horse clippity-clopping down the road behind me. That was my first encounter with Abundio, the well-known octogenarian charro with a huge mustache and large sombrero, who would become my friend and riding partner for the next several years. It was on a ride in this same valley 4 years later that I came upon the emaciated herd and subsequently assisted George and Loretta in forming the Jaltemba Equine Education Project (J.E.E.P.).”

Donna distinctly remembers meeting Bertha Cueva, captain of the local escramuza team, who was at one of the first organizational meetings for J.E.E.P. After the meeting, she asked George Leavitt if he thought Bertha would let her ride with her. She admitted being totally ignorant of the traditional ways, but if it involved horses, she wanted to be included.

This is where Donna’s story comes full circle.

Ironically, the chance to become a “Charra for a Day” was auctioned off at the first “Pony Up” for J.E.E.P. Fundraiser on January 23, 2013. This amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was donated by none other than Bertha Cueva and included a special sidesaddle riding lesson and a chance to join the Charras in an upcoming event. Little did Donna know that Loretta Leavitt, an accomplished equestrian herself, and her husband George decided to bid on this item to give to Donna for all that she had done for the J.E.E.P. project.


Bertha and her friend came to the “Pony Up” for J.E.E.P. Fundraiser to explain what the Charra tradition is all about.

At the time of the fundraiser, Donna was in Oregon, and it wasn’t until the following day that she learned via email that Loretta had “won” the bid and had given this thrilling prize to her. Donna says, “I felt very lucky to be offered this honor.”

Donna returned to La Peñita in March 2013, and while she was looking forward to the lessons, she still wasn’t quite sure of what she was getting into. She explains, “At my first meeting with Bertha she asked me if I knew about the escaramuza, did I speak Spanish, and had I ever ridden sidesaddle?” Donna answered “no” to all these questions, so Bertha patiently explained the patterns and rules of the escaramuza and the Spanish words for them. She also forwarded a couple of YouTube videos of local escaramuza competitions. Donna says, “Imagine my shock when I saw how FAST they were riding the complicated patterns while sitting sidesaddle!” Needless to say, Donna had many butterflies on her way to the next lesson, but she felt fortunate to be able to take lessons on Renato, Bertha’s personal horse who is exceptional to ride. After a few lessons alone in the Lienzo Charro Las Isabeles in La Peñita, she discovered that, much to her surprise, the sidesaddle is actually a very secure seat.


Bertha is cinching Renato’s saddle for the ride


Putting on the bridle and bit so Donna can control Renato during the ride


Bertha warms Renato up for Donna’s lesson


Bertha loans Donna her own sombrero de charro and a bandana in preparation for the ride

On April 26, Donna took advantage of this amazing gift and experienced the thrill of riding sidesaddle with the Charras during their practice. Donna explains that “This experience was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, as it was both faster and more challenging than previous lessons. I was determined not to fall off in front of all those experienced horsewomen. After about an hour my legs were like rubber from hanging on so tight, but it was worth every minute of it.”

Donna goes on to say, “This experience has challenged and enriched me and I am proud to have been a part of the team if only for a brief practice session. My sincere thanks to both Loretta and Bertha for making this happen.”


Donna sits on the still unfamiliar sidesaddle


Donna anxiously waits for the other Charras to arrive


Warming up in the Lienzo


Practicing one of the many choreographed escaramuza patterns


Bertha Cueva, the captain of the team, enjoys coaching the Charras

For any non-horse people out there (and according to the internet): Escaramuza is an equestrienne display of choreographed patterns. The event involves women’s teams dressed in a style reminiscent of the nineteenth century, participating in precisely choreographed patterns for horses. The immediate antecedent of the present Escaramuzas were the Adelitas, or “women of the revolution.”

The women in the escaramuza are mounted “a mujeriegas”, that is, in an “albarda” or sidesaddle that is peculiar in style to the Charrería but the underlying design has also evolved over hundreds of years in both Europe and North Africa. The traditional albarda for the Escaramuza is a cut down charro saddle, with a leather seat and leg braces, U-shaped for the right leg and C-shaped for the left leg. The word mujeriegas in Spanish means sitting in a saddle in a women style which is in a sidesaddle position.

About Jaltemba Equine Education Project (J.E.E.P.): Jaltemba Equine Education Project (J.E.E.P.) was established in December 2012 by George & Loretta Leavitt to help large animals like horses, donkeys and mules who are ill, malnourished or being mistreated in Jaltemba Bay, Nayarit, Mexico.

To learn more and to make a one-time gift or recurring donation, visit Jaltemba Equine Education Project (J.E.E.P.)

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