Sabaneros – Costa Rican Cowboys

Brahman 1What I wasn’t aware of when we were told we were going to be based in Guanacaste was that it is cattle country, it contains over 20,000 livestock producers most of which are cattle producers. Three quarters of Costa Rica’s cattle are found in Guanacaste.

So it is not surprising that the more we have driven around the province the more fields of cattle we have seen, most of them are white Brahman cattle and if you are lucky you may see the Cattle Egrets following them about. When we first arrived the cattle were in fields of lush green grass and they looked healthy and happy. But we have not seen any rain in our part of Guanacaste for 4 months, since mid November. There have been showers here and there around the province but very localised and as a consequence the environment has turned brown and pale yellow.

Brahman 2 Brahman 3

The local newspaper calls this the ‘Season of Skinny Cows’, the small and medium sized producers are the ones hardest hit being unable to provide additional water or fodder for their animals and so the cattle become very thin and loose condition, in 2015 approximately 500 cattle died.

What was the biggest and nicest surprise for ML and I were that the cattle are looked after by cowboys, well not exactly cowboys but Sabaneros, these are the Costa Rican equivalent. It very odd to see them riding down the side of the main roads going about their business. They are wiry men, (I’ve never seen a woman) with dark tanned skin like leather aged from their days spent in the sun and dry air which makes it difficult to guess their age. I understand from ML who has had the opportunity to speak to some of them that they economical with their speech but that just could have been because he doesn’t speak much Spanish.

Sabaneros 2 Sabaneros 5

They all seemed to wear jeans and a checked cotton shirt, leather boots and a wide brimmed hat, a belt with a large buckle and their horses are outfitted with a saddle sometimes with cowhide flaps decorated at the edges, a harness and sometimes the stirrups are open and on others they are closed and their lassoes hang from their saddle. The horses mostly have their manes cut short so that they do not get it trapped when they are working.

The horses are well cared for and if you are really lucky as we were when we passed a Sabanero and pulled in well ahead of him so that we could take a photograph as he passed by, he very kindly showed us some of the horse’s skills with its high stepping gait turning in tight circles. When the Sabaneros’ horse is travelling they use a running walk which is like a brisk jog and they can travel for miles at that speed.

Sabaneros 1 Sabaneros 3


It is a hard life for both the horse and rider, they start early in the day, spend it herding the animals in their care. But during festival time the Sabaneros get the opportunity to showcase their skills.

During January and February there are a series of festivals in the region, along with carnival rides, music, dancing, eating and drinking is the Tope and the Montaderas. The Tope is a horse parade where the Sabaneros showcase their horses, skills and outfits, they parade through the town both the Sabaneros and their horses are in their finery. It’s a good opportunity to get up close and personal with the local people and also a way of seeing lots of horses perform the high-stepping gait they are known for.

Montaderas Tope

The Montaderas is a competition with elements that anyone who had attended a rodeo would recognise but with that Costa Rican twist. The competitions are held within a wooden ring called a rondel, some towns have these as permanent fixtures but in other towns you will see the ring and tiered seating being built prior to the fiesta.

The Sabaneros sit upon the bull which is then released into the rondel, the winner is the one who stays on the bull’s back the longest. The Sabaneros come from all over to compete for the title of ‘Champion Montador’ and a cash prize.

Sabaneros 4 Rondel

The bull riders become well known locally and occasionally nationally but equal some of the bulls become well know and not always for their skill in the rondel. One year ago today Costa Rica’s most famous bull ‘Malacrianza’ died at the age of 16 years. He became famous on the bull riding circuit because he killed two riders.

He started working on the circuit in 2004, he apparently earned his name for his distinctive style and boldness in the ring. But he was also known by other nicknames  for instance “El Corazón de Garza” (the Heart of Garza) and “Su Majestad” (His Majesty). The most popular name, though, was as yet unearned: “El Toro Asesino.”

I have seen two different translations of his name Malacrianza one is Badly Raised and another in Badass, both of which give you some idea of his temperament. He killed his first rider in an accidental fall in 2005 (he weighed 700 kg/1550 pounds) and in 2006 gored his rider with one of his 30 cm (one foot) long horns.

Malacrianza Merchandise Malacrianza

He is also identified as the reason for rodeo becoming popular again and his image was used on posters, badges, t shirts and a beer named after him. He even appeared in a music video with the Taboga Band when the performed a song named after him.

He worked on the circuit for longer than most bulls such was his popularity and when he was no longer able to perform his owner Ubaldo Rodriguéz  put him to stud, but also exhibited him at the various fiestas so that the public could still see him.

He was found dead in his pasture and Ubaldo wanted a permanent reminder of his bull so he commissioned a sculptor Johnny Garcia who is well-known to the Guanacaste region to sculpt a representation of ‘Malacrianza’. The sculptor uses a technique called ferrocement which consists of using iron and cement to form the structure of the statue.

Bull Rider Statue Santa CruzJohnny Garcia Clachar has a history of making statues that celebrated bull riding, he sculpted a  statue of El Oasis a famous bull from the Los Ahogados Hacienda in Liberia and a statue called ‘Montador Y Vaquetero’ featuring a bull rider with his arm flung in the air as he tries to stay on top of the bull.

The finished statue of ‘Malacrianza’ took the sculptor two months to complete and Ubaldo when he received it decided to give his bull one last trip and after the loading the statue onto a trailer he drove around the region showing the bulls fans that he still lived on. The statue now stands on a hillside overlooking his home .La Nueva Esperanza Hacienda

One final word, I have read a report that Malacrianza’s head was transported to a Nicoya taxidermist where it was to be frozen and treated before being displayed in a museum in Filadelfia,  Guanacaste alongside other famous bulls. I have been unable to find the museum or any details as to whether it happened.

I wonder if anyone knows?

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