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Shoot the horse or the rider? Rustling: an active vocation for the criminal minded for centuries

“They Shoot Horses Don’t They,” a adage so ancient that it was used as the title of a 1969 much-lauded film about the Depression, by Sydney Pollack, starring Jane Fonda.  And small and significant wars until recently have utilized horses in defense or attack.    

“I grew up an a farm and I love horses,” said someone, remarking on recent material appearing this space.  I, too, grew up on a series of ranches and farms, and much later owned the livestock populating a large Mexican ranch.  I too love horses.  If, for no better reason that when chasing crazy broke-lose steers aboard a high-strung mount, a rider’s well-being depended on his bronc’s own sense of terrain and self-worth.       

But horse folks have all known people who vowed they loved horses at the same time they were mistreating them.   Regarding the column about shooting horses, one of the things I learned very early on about humans and horses is that cherishing horses means wildly different things to different people.  

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As the 1960s began nearly all residents of mid-sized and small Mexican pueblos who could afford it owned a horse and/or a burro, plus other livestock that furnished them basic food: cows, pigs, chickens, etc.   Yet it was common to see horses being roughly used.  

And, in starts and stops, both small and large bands of horse and cattle rustlers would infect close-by areas.  That had accounted for the centuries’ old habit of bringing stock close to home at night.  For the hirelings of the more wealthy and politically well-positioned often slaughtered horses in pastures where they grazed and the result was hauled off in trucks to be sold as beef.  Effective government slaughter houses manned by trustworthy “overseers” did not appear until sometime later.

Folks forced to defend their property, including livestock, also relied on the centuries-old method of moving defensive resources into place – by horseback, of course.  This, also for centuries, meant the wholesale equestrian slaying during encounters between owners and thieves.  

That was what foreign horsemen and women then found in Mexico.  And the poverty they also found too often meant the mistreatment of animals by the poor and uneducated.  Such folks’ unrelieved anger regarding their harsh life was unthinkingly expressed against those targets close at hand – both people and animals – that made up their lives, often same beings on whom they depended.     

At the same time, stories leaking down from the north seemed unbelievable:  Gringo ranchers whose land was over-run by “too many” wild ponies were outrightly encouraged by the U.S. government to “cull” them.    

In choosing whether to shoot at a rustler or the mount he was riding, ranchers and other horse owners were inclined to pick the thief.  But as the ranching family of Cleto Rosales always said, the government — over-loaded with well-known thieves of its own — increasingly chose to protect the rustler, not the mount he was riding.  No longer livestock owners, they were ready to sacrifice the mount, not the criminal.  “They’re the kind of pueblo folks trying to imitate big-city politicians,” rural people said.  “And it doesn’t fit the way folks in country pueblos want to live.”  Certainly not mountain campesinos.

Returning to rustlers and horses.  Below, just as distance shrunk the figures of pueblo folk, the hesitant northern edge of the nearest village commenced.  A couple of folks there rented land from me for day-time grazing for their cattle, less frequently for horses.  Bringing them into good-sized back-yard corrals for the night.

Some pueblo authorities were the kind of people who, later, suddenly advocated culling locally-owned, and well-recognized unleashed dogs roaming country pueblos, as well as livestock wandering in the streets.

Returning to the conundrum of rustlers and horses.  Getting a good horse wasn’t easy.  (For instance, at the moment north-of-the-border fall ranch horse sales are beginning to crank up as ranchers study the market offerings with sharp eyes and a lot of researching.)  Here, for mountain campesinos, buying livestock was pretty much a case of urgent replacement.  An animal has a broken leg, or dies of some sickness, or breaks loose and is hit by a highway truck.  Campesinos bought cattle and horses when they needed to replenish their herds.  When I and my close friends needed cows or good mounts, we usually went from ranch to ranch among folks we knew well, and asked if they had something for sale.  

Somewhat similar to the United States, flashy colored mounts cost more and were no guarantee of performance.  Buckskins, pintos, roans were expensive.  We looked for sorrel or bay geldings. We looked for age: no younger than two years, no older than seven.  And we’d test saddle the offerings, seeking to see how spooky they were regarding just about everything, bridling, saddling and roping them. We checked the condition of their legs, ankles, closely examining their feet, and finding if they were flinchy about having their feet cleaned.  How much they flinch when a rain slicker was tossed over their bodies and heads.  Can you mount them on the wrong – left – side without stirring up a fit?  In general, trying to find what sends a horse into the air.  You want a lot of alertness and plenty of spirit, but not full-tilt craziness.  

The mounts Cleto and I were astride fit our needs well.  They knew our habits as well as we knew theirs.  Which meant that if rustlers stole our cayuses, we’d have had to pray we could “wound” – not kill – the thieves with a quick shot.  Not promising.  

Was the risk worth a horse?  In those days, the answer tended to be yes.  That’s the way ranchers assessed the worth of their best mounts.  Those handsome animals were also our prized equestrian friends.  Creatures we knew well and valued emotionally. 


Dealing with midnight cuateros, shooting at horses, getting stock back, betting on a friend’s surmise on what a bruja might say

Rawness of a recent piece of 1960’s Jalisco history prompted both surprise and shock in some readers.  They view Jalisco history as something more benign than that report.  Understandable: To many the 1960s seem both a while ago, yet not enough to “make it so brutally different.”  Yet it was an era when most of the population here was overwhelmingly not merely Mexican, but campesino Mexican.  Much of the center of Ajijic, for instance, had corn fields trimming the sides of “streets,” many of them not cobbled.  Most buildings were adobe.  Most females went barefoot.  Men wore sombreros, considered goras – English speakers’ “baseball caps” – inadequate against the sun.  There were few cars, many horses, not a few sheep, pigs, chickens in the streets.  

Regarding weapons:  Firearm stores crowded Guadalajara’s Calzada Independencia, then considered the center of the city,  Yet for most rural folks, the 1926-1929 Cristero Rebellion meant that nearly every home housed well-used firearms.  La Cristiada was the Jalisco-centered Catholic uprising against the brutal anti-Church administration of Plutarco Elias Calles.  Calles openly waged an anti-Catholic war during his presidency, and continued it by a series of “puppet” presidents.  He made clear who was in power by taking the title of “Jefe Maximo”.  He was deported by one of his puppet presidents, Lazaro Cardenas, April 1936.  Local Callistas quickly switched sides to maintain their domination and wealth.  In the early 1960s many folks brutally treated by Callistas were still alive.

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Anacleto Rosales was reared in the echo of that rebellion and its brutal aftermath – the assassinations of the initially disarmed Cristeros.  Born in the hard-worn municipio of Atoyac in the early 1930s, his Cristiada family was locked in a life of wariness and thin resources.  Local authorities felt the Familia Rosales had been too fierce in the fight against people whose kin tortured and executed priests, whose bodies were hung on electricity posts lining Mexico’s highways.  To maintain their properties and local power when Calles was expelled from Mexico, such people declared their kin had “long ago” renounced an anti-Catholic past. Now they ostentatiously paraded into church.  Few believed them.  That trouble-touched life kept Cleto skinny and watchful, but swift physically and mentally, though he had only a slip of poor schooling.  

There was little general doubt that it was kin of “Christ killers” who rustled livestock and destroyed crops of former Cristero families.  That past kept troubling La Familia Rosales. 

Cleto’s equestrian skills began as soon as he could struggle up to a saddle.  In no time it seemed he was working late in the evenings for a wealthy rancher, acquiring two fine ponies, plus four milk cows for his family.  He seldom got to sleep before midnight. Often he sat up-mountain, watching for rustlers.  

“Maybe they’re watching me watching for them,” he told me the night I was with him.

Pos, I’ve be up above, No sign of anybody’s been spying.”  I was visiting his folks, who’d just bought a yearling calf I sold for a friend.  His wife was ill.  He said it was a spell by a local bruja.  One heard so much about the work of brujas it made you wonder. 

About a half-hour later, I thought I heard something.  A wide sound.  No just a couple of horses crossing downhill.  “Hear that?”  Cleto tilted his head, said nothing. 

“The far left, a bit downhill.  More than one, two animals.”

He grinned.  “We got them.”

“You got your rifle?”

“Como no.  You have your pistol?”


Chinga. Sounds like many people”  He put out his hand.  “Use my pistol.”

It  seemed like three men pushing maybe five horses.  They weren’t knowing about the terrain for a dip down into steep-banked arroyo startled them.  “Now,” hissed Cleto.  

The last man heard us coming and kicked his horse into a run.  That animal promptly stumbled and fell, rolling over its rider.  Cleto guided his mount across the rider and after the others.  One of them turned to uselessly fire at him.  Once riled, Cleto tended to be unfazed by people shooting at him.  Most campesinos, farmers were poor shots.  Town people were usually worse.  His family had to deal with antagonists ever since they took sides – Zapata – in the Revolution.  Each subsequent generation had cause to defend itself against unforgiving dictatorial governments.  Cleto wasn’t reckless, he was carefully relentless.  Common marksmanship was his ally. 

I was excited first, then calmed and went for coldness.  There I had the advantage of Army training.   As I caught up with him, I called out, “Oye, these pendejos own the government.  Shoot the horses.  Not the men.” I hated saying that.  He grimaced unhappily, spat dust.   Always, he liked his enemy’s mounts while loathing their owners.  

We both fired and brought down the closest horse.  The rider jumped free, then cried out, grabbing his leg.   The lead rider dodged past the stock he was driving and headed for the trees ahead, firing uselessly over his shoulder.   

“Let him go.”  I was afraid we would hit the rider.  

“No.”   Cleto pulled his bay gelding to a halt and aimed carefully.  He brought down another mount.  He was a fine shot with both hand gun and this World War II M-I Garand rifle someone bought at a gringo surplus store years before.  Mostly, I was pleased we hadn’t hadn’t killed anyone.  That would have meant trouble with thieving, splenetic authorities.

He went to the three men, each tied to a tree.  When he came back, he said, “Pos, I don’t trust them, but they say they’ll blame the dead horses on thieving strangers if we don’t turn them in for rustling.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Well, I have the feeling it’s the kind of deal that Queta Lujera would say could hold.”    

Who is Queta Lujera again?”

“Our family bruja.”

I shook my head, laughing. “ If you say so.  I don’t have any idea that comes close to that.” 

Damned if the bruja didn’t agree it was a “lively” deal.  And damned if it didn’t stick.