The Drunken Horse Race


The sun sets after a misty afternoon in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Huehuetenango. A marimba plays through the cornfields by the edge of the town, mixed with inaudible chatter and laughter. The riders of Squech Koya, The Rooster Games, are present at the party, drinking plenty of beer and strong liquor. In a house in a nearby hilltop, Alberto Mendoza, the main captain of the race, entertains his guests. He has just returned from the United States, and is paying for the entire party before leading his team of riders through the slopes of the prosperous town the following day.

The partygoers dance and stumble about through the night. Alberto dances proudly; he’s celebrating and showcasing his success. As the sun burns the night away, his horses are brought to him by a man named Oscar. Alberto then picks Aladina, a fine looking mare, to take him down the slopes of the town to the racetrack that’s been set up.

Alberto Mendoza drinks beer together with the other riders in his home in Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Hundreds of people gather around the racetrack at the lowest part of the town. Whistles soon announce the beginning of the race, and the crowd erupts into cheers and half-drunken screaming. For the casual viewer, this race is a confusing sight as it has no winner or loser. It simply serves as a reminder of the town’s history. Ask anyone from Todos Santos and they will definitely know how the story goes: Hundreds of years ago, during Colonial times, it was forbidden for the indigenous people of Guatemala to touch the Spaniards’ horses. This was such a high offence that its punishment was death. So, as an act of defiance, a few nameless men from the proud town of Todos Santos decided to steal some of the horses, and ride them as hard and as fast as possible through the night. Having no actual horseback-riding experience, all of them were easily caught and, of course, executed. Still, the Maya Mam people of Todos Santos Cuchumatán hailed them as heroes, and the tradition of getting plastered and racing horses on an improvised track once a year was born.

Partygoers in the house of the Mendoza Pablo in Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Alberto, like the rest of the riders and the men they are honouring, cares very little about falling over and getting hurt. During the races, several men fell off their horses and onto the sandy track, breaking their bones or knocking themselves out. Even though people did go over to help them every time a rider got hurt, they had a very nonchalant attitude about it. For the people of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, spilling blood onto the soil during the race is absolutely okay. Also, one of the more obvious advantages of getting sauced-up before the race is that it diminishes the fear and pain. So, the riders fly by furiously in a drunken haze during their runs. Some do so expertly, while others bounce and flail about as their horses charge through. All of them are happy and proud, though.

Oscar feeds Aladina the mare. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

During the last few runs of the event, the main captains whip out their roosters. A few hundred years ago, these birds were used as a sacrifice for the ancestors during rituals in the Maya Mam community. Since the Squech Koya serves to honour the brave men of Todos Santos, it is only natural that they make an appearance in the event as well. The captains race down the track while holding tight to the roosters. In the last few runs, they sacrifice them mid-race by breaking their necks. They are later served in a stew.

Once the races are over, the riders return home to their party. At Alberto’s house, the marimba plays through the cornfields and the party rages on once more. There’s food and dance and drink, and his guests celebrate another successful Day of the Dead in town.

Alberto Mendoza observes as his mare is being prepared for the race. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


Horse keepers prepare their beasts of burden for the upcoming race. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


Leonel Pablo Geronimo, a one of the racers in his horse in Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


Spectators of the race observe the first races in Todos Santos Cuchumatán. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


A rider makes way to the racetrack. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


Riders calm their horses once they arrive at the end of the track. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


Todo Santeros ride their horses. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


A fallen rider is carried away from the racetrack. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


Squech Koya, the Rooster Game. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


A rider with a black rooster races the Squech Koya. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


Riders set out to feel the breeze in ther body in the cold air of Todos Santos. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


A rider prepares to enter the racetrack. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite


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