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History’s Gait Keepers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rosendo Solis mounted the stallion whose slate-gray coat is the color of the sky before a storm. Then, gripping the reins in his educated hands, Solis channeled the animal’s barely contained energy into exacting steps that have been performed for more than four centuries.

“When he rides, it is like a conversation with the horse,” explained one of his riding students, Nancy Miller of North Hollywood. “You can hardly see it, but it’s all in the hands.”

The intimacy of this silent pact between horse and rider contrasted starkly with the laughter-spiced conversations of the family and friends who had gathered to ride, watch and socialize on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Tucked away behind the houses along a suburban thoroughfare, the small stable yard where the group met has been the home of the Rodriguez-Solis Charro Group for eight years. There, men and boys dress in the traditional wide-brimmed hats, embroidered pants and shirts of Mexican charros, or cowboys. Were it not for the distant hum of traffic, the scene could have been pulled right out of the 18th century.

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Clinging fast to a waning heritage, they teach their sons like they train their horses. With calloused hands and patient hearts, they emphasize courage, athletic prowess and, above all, discipline to shape raw spirit and wayward intentions into a seemingly effortless collaboration between man and beast.

Even the youngest boys--girls remain largely excluded from the male tradition--know how to sit motionless on a galloping horse as if they were one with the animal. They know how to twirl a lasso as if it were an extension of their arms. If the distractions of adolescence and adulthood don’t win out, they will spend a whole lifetime perfecting these skills--and then teaching their own children.

Tony Arrizon of San Fernando rode with the group. He spoke reverently of Solis, who is training Arrizon’s horse for him.

“Rosendo knows it all: riding, training and roping. He is like the last of the Mohicans. It is a dying art,” Arrizon said. “This is about keeping traditions alive with the kids. We start them young. Then one generation learns what the other one learned, and maybe more.”

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The battle is not an easy one to wage against technology and American pop culture. For the younger generation, the flash and immediate gratification of computers, MTV and fast cars are edging out long hours, sweat and sore muscles.

The charro group’s two founders--Solis, who lives in Burbank, and Francisco Rodriguez of San Fernando--each spend at least two to three hours training every day after work and, often, entire weekend days at the stables. Wives, friends and children often follow, as much to spend time with the often-absent men as to watch, rapt, as they show off their skills.

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Solis, 45, learned to ride at age 5 from his father in the small Mexican town of Tayauka, Zacatecas, where horses were a way of life.

“Horses are an old tradition,” Solis said. “It is one of the best pastimes. Some people come to horses and they forget to go to drink, they forget to go to bad places. That’s my opinion.”

To him, a love for horses and riding is in the blood--those who have caught the fever couldn’t stay away if they wanted to, he said.

His father, who is in his 80s, is still training horses at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank. Rosendo’s brother Adolfo, of Lake View Terrace, also rides with the group, and Adolfo’s son Miguel, 7, is one of the group’s best young riders.

Asked when he first sat on a horse, Miguel furrowed his brow in concentration because he couldn’t remember a time when he was not riding. “I think I was 1 year old,” he said. “It was before I walked.”

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Though the word charro conjures up visions of the rough-and-tumble charreadas, or Mexican rodeos, the members of the Rodriguez-Solis Charro Group focus instead on the traditions of the Spanish Riding School. No wild horses or bull-riding here--the complex maneuvers are showy, but the horses are supposed to be quiet and restrained. For both horse and rider, the art takes years of training to master.

Known in Mexican riding circles as Alta Escuela, or High School, the steps originated in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna during the 16th century, when Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Spanish Emperor Charles VI brought the horses and training methods of the Iberian Peninsula to the riding school supported by the royalty.

The Rodriguez-Solis Charro Group uses the Spanish Riding School’s techniques, blending in a multicultural mix of Mexican riding and trick roping, as well as American western riding.

“We like dancing horses,” Solis said, explaining that the charro group performs the animated, high-stepping moves that are ideal for the local parade appearances they make several times a year. In one of the most difficult steps, the pafiet, the horse trots in place.

For the past four years, the Rodriguez-Solis Charro Group has ridden as part of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Group in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade. The group also performs at local charreadas, as well as for schools and nonprofit riding groups for handicapped children.

In addition to demanding Alta Escuela moves, the horses learn a few crowd-pleasing tricks. With his mare Califa, Rodriguez showed off a children’s favorite. He pulled gently on one side of her bridle, and Califa curled up her lip in a horse “smile,” showing off a large set of slightly yellowed teeth.

Not to be outdone, Rosendo Solis demonstrated a few tricks with his brother’s horse, a young black gelding named Cuervo, or Raven. As he cued Cuervo with the reins, the horse promptly dropped to his knees, lowered his head and then rolled over on his side.

Rosendo sat on Cuervo’s side, looked up and grinned. “He’s playing dead.”

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The kids in the stable yard applauded heartily and then eagerly showed off a few tricks of their own. Solis boasted that his student, 7-year-old Doroteo Juarez of North Hollywood, is one of the best young trick ropers in Los Angeles, and with the awards to prove it. Doroteo’s little brother Ismael Jr., 4, already has his own pint-sized lasso that he can twirl deftly.

Dressed in a miniature version of his father’s charro clothes, Doroteo waited for his dad to cue his pony, Diamond, to play dead. Then Doroteo stood on Diamond’s side and spun his lasso into a large loop and tossed it over his head, his shoulder and even under his feet. Doroteo took a little hop over the rope as it passed between the soles of his cowboy boots and the pony’s side.

Rosendo coached Doroteo in Spanish, telling him to make the loop smaller. Meanwhile, little Miguel excitedly called out, “Rapido!"--"Fast!”

Though Diamond lay quietly like a trooper, father Ismael Sr. protectively crouched by his head the whole time to make sure the pony stayed calm.

Miller, the group’s only female rider in a sport just starting to be practiced by women, said fathers like Ismael Sr. are investing in the future as well as mining the past.

“This is like going back to the old days,” she said. “There is so much violence now. It is good to get into something with a positive attitude. The kids can keep out of trouble. They go back to their history, and find out where their grandfathers came from.”

Inspired by the charros’ emphasis on tradition, Miller became interested in her own family history after she joined.

“I found out that my grandfather--my mother’s father--rode horses in Sonora, Mexico,” Miller said. “When I started riding, I never knew anyone else in my family did it. I guess it was in the bloodlines.”


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