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When most people think of Spain, the symbol they associate most with the country is the fighting bull. But there is another animal that has been of far greater importance to the Iberians throughout the centuries – the horse.

By Andrea Taylor
Photographs by Ricardo Delgado

Andrea Taylor at the Real Feria in Seville

As in all civilisations
, the horse has been employed for centuries as a weapon of war, a means of transport and work, and for sport. The most characteristic of Spain’s horses is the Pure Spanish Thoroughbred, or Andalusian. They date back in origin to the very first wild horses tamed by the Iberians, and legend claims that they are directly descended from the mythical flying horse, Pegasus. They were left to run free until the Roman invasion of 200BC, when they were tamed for breeding, but after the Romans retreated, they were left to run wild again
  Fighting the Moors taught Spaniards the importance of producing good horses, but not until 1571 did Phillip II found the first Royal Stud farm, at Córdoba. Babieca, the legendary horse that carried El Cid across the battlefields, was an Andalusian, as were the horses ridden on the New World expeditions by the Spanish Conqueror Hernán Cortés, which were mistaken by the indigenous natives for gods. Many European Kings and leaders chose this breed for their courage, speed and temperament, and the Natural History museum of Paris still exhibits the skeleton of a notorious Andalusian horse once ridden to victory by Napoleon.
  Doma Campera, or Andalusian Dressage, is the style of riding favoured throughout Spain and Portugal, and exhibitions and competitions are held frequently. Nowhere is it seen to better advantage than during the yearly town fairs in Andalusia, where hundreds of beautiful horses ridden by elegant women and men wearing the traditional traje corto, some of the men carrying women behind them clad in the finery of their flamenco dresses, parade through the fairground providing an unforgettable spectacle of tradition and colour. There are carriages, too, pulled by teams of up to four pairs of perfectly matched animals and driven by coachmen in outfits derived from those worn by the Andalusian bandits in the 19th century. During the major fairs such as Seville, Ronda, or Jerez, special competitions are held to test the skill of the drivers.

Rejoneadores in the bullring of Ronda.

  Horses are also a major part of the romerías or pilgrimages which taken place all over Spain, the most famous being that of El Rocío where thousands of pilgrims on foot, on horseback or in ox-drawn wagons join together for a week of singing and dancing before they reach their destination. The horse does, naturally, also have many connections to the fighting bull throughout Spain and Portugal, and not only for use in the ring by the picadors as many people might imagine. The horse is used on bull breeding ranches for inspecting and herding the cattle, and for the testing of young bulls in the ritual known as acoso y derribo where calves are pursued on horseback by herdsmen armed with long poles. The young bull is knocked to the ground several times to test his strength and reaction and it is in this way that the preliminary selection is made of the animals which will go on to be faced by top matadors all over the peninsula. 
   Finally, we come to the rejoneo, or bullfights on horseback. Many people outside of Spain do not even realise that it exists, when in fact, it is the pure original form of the modern Spanish bullfight. From early times, young noblemen would go out on horseback to hunt the wild bulls, which populated the forests and plains of Iberia. Some historians even claim that Julius Caesar once killed a bull from horseback in the province of Seville. Over the years, it evolved into a more ritual, organised public spectacle and was held in town squares all over the peninsula. In the 16th Century, Francisco Romero is credited with being the first person to fight a bull on foot, and from then on, rejoneo became unfashionable, while the ”new style” of bullfighting that most people regard as traditional rapidly spread throughout Spain. Rejoneo today is still practiced more or less in it’s original form, and is enjoying a new wave of popularity. Many rejoneadores still come from rich or noble families, for it is a time consuming and expensive hobby for all but the chosen few who reach the top. It is still the main type of bullfight in Portugal, where the riders wear the elaborate embroidered silk coats and plumed hats of 17th century noblemen. In Spain, they wear the typical Andalusian country traje corto of wide-brimmed hat, short jacket, boots, and tight split-legged trousers protected by zahones, wide, heavily decorated leather chaps. It is a beautiful and daring spectacle and the horses, usually Andalusian or Portuguese thoroughbreds, are some of the finest in Iberia. 
   It takes many years to prepare a horse for the ring, from the first moments of their contact in the countryside with the wild bulls, to the complicated and highly disciplined movements of the doma campera. Basic training can take up to 6 years, but it may take many more for the rider and horse to acquire the mutual knowledge and almost telepathic communication that makes it possible for them to execute the beautiful, precise and daring movements needed in the bullring.

   A good horse can make or break a career. Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza, now Spain’s highest paid rejoneador was practically unknown until a few years ago, when he purchased for the sum of 200,000 pesetas, a black Portuguese horse rejected by it’s former owner as useless. He named it Cagancho, after a famous Spanish bullfighter, and within a few years he was at the top of his profession. 
   Anybody who believes that horses must be forced to participate in the spectacle should go and see Cagancho. Now known and loved all over the peninsula, he clearly enjoys every minute of the fights and has become a greater showman than his master. Pablo Hermoso has been offered blank cheques for this amazing horse, but Cagancho, his greatest asset and possible his closest friend, is priceless.

Marcial Lalanda and Conchita Cintrón in the bullring of Cádiz 1950. Cintrón
took the bullfight world by storm during the 30s and 40s.

(Right): "Morí de Pepe Hillo" by Francisco Goya,  from his "Tauromaquia".

   Women are accepted far more in the world of rejoneo than in bullfighting on foot. Maria Sara, a Parisian, is perhaps the best of the current contenders, but she cannot compare to the most famous female rejoneador of all time, Conchita Cintrón, a Peruvian girl who took the bullfight world by storm during the 30s and 40s.
   Today the order and ritual of the rejoneo is basically unchanged, but there are different styles of fighting. Purists favour the cool, classical style of Javier Buendía and Fermín Bohórquez, closely resembling the riding of the traditional Andalusian herdsmen. Other, younger riders are developing a more spectacular style, in which their horses dance in time to the pasodoble, execute split second changes of direction, or perform whirlwind pirouettes in the face of the bull.
   Gines Cartagena, once Spains junior dressage champion, was a master of the new style, and before his death in a mysterious road accident 3 years ago, had been number one for several seasons. Now, his nephew Andy, who made his debut aged just 14, is trying to carry on the family tradition. My uncle taught me a great deal, he said recently but his horses are still teaching me today.
   Perhaps you may have the chance to see these fabulous, noble, rather arrogant animals prancing in the afternoon sunshine across a ring of golden sand one day. For me, they embody the spirit of the country. Spain may be called, because of the shape of its map, The Bullskin, but undoubtedly, its very heart contains more than a little of the horse.



Pablo Hermoso and Cagancho in the Maestranza, Seville.




Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza.


Gines Cartagena. 

Andy Cartagena and his "al violín" in the Ronda bullring.


 Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza in Seville - Photo: Ricardo Delgado.

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