Hello Andalusia, the southernmost part of Europe, and home to the magnificent Pura Raza Espanola, a purebred horse with the oldest pedigree in the world. This Andalusian horse is worth the price of Ferrari. But in this part of Spain, people will buy a horse before they buy a car. Under the bright Mediterranean sun, life must be lived in style.
In her nest above an old tower, a stork awaits her partner with two almost full- grown chicks at her feet. She throws back her beak to make a loud rattling sound which reverberates and fades down the valley. Silence. Then, as the sun sets behind the hills, an orange- brown cloud of dust appears on the horizon, growing bigger and bigger. The air vibrates and the sound of hooves swells like the beat of an oncoming goods train. Twenty colossal black bulls shaking their heavy heads come in full gallop over the hill. Something is pushing them forwards, but just what is I can’t yet see.
Then suddenly two horsemen appear, towering over everything and silhouetted against the fading sun with wide-brimmed hats and long poles in hand. A bull breaks free of the herd, half turns and stands to face them. His black eyes follow the riders, one of whom reacts immediately. He spurs his horse between the bull and the herd. “Hey, toro!” he yells, and bangs his pole on the ground. The bull stamps, raising dust, and then drops his horns ready for the attack. For a moment it looks like the horse will receive the full thrust of the horns but, at the very last minute, it makes a quick sidestep. The bull misses his target, charges through, and then joins up again with the herd. I am standing in awe. That’s how you do it.
The horsemen are vaqueros, the cowboys of Andalusia, Spain. The European cowboy is almost extinct, because cowboys need free-roaming cattle, preferably a little wild, and that is a rare thing these days. In well-organized Europe, horses live in stalls, cows are fenced in fields – or worse, in a factory where they’re fattened for slaughter. But in this most southerly point of Europe time seems to have little effect on the rural way of life. Thousands of wild cattle still run free just as they did centuries ago, men live on horseback and go to ‘the city’ just twice a year – Easter and Christmas – and they speak the language of cows better than that of their fellow human beings.
I love this life, and my horse
“I’ve never been married,” says Alejandro. “What woman would want a man working six days a week, sleeping at the finca (ranch), earning a pittance and stinking of horse? But I don’t regret anything. I love this life, and my horse.” Alejandro works at the Hacienda Fuente Rey, a breeding ranch owned by noted bullfighter, Fermin Bohorquez. It may seem odd to find cowboys in Europe but only if you do not know the Spanish roots of the Hollywood legend. Even the vocabulary of the cowboy is Spanish: from ranch and rodeo, to lasso and posse. The traditions of Spain arrived in the New World and evolved in Mexico into the image so familiar from the movies.
It is also easy to see the roots of the cowboy saddle in the solid one that Alejandro uses, designed to complement the “doma vaquera” riding style, where vaqueros ride with the left hand, leaving the right hand free to handle their long wooden pole to herd the cattle. The saddle’s deep seat is essential when horses go from standing still to the instant gallop, without a trot in between.
Hacienda Fuente Rey covers almost 2,000 hectares and has about the same number of bulls, so Alejandro’s is a hard existence, spending dawn to dusk on horseback. In the rolling hills of the provinces of Cádiz, Sevilla and Huelva are dozens of these ganaderias, farms that are in the business of breeding fighting bulls.
Driving through Andalusia, I see these “toros bravos” grazing in small herds and, when I stop to take a photo, I am fearful they may charge at any minute. The wild cows can be just as aggressive as the bulls.
The vaquero’s day normally consists of driving cattle in a sort of “stroll around the park” to maintain their condition and stretch the legs. During what is known as tentaderos, young cows are tested for their temperament and the fieriest are used to breed fighting bulls. When in a herd, the cattle are calm but when a few split away, as they do regularly, you have to watch out. Once they are on their own they show their true nature. “Dangerous?” Alejandro says. “Bah! When I’m on my horse they don’t stand a chance. Accidents only happen when we’re on foot”. Even so, I can see why these vaqueros use a pole instead of a rope: tying your horse to one of these enraged bulls would be suicidal. As they work the cattle with the poles, I also understand where the term “cow poke” comes from.
His horse is a full-blood Andalusian, as are most of the horses belonging to his fellow vaqueros. Why? Because they are the best in the business. “They are smart,” says Alejandro. “I don’t have to tell my horse any more what to do. I just need to think it and it’s already happening”. These horses used to live side-by-side with native cattle on the marshy delta of the Guadalquivir. That’s why an Andalusian isn’t frightened of the bulls and knows how to avoid an attack.
The bull stumbles and falls
Besides the regular walks, tenders, bulls and cows must be branded and also rounded up for vaccinations or medical inspection. Normally they are separated from the herd and driven into a little traveling container, where they have little room to move. The vaqueros try to be calm then as the bulls get very aggressive when they’re alone. Another method of rounding up the bulls is the “acoso y derribo”, which has developed into a sport in its own right, in a similar way to rodeo in the US. Acoso y derribo literally means “hunt and knock down” and, if done correctly, the calf falls on his back so it can be held down by a strong pair of arms, at which point it can get branded.
There are official tournaments for vaqueros to show their skills, where young steer run at top speed, driven on by two riders. They hold out their long, heavy poles, called “garrocha”, in the manner of a medieval duelling knight. Arriving on an area marked out by four flags, one of the riders brings the steer down by tripping it using his garrocha. The bull stumbles and falls. From the loudspeakers, a score – “Ocho puntos” – followed by applause from the stands. For a mere observer, unfamiliar with the scoring system, it makes little sense. What fascinates me is the complete symbiosis between the rider, horse, gear, steer, ambiance and audience that makes me feel like I am watching a play of the ancient gods.
The Andalusian horse is an intrinsic part of southern Spain. There is not a feast, pilgrimage or parade in Andalusia where people don’t saddle up and ride around as “caballeros”. In village streets and alleyways I hear the sound of hooves on cobblestones. At the coast, groups of riders race at full gallop through the surf both early in the day and at sunset. Fields of horses and foals stretch as far as the eye can see and the open air arenas where the horses and riders train are everywhere.
Rock paintings reveal that horses even played an important role in the lives of the first cave dwellers of the Iberian Peninsula. Around the time of the Moorish occupation, about 1,000 years ago, local horses were crossed with Berbers and a few Arabian breeds and out of this gene pool came a special horse. Much in demand among the aristocracy, they immortalized themselves with their horses in paintings and statues. The horse was also in demand with soldiers – Spanish knights won many a battle on horseback – as well as the horse breeders themselves who could use them to refine and improve other breeds.
In short, the Andalusian is a monumental animal that has left its mark in world history, not least as the foundation of all America’s horse breeds from the first few that landed with the Spanish Conquistadors.
Full-blood Andalusians are few and far between
“Full-blood Andalusians are few and far between: there’s maybe only 30,000 in the whole world,” says Sonja Galeazzi-Burger. “Here in southern Spain most of the horses have Andalusian blood but it’s my job to ascertain to what extent this horse has Andalusian characteristics.” She has a rambunctious stallion on a long- reined gallop around her, encouraging him with words all the while. Then she very subtly changes position. The horse stops immediately and walks towards her with a soft whinny. At first defiant, now I see a miraculous change in him. All done in five minutes, without raising her voice or using force.
“I once had a horse routine in the Circus Krone. We used only white Andalusians. These horses can do just about anything, they are strong and incredibly versatile and above all, they love to learn and they do it fast,” she says. Sonja now lives in Tarifa where she helps foreign clients find good horses.
“That’s a Carthusian stallion,” points Cristobal, the owner of a finca and stud farm near Tarifa – one of many in southern Spain. “His pedigree goes back 500 years. We can find out precisely who his great-great-great grandparents were, and even on which day he was conceived. This horse is really worth his weight in gold. How much is that? Hmm … the price of a Ferrari.” The Carthusian is a strain of Andalusian that is considered the purest of the breed, something people are prepared to pay a premium for. “In Andalusia we can’t imagine a world without horses. We just love them. Otherwise, we’d all be driving a Ferrari,” he says.
I see just what the characteristics of a pure Andalusian are at the Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre, the Royal School of Equestrian Art, in Jerez de la Frontera. There’s a certain move they make, a four- legged jump originally developed for the cavalry to avoid the enemy in battle, which the Alta Escuela has perfected and worked into their spectacular show. But there’s nothing left to remind you of war. The show is named “como bailen los caballos Andaluzes” and is a horse ballet to flamenco music with fancy steps such as the ‘Levade’ and the ‘Capriole’.
The easiest place to enjoy Andalusia’s horse culture remains the Feria del Caballo that transforms Jerez de la Frontera, a small town near Seville, into Spain's horse capital. Once a livestock market but now a week-long celebration, it is held every May, a week after Seville’s Feria de Abril. But the most dramatic spectacle is undoubtedly the Saca de las Yeguas, literally the “joining of the mares”, held every June.
Hundreds of vaqueros appear on the horizon
The villages in the area of the Coto Doñana National Park have official permission to allow their horses and cows to graze, just as they have done for centuries. The animals roam free and can go months without seeing a human being. They wander, the machos fight for dominance, ponies and calves are born, old animals die and are consumed by nature. But on June 26 every year, hundreds of vaqueros appear on the horizon, disturbing the peace, here to round up their horses and take them to the horse fair at Almonte.
The riders separate into small groups then spread into the furthest corners of the park and set up camp for the night. Big pans bubble with bean dishes and big chunks of meat, whole hams are sliced, and laughing and singing echoes around the campfire until the small hours. Here, in the park, far from the asphalt and traffic lights, far from any women, strong bonds are forged between fathers and sons, brothers and friends.
At the crack of dawn, sleep is wiped from the eyes and everyone gets to work. Today there’s much to be done, with hundreds of wild horses to be rounded up. It’s chaos. Foals lose their mothers and become trapped, fights break out, a young stallion tears loose and, after a long pursuit, is finally dragged back. Slowly the procession sets off for El Rocío, the wild west city with unpaved roads and white houses where the annual pilgrimage to venerate the Virgin of El Rocío attracts a million worshippers every Pentecost.
The church, the Santuario de Nuestra Señora la Virgen del Rocío, is quiet as the priest waits behind a giant dust cloud to receive the blessings. But then the horses barrel through. The route followed is the sandy bed of the idyllic river Arroyo. A foal is trapped in the mud and the cowboys shout for help. As the sun begins to set, the procession reaches Almonte, site of the fair, where foals will be branded, mares groomed and sales made. The horses are tied up, the men take showers and regroup an hour later in the casetas, the party tents on the promenade of the feria, to dance sevillanas the whole night. At the end of the week, the horses will be led back home to the park, but that journey is still to come. Tonight is another chance to sing the praises of the Andalusian horse.