The horsemen of Andalusia, called vaqueros, are the true cowboys of Spain.
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’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.
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.
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.