Back in January I had the good fortune to be traveling in Colombia. I found myself up in coffee country at the time of a festival in Manizales and this, to my great interest, included a type of bull fight called a rejoneo. In rejoneo, the matador, now called a rejoneador, is on horseback and it is his skill as a horseman that is the better part of the performance. One of the finest exponents of this sport, Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza, was in Manizales; he travels with a stable of 9 horses, several of which got a chance to strut their stuff in the course of the corrida. While I never learned the breed of horse he employs in these events, they looked very similar to the Lippizaner of the Spanish Riding School , but perhaps more compact and muscular and, indeed, they do very similar haute dressage steps. They danced in place, pirouetted in the face of a charging bull and quick stepped sideways out of the way with a grace that makes quarter horses look plain clumsy (please take a moment to watch Pablo in action here). Four horses are used, each with a different specialty for the four stages of the fight—sort of like switching from your roping horse to your cutting horse. And the rejoneador will have the help in the ring of a toreador on foot to distract the bull when needed.
The entire performance was quite a spectacle. It started with a parade around the ring, the rejoneadors dressed appropriately in eye-catching costume. Hermoso de Mendoza sports the usanza española, a conservative outfit of short jacket, waistcoat, brown leather chaps and broad flat-brimmed hat. One of the other rejoneadors, the older Antonio Ribeiro Telles, wore the more flamboyant Portuguese suit which looks like something out of the 1700s with its long, brightly colored and embroidered jacket, white breeches and tricorn hat.
The audience around me was no less ostentatious. While the men were for the most part comfortably dressed for a day in the sun watching sport, the women put on a fashion show of eye-catching jewelry, fancy tops over tight pants (including one young lady wearing a backless leather number) and 6 inch heels. Between each session food and booze was passed around in happy abandon, despite the fact we had just witnessed the bloody slaughter of a bull.
The rejoneo apparently started in Spain and Portugal as training to fight the Moors. After the expulsion of the Moors, their noblemen began lancing bulls for sport although the Spanish eventually stopped the practice. The bulls used nowadays are fairly slight, weighing in at around 1200 lbs. in order to be fleet of foot. They have charming names like Flower and Pickle, but I don’t think that makes them any less deadly. The spectacle is being enhanced in the 21st century by various new fangled ideas. For instance, the rejon de castigo, or punishing lance, which is used to start off the proceedings, reveals a flag when it punctures the bull. One of the rejoneadors, young Willy Rodriguez, had replaced the flag with an ‘explosion’ of sparkles
which delighted the crowd. But, nonetheless, with all of this show I had to ask myself where is the excitement? There’s grace and beauty in the horsemanship, that’s for sure, but watching bulls get methodically slaughtered and hence vomiting blood is not the most pleasant pastime I’ve ever encountered.
Back in New York 6 days later, things were a bit more high tech over at Madison Square Garden where I moseyed on down to catch the last day of the PBR. With flashing bright strobe lights and the initials PBR bursting into flames,
twenty competitors swaggered out into spotlights. Professional bull riding is billed as America’s toughest sport and it is also the fastest growing. While the common sense of time and humanity has influenced the men to wear protective vests, ‘crashes’ and injuries to the riders are common. Basically the men are wearing traditional cowboy gear: boots, hats, chaps and leather gloves. Occasionally a man will trade his Stetson for a helmet with face guard but other competitors feel this weight unbalances them.
And we’re now dealing with a different kind of bull; these creatures are 1800 lbs and over and specially bred for their overall agility and strength. Their names reflect this: no Pickles or Flowers here. The day I attended, I witnessed Back Bender, Bad Blake and Angry Cactus attempt to murder a few men.
Sitting inside on comfy cushioned seats rather than the traditional rodeo arena bleachers, we munched American fare of popcorn, hot dogs and soft drinks. I was surrounded by just about every homesick westerner and Brazilian who happened to be in NYC that day—all of us wearing our western gear. It’s sadly true that the only horse around was the one the roper rode; he’s the guy who’s at the ready to throw a noose around the bull if the animal really gets out of hand. And of course there are the bullfighters, commonly called rodeo clowns, who distract the bull so that the competitor can make his way to safety.
Bull riding is a distant cousin of the rejoneo. It purportedly began in Mexico where haciendas would have contests of riding and ranching skills known as charreada. One of the contests devolved from bull fighting had the bulls ridden to death. I don’t think even Ty Murray, ‘King of the Cowboys,’ would be capable of that these days! In any event, this sport went through several permutations—riding the bull until it stopped bucking, then just riding steers, and so on—as it made its way up into Texas and then on to the rodeos of the old west. Eventually, in 1994, the PBR was formed to handle bull riding as a separate entity from rodeo.
So is bull riding exciting? Is it a pleasant pastime? I don’t think “pleasant” is the word to use here, but “exciting,” yes. As long as you don’t move your eyes from the chute you’ll have plenty of excitement watching the most dangerous 8 seconds in sport. This is an activity that requires stamina, strength, and courage—this is NOT about ‘just hanging on.’ But what should one feel about the fact that it is now men getting hurt rather than the bulls? Most of these guys have had so many breaks to their poor bodies they’re virtually bionic. And yet they come back for more—their choice! Poor ol’ Flower and Pickles were led out like lambs to the slaughter, provoked and then killed.
It’s a tough old world out there and it makes me feel we haven’t come far from watching gladiators in the arena.
The Spanish Riding School in Jerez, Spain uses the Andalusian horse. The area is Andalusia, Spain. That is the area where most of the Spanish horses came from when they were transported to the new world.
The Lippizan horse is from the Vienna, Austria area. The town where they are bred is the same name. Their breeding is also based on the Andalusian horses brought to Austria by a Spanish Princess, Maria in the 17th century. She couldn’t bear to leave her Spanish horses behind when she married into the Austrian Hapsburg family. She also brought the training and riding style of the Spanish School. Dressage is based on this style of training. So is the Vaquero style of California.
Thank you so much, Lenore, for that additional history. I was actually thinking of the Spanish Riding School in Viena, which I had visited, when I made the comment. I also visited one of their studs in the former Yugoslavia. The horses were moved during the war and only just returned to Slovenia in 2007. The Lippizans actually come from several blood lines and there are various studs throughout eastern Europe — too long a history to recount here I’m afraid. Thanks again for your input; it’s greatly appreciated.
Well Andi, You took me there, that’s for sure. Thanks for the tour from the comfort of my office chair. Beautiful, deadly, and yes, much like the days of the gladiator. I read somewhere that bull fighting is going to be outlawed in Spain. Is this true?
Hi Velda, and glad you asked that. Bull fighting has now been banned in Catalonia, the district of Spain wherein Barcelona lies. There is certainly a movement to ban it throughout Spain. Hermoso de Mendoza, a Spaniard, has to now fight predominantly in Portugal and Latin America.
Way different from what I saw in Spain – but then we know that. Great post.
Yes, and, as I mentioned below, bull fighting outlawed now in Catalonia. Dare I say the times they are a-changin’?
I loved watching the video of the horses in action. Not sure I’d like to see the end of the story. To deliberately inflict pain on any beast… although it would be hard to get choked up over a rat… seems de-humanizing to me. As for the bull riders. I hate it when one gets hurt, but they choose to ride and know full well the chances they take. Anyway a very good post.
Wow… professional bull riders in NYC! I had noooo idea! Great post! And Eunice, as a owner of “pocket pets” (think: “pet rats”), I get all teary at the thought of pain inflicted on these teeny (and *very* intelligent and loving… like miniature dogs, really) beings.
Andi: LOVE the new look on your blog! And LOVE the cover of your book! 😀
Thanks so much for the kind words, Ann–and I’ll bring your feelings re rats to Eunie’s attention! Yeah, we can be cowgirls here in NYC every so often and go watch the PBR. Used to have rodeo, too, but that’s gone bye-byes now. Sadly…
Great post! Very interesting and different.
Ann, Sorry I spoke in haste. My cousin’s child had a pet rat, a sweet little white thing that gently nibbled at my fingers. Actually, the big sewer/ city dump rats are what I had in mind, but even so, I’d not willingly inflict pain on them, but I would try whatever it took to get rid of them. We lived near a hatchery (chicken) once and they’d posion the rats who would then wander over to our yard to die, or so it seemed to me. I had little kids then, toddlers even.
Thanks for the clarification, Eunie! I’ll bring this to Ann’s attention and hope we’re all happy now–except, of course, for the poor bulls….
What an interesting blog article, Andi. I enjoyed reading about this version of bullfighting from atop Lippizaner-like horses. The video is amazing! The horse’s moves during the rejoneo were spectacular, and I wondered how the rider was able to train the horse to do this. Or are these horses specifically bred to participate in this sport?
Good luck with your August release of Loveland!
Thanks for your kind comments, Alice, and your good wishes. As far as I have now learned, the horses are an Andalusian breed, similar to the Lippizans (their blood lines cross at some distant point) but are specifically trained in this sport. The rejoneador sits a fairly small saddle so that more of his body is in contact with the horse and, apparently, most of the direction to the horse is body language.
How fascinating! What an experience, thanks for sharing.
I love the new look of your blog.