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Head to Andalusia to ride with Spain's cowboys: vaqueros

From ancient times, cattle and horses have been a part of life on the Iberian Peninsula.


Away from the concrete and crowded beaches of Spain's Costa del Sol, amid the fertile plains of the Guadalquivir River and hills dotted with olive trees and quaint whitewashed villages, lies rural Andalusia with its ancient traditions and sprawling farms, or fincas. This is the homeland of the flamenco, the Andalusian horse, the fighting bull, and the Spanish vaqueros, who are considered the forebears of the stockmen of the Americas.

The Spanish vaquero tradition is ancient. From the beginning of recorded history, cattle and horses have been a part of life on the Iberian Peninsula. Sculptures of Iberians spearing bulls date back as far as 400 B.C. In Portugal, the tradition of catching wild bulls by hand goes back to ancient times. There, bullfighting was the outgrowth of chivalry tournaments and a preparation for military combat. When the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula, beginning in 711, they learned and enjoyed the art of bullfighting from the Lusitanians (the present-day Portuguese) and spread it throughout the peninsula.

Bullfighting on foot as we know it today emerged when bullfighting on horseback was forbidden in Spain in 1720 (King Louis XIV of France's grandson who became King Felipe V of Spain hated the sport and banned it). Facing the bull on foot required the increasingly specialized breeding of aggressive bulls; handling this breed of bovine on horseback in the extensive fields of southern Spain required certain methods and skills. Out of this a lifestyle grew, and a distinctly Spanish cowboy culture, the vaquero tradition, slowly began to develop.

And it continues to evolve today. To see the modern vaquero in all his glory, I have traveled to Andalusia, where the ancient traditions of the Spanish cowboy are still practiced. Though their traditions might be ancient, their costumes and methods for the most part reflect techniques from the 19th and early 20th century, when bullfighting reached the height of its popularity in Spain.

These colorful traditions are most strongly in evidence at the annual horse extravaganza the Feria del Caballo — the horse fair. For a week every spring, the Feria transforms the town of Jerez de la Frontera, an hour south of Seville, into Spain's horse capital and a "pilgrim destination" for horse lovers from all over the world. Here, the title Champion Acoso y Derribo, coveted for its great honor, is awarded in a festive atmosphere that little resembles the Feria's humble beginnings in 1284 as a livestock market. Much changed since its earliest incarnation, the Feria has developed into an unforgettable week featuring the most beautiful horses in Spain, riding skill competitions among top vaqueros, bullfights, music, dancing, eating, and drinking (this is, after all, the sherry-producing center of Spain). For horse lovers, there is probably no better time to visit Andalusia.

Before I head for the festivities of the Feria, I join some vaqueros in the Andalusian countryside, a region of gently rolling hills covered with olive trees and splashed with large patches of red dirt that blend in with the pastures' rich soil. This morning, vaquero Martín López seems worried. As dawn broke over the rolling hills, his boss, Borja Lora Sangran, heard through the open window of his room on the finca La Calera the dreadful bellowing of bulls fighting in the campo (field). He asked Martín, his vaquero, to check on them. A native from nearby Gerena — a typical Andalusian village with white walls and red-tile roofs — Martín has dedicated his life to horses and bulls. He knows the sounds of nature and of the animals and knows all too well what the bellowing of bulls could mean.

Often in late afternoon or early morning, the bulls fight each other, mostly to assert their authority over other bulls or a particular cow, as stallions in the wild fight over a mare. Sometimes these fights have a tragic outcome and end with the death of one of the bulls. Excited by the flow of adrenalin, other bulls often start a brawl, savagely fighting each other. The vaqueros have to use all their skills and their horses' courage to separate them.

As the sun already warms the cobblestone courtyard of the finca, Martín saddles up his mount, Esplendida, a striking 7-year-old bay mare. His movements are slow and precise.

Martín, like most vaqueros, favors Andalusian-Thoroughbred-Arab crossbred horses over Purebred Andalusians. Borja tells me that a lot of the stock horses used in the campo, including Martín's, have some Thoroughbred in them. This gives them the burst of speed they need to get away from a charging bull. From the Andalusian come courage and a calmer disposition; from the Arab comes stamina. "Their speed, stamina, and athletic ability are better-suited to working in the campo," Borja says. "The Purebred Andalusians are wonderful for high-school dressage but are too slow for working around bulls."

While Martín steps into the stirrups, I hop in a pickup next to Borja and we follow the trail leading to one of the pastures. Located just northwest of Seville, in the foothills of the Sierra Morena, the finca La Calera encompasses 3,200 acres of rolling hills dotted with olive and oak trees. The finca was founded by Borja's grandfather and has been in the Lora Sangran family since 1930. Borja's father is credited with bringing toros bravos (fighting bulls) to the finca in 1970, and the ganaderia (fighting-cattle breeding farm) now boasts 600 head.

After following a shady lane for a short distance, Martín opens the gate into a pasture. He wears the traditional Andalusian vaquero costume of high-waisted gray trousers, low-heeled leather boots, a traje corto (short jacket), and flat-brimmed hat. On his right shoulder, he carries the garrocha, a 14-foot-long wooden lance used to direct or fend off charging bulls. Besides being a practical skill, the use of the garrocha has also become an art form. This tradition is so strong in the horsemanship of Spain that a man would be proud to carry the title of Garrochista.

The high cantle vaquera saddle, or stock saddle, traces its roots back to the Middle Ages. A neatly folded woolen blanket, or manta estribera, lies across the X-shaped fork in the front of the saddle. The triangular steel stirrups almost completely cover the foot, protecting the rider from being crushed against walls, gates, or trees or by charging bulls.

Sitting tall on the thick sheepskin that covers his saddle, Martín rides swiftly across the olive grove, the mosquero — a fringed leather fly switch — swinging sideways on his horse's forehead in rhythm with the hoofbeats. Esplendida has the purposeful, fast walk typical of the vaquera horse, as there is a place to go and work to be done. Her tail, like those of all horses that work bulls in the campo, is cut short to avoid being entangled in the bulls' horns.

Martín has located the bulls through the olive trees. Slowly and carefully, he approaches the herd looking for injured animals. Breeders of the toros bravos can lose as much as 50 percent of their fighting bulls over the first five years, due to broken horns, wounds received during fights, or eye punctures caused by thorns.

Working horseback around toros bravos is not for the novice. In this potentially dangerous job, where the safety of both horse and rider is at stake, the slightest distraction can lead to tragedy. This is when the vaquero must rely on his horse's speed, courage, and athletic prowess to take him out of harm's way. The good campo horse instinctively knows how to evaluate the speed of the charge and when it is safe to slow down and save his energy once the bull has given up the chase.

As Martín carefully rides closer, some leery animals dart through the trees. I step off the vehicle to have a better view, without wandering too far from the safety of the pickup. I remember an incident that occurred at the finca Los Alburejos, which the owner, the late Álvaro Domecq Díez, a prominent figure in all of Andalusia, once described. A young, cocky bullfighter had come to the finca in his brand-new car to look at some bulls. Despite Domecq's warnings, the bullfighter stepped out of the car, assuring Domecq that "he was used to it." Before he could finish his sentence, a bull charged him with lightning speed. Fortunately, the door of the car was open, allowing the agile bullfighter to dive in, but the enraged animal lifted and turned over the vehicle like a rag doll. It took all the vaqueros' skills and courage to distract the bull's attention and finally run him off.

A similar episode happened at the neighboring finca La Mirandilla just a week prior to my arrival. Some vaqueros were moving bulls from one pasture to another, which involved crossing the small road leading to the finca. One bull, probably angered by the riders urging him to move, suddenly charged a horse, bringing down both mount and rider. The horse was severely gored by the sharp horns but survived his wounds, and the vaquero was sent to the hospital with a broken leg. Then the bull blindly ran up the road toward the house. Thankfully, no one was outside, but a car parked in front of the house was completely destroyed by the rampaging bovine.

While the horse plays a paramount role in the life of a ganaderia, gathering and moving such fearsome and unpredictable creatures as the toros bravos could not be achieved without the cabestros. These imposing steers, ancestors of the American longhorn, have a calming effect on the bulls and are trained by the vaqueros to follow their orders. Herd-bound, the bulls instinctively follow the cabestros. This becomes even more important when sorting out and moving a single bull. Without enough cabestros around him, the bull feels isolated, refuses to obey, and becomes aggressive.

Of all the work involved with cattle, acoso y derribo remains the favorite among vaqueros. The acoso y derribo, a term that literally means "to harass and bring down," helps determine early on a yearling bull's courage, tenacity, and ferocity — in short, his aptitude for the bullring. In an open field, two riders, garrochas in hand and positioned on each side of the yearling, steer him down a long straight line at a gallop. At the right moment, one of the horsemen uses the end of his garrocha to unbalance the bull and bring him down. The character of the bull is judged by his expression, courage, and fighting spirit in returning to his feet and refusing to be beaten.

It is a point of pride for the breeder to put forward only the best of his stock. In the old days, bulls were run in the open country. Today, the acoso y derribo has also become a federated sport and one of the crowd-pleasers during the Feria del Caballo.

The doma vaquera ("cowboy dressage") is another discipline that has found its way into the competition arena but remains deeply rooted in the old traditions of ranch work. It encompasses the finely honed and precise skills of the Spanish stockman and his horse, such as turns on the haunches and the forehand, reining back, pirouettes, and dramatic accelerations followed by immediate sliding halts. The contestants are judged not only on the precision of the movements but also on the presentation of the horse, the poise of the rider, and the fitting of his costume. I have seen these skills in the field. Now it is time to see them at the Feria.

I arrive in Jerez de la Frontera for the Feria excited to see ranching traditions of the vaquero celebrated in style. Immediately I see that fans have turned out dressed for a very special occasion. At the entrance of the Feria I meet Kirsten Scully, a talented American-born photographer and horsewoman who has called Andalusia home for years. In her purple and white flamenco dress, she is the perfect insider's guide to the festivities of the Feria.

It is late afternoon and the glistening Andalusian sun sheds a golden light over the hard-packed sand of the Real, where the Feria unfolds. We stroll among the 300 or so casetas (private booths), the ephemeral bars that line the Real, erected only for the duration of the event. Since midday, proud and dashing caballeros, adorned in their finest costumes — their Andalusian hats tilted forward and to the right — have been parading on horseback, casting an air of inoffensive arrogance over the "infantry," and enjoying their admiration. Some of them ride prancing and snorting stallions, their silky manes flowing in long strands around their arched necks. On their mounts' croups, others carry graceful ladies dressed in colorful ruffled flamenco dresses and big hoop earrings. Occasionally, they park in front of one of the casetas for some social time and a copita (shot glass) of manzanilla, one of the famous wines of the region. In Jerez, Spanish horses are inextricably woven into the rhythm of the fiesta that sweeps over the town.

In all the casetas there is a festive, intoxicating, and exhilarating atmosphere of music, dancing, drinking rebujito — a refreshing mixture of manzanilla and lemonade — and savoring tapas — the famous Spanish appetizers. In true Spanish fashion, the fiesta will continue until morning. Today it is time to party, to appreciate the colorful traditions of the vaquero. Tomorrow, in the dew-covered rolling hills above Seville — away from the celebration, the music, and the dancing — Martín will saddle Esplendida to check on his beloved bulls.


The Iberian Horse is an ancient breed. Paleolithic cave paintings prove its existence in Iberia between 30,000 and 20,000 B.C. Throughout history these horses have played a prominent role. Both Hannibal and Caesar rode Spanish horses, as did Spain's national hero, El Cid. Even William the Conqueror rode one at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. When the Moors conquered Spain in 711, they exported Spanish horses to the entire Muslim world.

The Andalusian horse was born in the fertile plains of the Guadalquivir River, where the excellent grazing lands and the good climate have contributed to the breeding of fine horses since ancient times. Along with sherry and flamenco, the horse is one of the strongest symbols of Jerez.

It is said that during the 15th century, the Carthusian monks of Jerez de la Frontera began breeding the Spanish Purebred and promoted what they felt was the true Spanish style: a la jineta, a style with shorter stirrups used by the light cavalryman and the stock worker. The former was equipped with a light, well-balanced war lance. The latter carried a bull-working pole. The warrior relied on his horse to get him in and out of battle quickly by utilizing bursts of speed, quick volts, and backing up, all moves that the vaquero used when working cattle.

The father of the modern Andalusian breed was King Felipe II of Spain, who began a stud book in the 16th century in the hopes of re-creating the ideal horse as described in ancient texts. When the armies of Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, Andalusian mares and stallions were hidden, some say by the monks, thus saving the breed from being destroyed by the raids. When the holy orders were ousted from Spain in 1835, the stud farm was divided among several families of Jerez, including the Domecq family.

Originally, only Iberian horses from the province of Andalusia were called Andalusians. In 1912, owners called the Andalusians registered in the stud book Pura Raza Espa"ola (PRE) for Purebred Spanish Horse. Today, the predominance of Pure Spanish Horse breeding remains in Andalusia, where 40 percent of the PRE in Spain are located.

In 1973, Álvaro Domecq Romero created the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez de la Frontera. The same year, he presented the king of Spain, Juan Carlos, with a magnificent performance called "How the Andalusian Horses Dance," which displays the outstanding accomplishments realized by this institution since its founding. The school's primary mission is the training of professional riders in classical dressage and doma vaquera. Today, the school boasts 120 to 130 Purebred Spanish Horses, selected from Andalusia's most prestigious stud farms.

With some help from mankind, the Andalusian horse has evolved. The breed's qualities include agility, grace, elevated movement, courage, and, above all, a gentle disposition favoring his ability to learn complex skills. According to Jean-Philippe Giacomini, considered the foremost authority on Andalusian and Lusitano horses by the International Andalusian and Lusitano Association, the Andalusian conformation should include a rectangular head with a slight subconvex profile and large triangular eyes; a solidly built yet flexible neck set high on the shoulders; muscular withers; long and sloping shoulders and arms; a deep elliptical chest; a short, strong, and straight back; very flexible articulations; and a luxurious mane and tail. The coat is generally dappled gray, bay, or black. The overall picture should be of an elegant, strong, well-rounded horse. Over recent years, there has been a constant effort to improve the selection and breeding in order to achieve the best results both in dressage and in recreational activities.

— G.G.


Discovering Jerez De La Frontera And Southern Andalusia

For centuries, the horse has been part of the Andalusian life. Along with sherry and flamenco, it is one of the symbols of Jerez de la Frontera, considered Andalusia's horse capital.

The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art

The Jerez de la Frontera airport is located 20 minutes from the center of town. Iberia has direct flights from Madrid and Barcelona. Ryan Air has direct flights from London.

With more than 300 sunny days a year, every season offers good reasons to come, but spring and autumn are the best times to enjoy Andalusia's mild climate. In the fall, the crowds are gone and the water is warm. Summers are hot, especially inland.

Hacienda Buena Suerte: Located just an hour east of Jerez, past the beautiful pueblo blanco, or white village, of Arcos de la Frontera. The charming hosts of this beautiful Spanish-style hacienda offer their guests Spanish- as well as Western-style riding, doma vaquera, and natural horsemanship. English spoken. www.dysli.net
Hotel Villa Jerez: One of the best hotels in town, with an outdoor pool, spa, and a gourmet restaurant (Las Yucas). www.villajerez.com

Tapas are a Spanish institution and nowhere more prevalent than in Andalusia. Locals eat them as appetizers before heading off to dinners, but a few well-chosen tapas can easily make a full meal.
Bar Juanito: Located on the Calle Pescadería Vieja, this spot is famous for having the best tapas in town.
El Bosque: In a town noted for elegance, its best restaurant is formal. Excellent seafood. Located on the Avenida Álvaro Domecq.

Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art: Founded in 1973 by Álvaro Domecq Romero, it is located in the beautiful Cadenas Palace Park and is surrounded by magnificent gardens. The internationally famous show "How the Andalusian Horses Dance" is an exquisite equestrian ballet accompanied by 17th-century Spanish music and costumes. The unique exhibition features classical dressage, doma vaquera, carriage driving, work in hand, and a carrousel. www.realescuela.org
Flamenco shows: Horses and flamenco get credit for bringing the city international fame. The gypsy quarter of Santiago is home to one of the largest remaining gypsy populations.
El Laga de Tio Parilla: Located on the Plaza del Mercado, it is considered one of the best places in town. Nightlife starts late in Andalusia: Don't expect much before 10 or 11 pm.
El Tablao del Bereber: Very nice place for a dinner-show in a typical Andalusian setting. www.tablaodelbereber.com

Feria del Caballo: Each year in late April or early May, the Gonzalez Hontoria Park provides the setting for the Horse Fair, where a spectacular horse parade takes place, with hundreds of horsemen and -women attired in the traditional Andalusian costume. More than 200 casetas are set up and are open for all to enjoy, both Jerezanos and visitors alike. Other events during the weeklong celebration include horse presentations, classical dressage, and doma vaquera competitions, polo matches, carriage races, and bullfights. The acoso y derribo competition takes place early in the week at the Cortijo de Vicos.
Tour of the White Villages: Many of these white-washed villages located in the sierras east and south of Jerez are truly spectacular. Villagers who originally settled these villages to protect themselves from the diseases of the lowlands have lived in the same way for centuries. Towns not to miss include Medina Sedonia, Arcos de la Frontera, Vejer de la Frontera, Grazalema, Gaucín, and Casares.
El Rocio: Located on the edge of the Parque Nacional de Do"ana, this Wild West-style village with its sandy streets is worth a visit. Deserted most of the year, the town overflows with nearly a million pilgrims during the annual romeria festival in late spring.

Pedro Domecq: Founded in 1730, it is one of the legendary names associated with sherry. A tour of the famous Moorish-style cellar is a must. www.domecq.com.mx
González Byass: Founded in 1835, it features possibly the oldest cellars in Jerez. One of them was built by Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower fame. www.bodegastiopepe.com

Yeguada de la Cartuja: With more than 280 horses, this superb 580-acre property, once inhabited by the Carthusian monks, is the most important reserve of Andalusian PRE horses in the world. The state-of-the-art facilities boast a central courtyard, mare facilities, and a luxury harness room. www.yeguadacartuja.com
Cortijo de Vicos: Located 10 miles east of Jerez, this is where the acoso y derribo competition takes place during the Feria del Caballo.

— G.G.

MORE INFO: www.turismojerez.com or www.andalucia.com

Issue: December 2008


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