THE ART OF THE
PORTUGUESE EQUESTRIAN BULLFIGHTS
By Juan Valera-Lema, Ph.D.
Riding a horse as an aid in jumping, roping, or bullfighting is probably related to the hunting or chasing of animals practiced by ancient Europeans and Asians who used the horse for this purpose. Thousands of years later, the Plains Indians of North America also made use of the horse in the buffalo hunts.
However, the art of bullfighting on horseback, as currently practiced in Portugal, where it is called toureio equestre and in Spain and Mexico, where it is called rejoneo, has a more direct and recent origin in the Iberian Peninsula, since it developed from the war exercises of the middle ages.
As it is well known, the Muslims occupied parts of Portugal and Spain, the Iberian peninsula, for over seven centuries, from 711 AD. until 1492. During this time the Iberians were involved in a constant struggle to overthrow the invaders from their land. Horses were the principal war implement and both horses and riders were specifically trained for the martial arts. Out of the war exercises evolved the intricate movements and maneuvers that gave origin to an equestrian science which would eventually influence the creation of several European riding academies in the Renaissance. The modern Spanish Riding School of Vienna and the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art are relics of those academies.
Since the origins of the fighting bull are also in the Iberian Peninsula, the Iberians had since Carthaginian times recreated themselves by running bulls from horses in open fields, before lancing them. When the two activities, running of the bulls, and equestrian war exercise were combined within the confines of an enclosed spaces, the equestrian bullfight was born.
Bullfighting bulls in confinement will not run away, but instead will defend themselves and charge the riders. Therefore when facing brave bulls, the cavaliers had to perform intricate maneuvers on their finely tuned war horses in order to avoid being gored by the bulls. When the wars against the Moors ended, and the conquest of America was completed, the cavalrymen were left idle for war. The martial training became more a leisure and competitive activity, and then in the XVII and XVIII centuries, a feast increasingly joyful and polished.
Celebrations of great importance such as the coronation of a king , a royal birth or wedding were opportunities to conduct a bullfight. As the Iberian cultural influence expanded to the Americas, so did equestrian bullfighting and it is said that the festivities associated with the founding of Mexico City and Lima, included bullfights in which Hernan Cortes in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru were enthusiastic participants.
Rejoneo in Spain had a period of splendor during the reigns of Felipe III (1598-1621) , who built the plaza mayor and Felipe IV(1621-1665)) who converted it in the center of gaiety and social events of his court and thus the center of bullfighting on horse back. In Portugal, there are a many written records dating back to the XIII century, which mention the participation of Kings and other noblemen in equestrian bullfights.
A Portuguese nobleman of the XVIII century, Dom Pedro Alcantara y Meneses, fourth Marquis of Marialva, Master of the Horse to the royal court, emerged as one of the most influential horsemen of post renaissance Europe. His influence in laying down the modern day rules of Portuguese equestrian bullfighting was so great, that this type of bullfighting is also referred as the Art of Marialva.
Rejoneo remained identical in both Portugal and Spain as a nobleman's activity until the end of the XVII century, when Carlos II (1665-1700) of Spain died childless. The throne then passed to a grandson of Louis IV, Felipe V (1700-1748) and in this manner, the Bourbon dynasty entered Spain with their French influence and their dislike for bullfighting. In the mid 1700's, the Bourbons, decreed the prohibition of bullfighting , and most noblemen complied with the royal order, but the common people disdained it.
The disappearance of bullfighting on horse back could have signified the end of bullfighting in Spain, if the masses had not taken ownership to transform it into bullfighting on foot, giving it new life. War which had fomented the equestrian bullfights also gave origin to an auxiliary body of pages, horse trainers and horse grooms who assisted the cavalier and were in the shadow of the horse. When the horseman left the ring, the foot assistant emerged with great importance and has remained so until now.
Spanish rejoneo was then relegated to the cattle ranch work and did not emerge again as a spectator's spectacle until the 1920's. In Portugal on the other hands, and to cite the distinguished Spanish horseman and rejoneador, Don Alvaro Domecq y Diez, "Portuguese equestrian bullfighting was fine tuned and embellished to reach its actual level of specialty."
Modern Equestrian Bullfighting in Portugal
In her book, Cavaliers of Portugal, Huldine Beamish writes: "the mentioning of the word bullfighting would probably elicit some negative reactions from an English speaking readership, however when preceded by the word Portuguese, it conjures images of one of the most exquisite forms of equestrian display, which would interest anyone involved with horses, but specially those of us interested in the Iberian horse."
The mounted bullfight begins with a regal display of cavaliers dressed in XVII century outfits and mounted on equally magnificently harnessed stallions. After a complex exhibitions of haute icole, which demonstrates the superb training of the horse, a single cavalier remains in the ring to face the bull alone.
In Portugal, the objective of the bullfight is not to kill the bull but rather to demonstrate the training and schooling of the horse. The bullfight consist of placing a series of long and short darts on the muscular part of the bull, just behind the neck. The darts irritate the bull and make it more aggressive. The performance is relatively short, ten minutes or so, in which an average of six darts are placed, but it must be performed under strict "codes of honor." The bull should be given the advantage when charging, that is, it must initiate the charge before the cavalier makes his move. In addition, the approach and encounter of bull and cavalier must be face to face to the last possible moment, in which the horse, to escape the impact of the bull must literally wrap itself around the bull in some fascinating displays of agility.
The placing of darts is usually done one by one, however, it is not uncommon for the cavalier to tie the reigns, hold a banderilla in each hand, and with the aids of his legs and seat, maneuver his horse for the placing of a pair of banderillas. During the intervals of placing darts, the cavaliers allows his horse to be closely chased by the bulls and then demonstrates in an elegant and relaxed manner, a variety of movements of dressage.
Portuguese bullfighting take place in relatively small rings, requiring that the horse posses a perfect and precise training to avoid the charge of the bull. Therefore, the success in evading the impact of the bull depends more in skilled movements than in running speed. To cite Sr. Alvaro Domecq D. again "in Portugal everything seems to have concentrated around the development of a precise and perfect training . The labor of bullfighting seems to be given by an equestrian master solely for the display of his horse. bullfighting on horse back seen in this setting, has become a marvelous game, a delectable one,..... pure art".
The Horses of the Equestrian Bullfights
Traditionally the Portuguese bullfighting is mounted on a pure bred Lusitano stallion. On occasions, they will ride mares or cross-bred horses. In fact, the breeding selection process of the Lusitano horse is essentially based on its ability for the bullfight. In Spain the preference for stallions is not as marked and the use of pure bred Andalusian horse is not predominant. I would venture to say that at least eighty percent of the horses currently being used for rejoneo in Spain are either pure bred Lusitano or crosses of Andalusians, Arabs and Thoroughbreds. I recently saw an Appaloosa being used for rejoneo in Spain, but I do not recall seeing the use of a gelding of any breed in either Spain or Portugal.
In an exquisite book about equestrian bullfights entitled "O Toureio Equestre em Portugal," Mr. Fernando Sommer d'Andrade summarizes the characteristics of a good bullfighting horse by stating: "the horse for the bullfights must be patient, docile, courageous, suffering and not impressionable. It must also have the ability to concentrate , be energetic, agile, sensitive, fast and obedient, and possess personality. These are the contradictions that make it difficult to find good bullfighting horses."
In closing what I would like to emphasize the importance of the partnership between horse and rider in rejoneo , where in essence there is a symbiosis, from which depends both the life of horse and rider. Something that Sylvia Loch so eloquently describes as: "a symbol of complex dependence, one upon the other. The centaur-man and horse joined together in a way in which no other equestrian sport can demonstrate. Something deeply primeval within us is touched when we see such perfect empathy between a man and his horse".
( http://mundo-taurino.org/horses.html )