The sound of neighs and whinnies fills the jam-packed corral, a centuries-old stone amphitheater. Dust flies through the air as men grapple to keep control of what seems like a sea of horses – a seething mass of animals numbering in their hundreds.
There are not many activities that pit man against beast in such visceral fashion, but Rapa das Bestas (meaning "cropping the beasts") is certainly one of them. In this 400-year-old Spanish tradition, men wrestle horses to the ground with nothing more than their bare hands in many cases. First, however, they must catch the animals.
Wild horses roam the mountains of Galicia, the northwestern region of Spain, but each year local villagers and visitors fetch them down from the higher ground, rounding them up so that the locals can clip their manes and tails and brand the foals.
The most famous event is the three-day festival held in the village of San Lorenzo de Sabucedo, where the use of nothing but hands – no tools or ropes – is permitted. Muscles bulge as men (and some women) grapple with the untamed horses so as to subdue them, often barely hanging on with their fingers.
There are plenty of people who consider Rapa das Bestas cruel and condemn the festival, but others point out that it offers the opportunity to see to the needs of animals that are ill or infected by parasites.
It takes three men (known as "aloitadores") to manage each horse: one who gets on the horse's back, another who takes hold of the neck, and a third to take the tail. They then wrestle the horse to the floor in order to shear its hair – apparently to stop it from overheating during the hotter months – or brand it if it is a younger horse that has not previously been tagged.
It is hard to describe the near-chaos of the event, with its galloping horses and strong sense of machismo, but Gabriella Opaz of Catavino.net came up with an apt analogy: "The best comparison I could come up with was if Vidal Sassoon donned a WWF leotard and competed in a rodeo," she wrote.
However, the haircuts given by the aloitadores are certainly not administered in the style of a hair salon. When you have 1,000 pounds of wild beast bucking and biting underneath you, the important thing is getting the job done as quickly as possible – especially when there are hundreds of the animals to deal with.
The horse wrestlers are literally taking their lives in their hands as they move between and climb over the backs of the milling horses to get to the ones they want. The horses may be nervous and shying but that doesn't make the whole business any less risky: there are stallions that may rise to fight one another other, mares trying to flee, and frightened foals looking for a place to find refuge.
The origins of this horse wrestling festival are the stuff of legend. In the mid-16th century, a plague hit Sabucedo, and two sisters prayed to San Lorenzo, the patron saint of the village, for deliverance. When the village was saved, the sisters gave two horses as an offering, setting them free in the hills above the town. Supposedly, the horses are the ancestors of the hundreds that live wild in the various herds today.
Myth notwithstanding, the Sabucedo Rapa festival was first documented at the start of the 18th century when it was held with two purposes in mind: the first, simply the hygiene of the horses; the second, to keep tabs on the herds. Once the wrestlers had pitted their strength against the horses, they were treated to wine and food. And just as the reasons behind the event stand to this day, so too do the festivities, which take place each night.
Nowadays, the festival begins on the first Saturday in July – starting with an early morning mass prior to the herders heading off at 7am – and goes on into the Monday. Both locals and tourists are permitted to go in search of the horses and bring them down to the village.
The herds of horses live over a large area. It’s thought that some six hundred horses are split into 14 herds, which roam over 200 km of land. As for the people, well, the normal population of the village numbers in the hundreds but swells significantly in size when the festival is underway.
Although outsiders are welcome participants in the festival's early stages, only locals are allowed to be aloitadores. Such is the difficulty of their task that it was used as an example of courage by Spain’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Camilo José Cela, who wrote of "bravery which was only comparable to that of the aloitadores of Sabucedo."
On the final day of Rapa das Bestas, when the work and partying is over, the horses are herded back into the mountains, where they are allowed to roam free for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, the village cleans up from the festival and goes back to its quiet daily routine.