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Stories About Spain

Rites of Passage: Taming Wild Horses

Written by: Don Harris

wild horsesIn the era in which we live there is a tendency to blur gender distinctions. But there is one important event in the life of a boy that is crucial: his rite of passage into manhood. For thousands of years, boys have gone to great lengths to achieve this rite of passage, even to the point of risking their lives. In modern times most boys experience something less drastic, but no less important.

One of my fondest memories as a young chaplain was when I was serving at the Coast Guard Recruit Center in Alameda, California. Each week I would meet with a new rag-tag collection of teenage recruits. Anxious and hopeful, they had signed up for multiple reasons, but I would suspect the main one was they hoped to graduate from boyhood to manhood. Quite a few came from troubled backgrounds and for them this was their chance to shake off their old ways and begin anew.

Twelve weeks later I would see them march by, standing tall and filled with pride as they were greeted by grateful parents, and impressed younger brothers and sisters. They had succeeded, and they were changed. For them the modern day rite of passage had worked, they now felt like men.
bull in a village street
As we travel around Spain, I enjoy seeing remnants of ancient rites of passage. These traditions, often dangerous, are a way of testing youth to prove their courage and bonding them to the community. In an earlier essay I wrote about the youth of Ciudad Rodrigo who bravely confronted bulls in the main square of the village to the delight of their family and neighbors.

The mountaintop town of Arcos de la Frontera has a running of the bulls on Easter Sunday. There the 'Hallelujah Bull' runs down the narrow main street with daring boys and men defying death and goring. This is not exactly my idea of an Easter celebration, which usually includes church and an Easter egg hunt! And you all know about the running of the bulls during the feast of San Fermín in Pamplona.

My friend Pablo Vasquez informed me of another amazing example of courageous man against beast, in this case a wild horse. He told me of a centuries-old ritual in the mountain towns of Galicia called Rapa das Bestas, in the Galician language. It takes place throughout the summer in the autonomous province of Galicia - a green and lush Celtic enclave situated above Portugal in far northwest Spain.
Each year hundreds of wild horses are rounded up and herded to the villages in the valley in order to crop their tails and manes. Perhaps the best known of the Rapa das Bestas occurs in the village of Sabucedo at the beginning of July. Sabucedo is a tiny village in Pontevedra with a population of 150 souls, part of the municipality of A Estrada located some 15 miles southeast of Santiago de Compostela.

The name comes from the Latin word strata, meaning 'a place of well-trodden earth.' Appropriately, two ancient paths cross in the main square: from the south is a path originating in Orense and Portugal, where the pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela have passed for a thousand years; from the east the path leads to the interior of Galicia, used through the ages by herdsmen headed to the coast.

According to tradition, in the mid-16th century two elderly sisters prayed to San Lorenzo, the patron saint of Sabucedo, to rescue his people from the plague sweeping through the villages in the valleys. The sisters’ prayers were answered and the village was saved. As an act of gratitude, the sisters offered a pair of handsome horses to be set free in the mountains. These two horses were the forebears of the magnificent herds that now enjoy a free life in the forests above the village.

The Rapa das Bestas commences on the first weekend of July, starting with the local priest celebrating a mass at dawn in the village church on Saturday. One of their prayers asks for protection of the many young men and their elders who with great bravado commit to this highly risky event.

After mass, the eager herders set off to the mountains, as they have for centuries. The area of forest they are canvassing stretches for over 100 miles and is home to more than four herds of wild horses, over 500 of them. When they locate one of the herds of wild horses, they surround them and drive them back to the village. It can take the best part of the morning to bring these handsome animals down from the hills to the local corral, a centuries-old stone amphitheater with seating for almost a thousand people.
wild horse in a field
Aspiring youth dive onto the backs of the wild horses that are closely packed in the corral in the center of town. Demonstrating their courage and valor, they wrestle one untamed horse at a time to the ground. Together with the men of the town (who are often their uncles and cousins) the youths clip the wild horses’ manes and tails, and brand the foals born in the past year.

The men of Sabucedo employ no ropes or other tools to wrestle the spirited horses to the ground. They depend upon nothing but their bare hands, the raw muscles of the youth and the experience of elders who have been involved with this annual ritual since they were young. The horse wrestlers, called aloitadores, work in teams of three to subdue each animal.

It’s a risky business and can take a number of hours to work through the 200 or so beasts that are clipped on each of the three days of the Rapa das Bestas.

Records show that the annual task of taking a census of the wild horses, checking the health of the herd and branding the young foals evolved into a village-wide celebration at the beginning of the 18th century.

Each day’s work ends with partying and dancing into the night, and at the end of the third curro on the Sunday, the horses are herded up to the mountains again, where they are set free until the following year’s Rapa das Bestas.

Every society has their versions of a rite of passage. I find it remarkable that in these modern times, the age-old traditions in Spain continue to draw communities together to celebrate the coming of a new generation.


P.S. I want to thank Pablo Vasquez for telling me about Rapa das Bestas and I also am indebted to online articles from Wikipedia, Marca Espana and Typically Spanish, which were excellent sources of detail on the history of the Rapa das Bestas.

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"Thank you for the Bestas article. My grandparents were from Galicia and it is lovely to know more about the Gallegos and their customs. Keep up the good work. By the way while you were at Alameda did you know a Capt. Schlosser. He was a neighbor of ours in Walnut Creek."
August 2014

"Hola Dolores, Thank you very much for your note. Galicia is one of my very favorite parts of Spain. Wonderful seafood, great wine, and even greater people – they are very warm and generous. No, I did not know Capt. Schlosser, but Coast Guard Alameda was one of my favorite duty stations."

"This is amazing! As a freelance journalist, I would love to photograph and do a story on this for Western Horseman magazine."
August 2014

"Hi Kathy, Check out Google concerning the town and the fiesta. There are many many magnificent pictures of the horses, the young men and the event. I did not post them because they were copyrighted, but I think you really enjoy them. "

"Great narrative about traditions from my mother country. Thank you. I am sure these are the precursors of the modern day mustangs in the Southwest (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona)."
August 2014

"You are correct concerning the horses. Most people do not remember that one of the very positive actions of the Spaniards was to bring horses to the new world. You might like some of the pictures of the horses on Google. Just type in the name of the town. Galicia is one of my very favorite places in Spain. The people are so genuine and accommodating. Have you gotten to go back to where your relatives came from?"

"glad to see the horses are released and not kept captive!!"
August 2014

"Oh yes, all horses go back into the wild for another year. I suppose some of them have headaches after all the confusion in the town!! And I'm sure the young men have a few bruises as they jumped on horses and flexed their muscles!"

"Would love to know how the horses feel about being wrangled to the ground by three very strong men. Bet they don't think it is such a grand rite of passage!! Kind of goes along with that horrible tradition of bull fighting."
August 2014

"I am sure those young men delight in all the excitement and perceived danger. Fortunately for the horses this is a traditional event just goes on once a year. I am sure it is talked about amongst the young man for the rest of the year. I don't think it's exactly parallel to bullfighting – maybe in terms of valor and courage, but the wild horses are set free to gallop around the countryside for the rest of the year Saludos, Don"

"A very interesting topic, not widely known, taking place in an obscure old mountain village with roads less traveled. Humane reasons and methods/means for the horse-dogging would make this tradition rather noteworthy. Many thanks for posting this one! Patrick"
August 2014

"Hi Patrick, Yes I do enjoy finding these obscure festivals which have been going on for centuries. Traditions are very much a part of the fabric of Spain, even though many of them are not generally known to the public. It surely is a rough day for the horses – nothing terrible and in a crude way the horses apparently are honored as they were led back to the country. In general our culture today is much more interested in being humane to animals. That is ironic, since the newspapers tell us how inhumane men are to each other especially in the Middle East."

"I think this is a terrible tradition. Wild horses should be that - wild - not caught and have their mane and tails clipped and the young ones branded. Even though the horses are freed later, these men don't know what psychological effect has been imposed on these beautiful horses. How would they like to exchange places and have this done to them? It's a barbaric practice and not what I would consider "manly". It's cruel, unjust and plain unfeeling and stupid!"
August 2014

"Dear Jacqueline, I understand exactly what you feel, but there seems to be ingrained in many males the need to risk their lives to conquer one another and show courage. Just look at American football for example, shown several times a week. That being the case I don't think these horses are radically mistreated. Branding the colts goes on throughout the world -- and most of the year these horses are free range. Philosophically I agree with you, and it is sad the way some men face each other in combat in the Middle East.. "

"Please post photos of this event. "
August 2014

"Hi Jim, there are many magnificent pictures of the horses, but when we went to post some of them they were copyrighted. I suggest typing in the name of the town in Google and you will begin to see some of them there."

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Ritos de Paso: Domar Caballos Salvajes

wild horsesEn la época en la que vivimos, existe la tendencia de difuminar las diferencias de género. Pero hay un acontecimiento en la vida de un niño que es crucial: su rito de paso a la edad adulta. Durante miles de años, los jóvenes han puesto mucho afán en la consecución de este rito iniciático, llegando incluso al punto de arriesgar sus vidas. En los tiempos modernos, lo que la mayoría de los chicos experimentan es algo menos drástico pero no por ello menos importante.

Uno de los recuerdos más entrañables que tengo de mi época de capellán es el de cuando estaba destinado en el centro de reclutamiento de la Guardia Costera en Alameda, California. Cada semana me veía con un nuevo grupo de reclutas adolescentes de lo más variopinto. Angustiados y esperanzados por igual, se habían alistado por muy diversas causas, pero yo sospechaba que la principal de todas ellas era que esperaban pasar de la niñez a la edad adulta. Bastantes de entre ellos procedían de entornos problemáticos y para ellos el alistarse representaba la oportunidad de sacudirse el pasado de encima y empezar de nuevo.

Doce semanas después, les veía marchar, con la frente alta, henchidos de orgullo al ser recibidos por sus agradecidos padres y sus impresionados hermanos menores. Lo habían logrado y habían cambiado. Para ellos el rito iniciático de nuestros días había funcionado, ahora se sentían como hombres.
bull in a village street
Cuando viajamos por España, me encanta ver vestigios de estos ritos iniciáticos. Estas tradiciones, a menudo peligrosas, son una forma de poner a prueba el valor de los jóvenes y su sentido de pertenencia a una comunidad. En un articulo anterior, escribí sobre los jóvenes de Ciudad Rodrigo que se enfrentaban valientemente a los toros en la plaza mayor de su localidad para disfrute de su familia y vecinos.

En el municipio serrano de Arcos de la Frontera tiene lugar un encierro el Domingo de Resurrección. El llamado 'Toro del Aleluya' baja corriendo por la calle principal de la localidad acompañado por chicos jóvenes y hombres que desafían a la muerte y a las cornadas. Esta no es exactamente mi noción de Semana Santa, que por lo general, incluye oficios religiosos y la búsqueda de huevos de Pascua. Y todos ustedes están al tanto de los encierros que tienen lugar en Pamplona durante las fiestas de San Fermín.

Mi amigo Pablo Vázquez me puso al tanto de otro impresionante acontecimiento de hombres valientes enfrentándose a una bestia, en este caso a un caballo salvaje. Me habló de un ritual centenario que tiene lugar en los pueblos de montaña de Galicia y que en gallego se denomina Rapa das Bestas. Tiene lugar durante el verano en la región de Galicia, un verde y frondoso enclave celta situado sobre Portugal al noroeste de España.
Cada año cientos de caballos salvajes son rodeados y conducidos desde el monte a los pueblos con el objetivo de cortarles las crines y las colas. Quizá la Rapa das Bestas más conocida sea la que tiene lugar en la localidad de Sabucedo a principios del mes de julio. Sabucedo es una parroquia del suroeste del municipio de La Estrada en Pontevedra; cuenta con una población de 150 almas y esta situada a unos 25 kilómetros al sudeste de Santiago de Compostela.

El nombre de La Estrada proviene de la palabra latina strata, que significa camino. Acertadamente, dos antiguos caminos se cruzan en la plaza central: desde el sur nos topamos con una ruta cuyo origen está en Orense y Portugal, y por la que los peregrinos con destino a Santiago de Compostela llevan pasando miles de años; desde el este, el camino lleva al interior de Galicia, un camino utilizado durante años por los pastores que se dirigían a la costa.

Según la tradición, a mediados del siglo XVI, dos hermanas de avanzada edad le rogaron a San Lorenzo, el santo patrón de Sabucedo, que librase al pueblo de la plaga que estaba arrasando todos los pueblos del valle. Las plegarias de las dos hermanos fueron atendidas y el pueblo se salvó. Como muestra de agradecimiento, las hermanas ofrecieron una par de hermosos caballos para soltarlos en las montañas. Estos dos caballos son los antepasados de las magnificas manadas que ahora disfrutan de una vida en libertad en los bosques cercanos a la aldea.

La Rapa das Bestas comienza el primer fin de semana de julio, con una misa oficiada por el párroco local al amanecer del sábado. Una de sus plegarias es por la protección de los muchos hombres jóvenes y no tan jóvenes que con mucha valentía se disponen a participar en este peligrosísimo acontecimiento.

Después de la misa, los ansiosos vecinos emprenden la marcha hacia los montes, como lo han hecho durante siglos. La zona de monte que peinan se extiende unos 160 kilómetros y es el hábitat de más de cuatro manadas de caballos salvajes, unos 500 en total. Cuando localizan a una de las manadas, la rodean y la llevan de vuelta a la aldea. Puede llevar toda una mañana conducir a estos hermosos ejemplares desde el monte hasta el corral de la aldea, un anfiteatro de piedra con siglos de antigüedad que da cabida a casi mil personas.
wild horse in a field
Los jóvenes aspirantes se suben a los lomos de los caballos salvajes que están recluidos en el corral del centro de la aldea. Demostrando su coraje y su valor, luchan para llevarles al suelo uno por uno. Junto con los hombres del pueblo (que a menudo son sus tíos y primos) los jóvenes cortan las crines y las colas de los animales salvajes y marcan las crías nacidas durante el año.

Los hombres de Sabucedo no emplean sogas ni ningún otra instrumento en su lucha con el animal. No utilizan más armas que el propio cuerpo: sólo sus manos, los músculos de los jóvenes y la experiencia de los mayores que ha venido participando de este ritual anual desde que eran muchachos. Los 'aloitadores,' que así se llama a los que se enfrentan a los caballos, trabajan en grupos de tres para someter a cada animal.

Es una actividad arriesgada y puede tardarse un buen número de horas en ocuparse de los 200 o más ejemplares que son esquilados cada día en los tres que dura la Rapa.

Los archivos demuestran que la tarea anual de censar a los caballos salvajes, comprobar el bienestar de la manada y marcar a los nuevos potros se convirtió a principios del siglo XVIII en una celebración en la que participaba toda la aldea.

Cada día de trabajo culmina con una fiesta y un baile que dura hasta bien entrada la noche, y el domingo, al final del tercer 'curro,' los caballos son devueltos al monte, donde se les libera hasta la Rapa das Bestas del año siguiente.

Cada sociedad tiene su versión de lo que es un rito iniciático. Me parece sorprendente que en estos tiempos modernos, las tradiciones seculares en España sigan uniendo a las comunidades para celebrar la llegada de una nueva generación.


P.D. Quiero darle las gracias a Pablo Vázquez por hablarme de la Rapa das Bestas. Estoy también en deuda con los artículos online de la Wikipedia, Maraca España y Typically Spanish, que son una fuente inestimable de detalles sobre la historia de la Rapa das Bestas.

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