Rites of Passage: Taming Wild Horses

Don Harris | August 2014

In 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.

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.

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