Sabucedo Horse Fair: The mane event

Every year thousands of people converge on a tiny village in Galicia for three days of wrestling with untamed mountain horses. Elizabeth Nash saddles up for Spain's most humane animal fiesta
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You know that summer has come to Spain's north-west region of Galicia when the wild horses come down from the mountain to have their hair cut.

Sabucedo, a hamlet of barely 150 people for 362 days of the year, swelled a hundred-fold last weekend for the ancient celebration of the Rapa da Bestas - when men wrestle untamed horses to the ground with their hands and arms, and cut their manes and tails. Three days of fiesta and high-energy combat later, the horses are sent up the hillside again, to roam freely over their ancestral domain. Unlike many Spanish fiestas with animals, the Rapa da Bestas, which, despite its fearsome name, means only "shearing the animals", involves no cruelty, no blood and no death.

"It comes from a noble tradition in which a man pits his strength against a beast without ropes or weapons, just his bare hands and his wits. It reminds us of our deepest roots," said Xose Vasquez, 40, a varnisher from nearby Estrada, who had pitched his tent among thousands of visitors in the shade of the oak forests that surround Sabucedo. "And of course," he added with a cheerful swig from his beer bottle, "it's a chance for youngsters to get together for three days and nights of partying in complete freedom." He turns serious again. "It taps into our wild side, which many people are only too keen to suppress."

The action starts at dawn on the first Saturday in July, when villagers head for the hills to round up horses. The operation takes all morning until the animals are driven to the outskirts of the village in a dark, noisy stampede. Thesegalego ponies, whose bloodline goes back millennia, are famed for their fleetfootedness. The Roman historian Pliny, in one of the first documents to mention this remote corner of Spain, describes the fierce nobility of these horses, and recounts the legend that the mares were inseminated by the wind.

The creatures rest during the afternoon heat, manes swaying against chomping jaws as they crop the broom and heather, seeking the shade of birches and scrubby bushes. They stroll in groups, foals close by their dams, mostly indifferent to locals and visitors who approach. Whinnying greetings echo from hill to hill, as they swish long manes and tails they are shortly to lose.

Like many fiestas, the Rapa da Bestas has religious origins. In 1567, Sabucedo was stricken by plague. The story goes that two elderly sisters prayed to Saint Laurence for deliverance. They were saved, and the sisters offered in gratitude two of the finest mares on the mountainside.

From them descend the so-called "saint's cavalry", equine leaders that belong to the community and are marked with a cut on the ear, latterly by microchip. Excitement mounts around the stone arena in the heart of the village, a semicircular amphitheatre housing up to a thousand spectators. Bagpipers and drummers strike up a jig as hundreds of horses lope down into the "curro", the enclosure where they will be subdued and shorn. They circle, disconcerted at finding themselves confined, but show no fear.

Teenage boys and girls seize foals by the ears and push them into a separate corral. Then, with a roar, an aloitador (combatant) dives from the surrounding wall on to one of the most powerful horses, grasping its lashing mane. He shouts and flails as it tries to bound free, and another aloitador leaps to the horse's head, while a third grasps the tail. They wrestle the creature to the ground, whilee companions drive off other horses to make a space. The horse writhes and kicks, then stops struggling, while the assailants hold the animal's head.

A burly veteran advances with spring-loaded scissors and hacks the mane and tail with a rasping click-clack, an operation that is speedy rather than artistic. The horsehair was once collected and sold for shaving brushes and paintbrushes, but is now thrown aside. One aloitador tosses a fistful of mane to a girl by the ringside, and she plucks and strokes her trophy for the rest of the afternoon. The shorn horse scrambles to its feet, snorts, shakes its stunted mane and tail, and rejoins the herd. Two rival stallions rear against each other, silhouetted against the dying sun. An aloitador, kicked in the testicles, is carried out, his face ashen.

Adolfo Ricoy, 37, started at 14. "I wait all year for this day. It's a passion, a moment when we express our respect for horses," he says. "We pit our strength against theirs, and they resist. But ... they know we do not mean them harm." So far this fiesta has kept its local character. No drunken outsiders seek to test their manhood by horse wrestling, like those who - inspired by Ernest Hemingway - run with the bulls at Pamplona. Adolfo reflects: "The most beautiful moment is when we free them to the pastures and hillsides where they are lords and masters."