picador, rejoneo, bullfighting on horseback

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picador, rejoneo, bullfighting on horseback


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Clarification of Picador and Rejoneador

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When most people think of Spain, they think of the bullfight, and when most people think of the bullfight, they think of bullfighters fighting bulls from foot. If people think of horses in relation to the bullfight, it is inevitably of the picador’s horse – a horse that commands the sympathy from horse lovers the world over, especially those who have read Hemingway. However, few people realise that there is another form of bullfighting performed from horseback. This activity is known in Spain as el rejoneo where it forms a part of Andalusian horse culture and is known in Portugal as toureio ecuestre where it is, and has historically been, the dominant form of bullfighting. Because of Hemingway’s account of the picador in the twenties and because of the lack of attention to mounted bullfighting, most accounts of the horse in the Spanish bullfight confuse the mounts of the picador and the rejoneador. In this article I would like to rectify the confusion and demonstrate the horses used in the two different forms of bullfight are quite different from one another.

El Rejoneo is the activity of fighting bulls from horseback. Many argue that it is the original form of bullfighting from which bullfighting from foot derives. This view probably arises from the fact that lancing bulls in courtly performances suffered a dramatic decline after the Spanish throne went to the Bourbon King Henri in 1700 – about the same time that bullfighting from foot began to gain popularity. Indeed, the eighteenth century is credited as having given birth to the ‘modern’ bullfight. That is, a bullfight with three main phases of action; a picador, banderilleros and a matador. However, it is likely that bullfighting from foot coexisted with mounted bullfighting for some time.


Although non-Spanish people often confuse the horses of the picador and the horses of the rejoneador, these are very different mounts with contrasting roles. In bullfights where the bullfighters are professionals, mature bulls of four years of age are used. Because of their size and power, the picador is required in the first phase of the bullfight to weaken the bull’s neck muscles so that its head will be lowered for the footed bullfighter to manage it. The bullfights that feature bulls younger than four years are known as novilladas. A picador is not required for these fights but sometimes they are used, and this is given special mention in the bullfighting posters as novillada con picadores.















The mount of the picador is usually a ‘cold’ blooded type such as a Percheron or a Breton. It is forbidden by the National Bullfighting Rules to use the indigenous Spanish breed of horse (Pura Raza Española). Many people who have leaned about the bullfight only through Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon” have an outdated and gruesome impression of what happens to the picador’s horse. When Hemingway was in Spain, the picadors were riding aged nags destined for the knackery. These blindfolded horses were ‘targets’ for the bulls. After the bull first entered the bullring and the matador and his assistants had made some sweeping passes with it with the larger of the two types of bullfighter’s capes, two picadors would enter on their decrepit mounts. They stood with their off (right hand) sides open to the bull’s charge, and for this reason the picador wears armour on his right leg only. The bull would be encouraged to charge at one of the picador’s mounts. This served two purposes. Firstly, when the bull’s horns made contact with the horse, the picador on top would stab the muscles where the neck and back join. He did this with the pica, a long pole with a sharpened point on the end. Thus, the bull would associate this pain with charging the horse. The bravery of a bull could thus be judged by how many times it was prepared to charge the horse. The braver the bull - the more times it was ‘picked’ by the picador. This also gave the matador an opportunity to watch the bull’s manner of charging to see if it favoured any side or horn in particular. Secondly, by weakening the muscles at the base of the bull’s neck, it would not be able to hold its head high enough to prevent the matador being able to work it with a cape.

The horses during Hemingway’s times were not expected to leave the bullring alive. The bull’s horns usually gored the horses’ sides and stomachs and horses were often tossed in the air or flipped over. Hemingway describes as ‘comic’ the occasions where horses galloped through their own intestines. He also recounts stories of veterinarians stuffing horses with sawdust and sewing them back up to take on more bulls in the same afternoon. It was not until 1929 that a covering known as a peto became compulsory for the picador’s mounts to protect them from being pierced by the bulls’ horns. The peto has developed greatly over the past seventy years. However, the picador’s horses still take the brunt of a bull’s attack and often are knocked off their feet. Nevertheless, unlike their predecessors, the picador’s mount of today leaves the bullring alive. For this reason, the type of horse used today is not one that is ‘on its way out’. The picador’s horse is no longer old and useless for work but it is still a heavy boned mount that can take the full impact of five hundred kilos. Picador’s horses are well maintained by an owner, and are hired out to bullring managers for bullfights. The horses are not highly trained as they are only required to walk forwards, stand and turn. They are required to do no more than this and the peto restricts their movement in any case. Picadors themselves rarely own the horses that they ride and as a result there is no close relation between rider and horse.





The rejoneador’s horses are very different to the picador’s horses. A ‘corrida de rejones’, or a bullfight of mounted bullfighters, involves a horse at each of the three stages of the fight. Usually, a rejoneador (mounted bullfighter) will travel with around six horses. He or she will have horses trained and most suitable for one of the three phases of the fight. For example, in the first phase, the bull is fast and tries to ‘catch’ up to the horse. The horse for this phase is usually an anglo-arab that is fast and agile to entice the bull’s charge but can gallop in front of it, maintaining its tail in the bull’s face, during changes of direction. In this first phase, the rejoneador used the rejones de castigo (rejons of punishment). These are wooden sticks about 150 cm long with barbed ends that break off into the bull as they are placed, resulting in the unravelling of a flag that is tied to the main handle of the rejon. The rejones become progressively shorter with each of the three phases as the rider dares to come closer and closer to the bull. By the third phase the bull is slower and more tired but it is believed to be more ‘clever’. The pure Spanish horse or three blooded horse (Spanish stallion X anglo-arab mare) is preferred at this stage. This is a horse that can perform alta escuela (high school) movements in front of the bull but react quickly to its sudden charge. The aim of the rejoneador is to demonstrate his skill in horsemanship and intuition by allowing the bull to come as close to the horse as possible without placing it in danger. He does not allow the bull to run and knock his mount as is the case with the picador and the risk to the horse is further lessened in a corrida de rejones by the fact that the tips of the bull’s horns are either blunted or covered.

The mounted bullfight has developed various moves to entice the bull’s charge, move or position the bull in any place the rider desires and finally to place one of the banderillas, or decorated barbs into the bull. Some of the most popular ‘moves’ are the violin, in which the bullfighter reaches his right hand over his head to place a banderilla into the bull as it passes his left side; the quiebro which begins with horse and bull immobile and then develops as a kind of ‘fake right go left’ to place the banderilla from the rider’s left hand side and the banderilla a dos manos where the rider attaches his reins to his belt and takes one banderilla into each hand. Using his legs only the rider guides the horse close enough to the bull to simultaneously place both banderillas. There is even a move called el telefono because the bullfighter leans over the saddle to the bull chasing his horse’s tail. The rider puts their elbow on the bull’s forehead and their fist on their own forehead – thus appearing to be on the telephone!


Clarification of Picador and Rejoneador © Kirrilly Thompson 2003

A rejoneador owns his horses and is responsible for their training. His relationship to them is greater than that of the picador and probably greater than any other horse rider because the rejoneador’s horse keeps it rider inches away from death. The artistry of the rejoneador contrasts starkly with the function of the picador and as this article demonstrates, they should not be confused.

Graphic accounts of tortured horses such as those given by Hemingway are completely outdated and do not represent the bullfight of today. I wish neither to condemn nor support the bullfight, but to dispel some of the myths that are constantly generated and need to change to truthfully reflect the contemporary bullfight.


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