We are in Madrid, Spain, enjoying the beauty and culture this ancient city has to offer. We take the opportunity to visit the Plaza De Toros de Las Ventas to view the ancient sport of bullfighting, also known as corrida de toros!
Warning: This article depicts the death of animals.
Plaza De Toros de Las Ventas
The afternoon is warm but not sunny, which is good considering the bullring is open-air. We don’t know what to expect, so we have arrived early. But everything moves along smoothly and we are soon inside.
The building is adorned with works of art depicting the sport we are about to see.
There are carriages moving slowly in a circular path, and the crowd mills about, taking photographs. We ask the person next to us to explain what is happening. It turns out that today is opening day for the bullfighting season, and all the local VIPs are in attendance.
Elderly patrons of the arts engage in idle conversation as the gentleman riding shotgun scowls.¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Children are part of the procession, although not all of them appreciate the moment.
This has nothing to do with bullfighting, but, is that a big cigar or what? Sigmund Freud could write a whole chapter on just this one guy. We are soooooo happy he is not sitting near us. Ouch!
After a while, the grounds clear and a stately procession begins, with these two horsemen leading the way.
The participants enter the arena in a parade to salute the presiding dignitary.
By chance, we find ourselves sitting directly behind the presiding dignitary, and the procession appears they are saluting us. This makes us happy. 😎
These fellows are part of the clean-up and maintenance crew. They, too, honor us with a bow.
The horses of the picadores are placid. We wonder if they are chosen for their stoic attitude or if it’s a matter of training.
We enjoy the spectacle for its beauty; we wish we had a fuller understanding of the centuries of tradition that is being played out.
The Plaza De Toros is brimming with spectators and the first bull has entered the ring. The tercio de varas is about to begin.
Spanish Fighting Bulls
The animals in bullfights are Spanish fighting bulls. Spanish fighting bulls are a different breed from domestic bulls and they have an expensive and privileged life. They live in wide open spaces in a semi-wild state. Their territorial nature makes it impossible to use this space to raise any other cattle or crop, which makes the breeding and maintenance of these animals quite expensive. The bulls organize themselves in hierarchic packs of females and young bulls following the lead of a dominant male. The average life expectancy for a domestic bull raised for consumption is one and a half years, after which it is taken to the slaughterhouse. Bulls bred and raised in intensive farms and artificially fattened may live even less. Spanish fighting bulls live between five and seven years before being fought.
Parts of a Bullfight
In the first stage, the tercio de varas (“part of lances”), two picadores enter the arena, each armed with a lance. The picadores are mounted on large heavily padded and blindered horses, and the bull is encouraged to attack. The picador stabs a mound of muscle on the bull’s neck leading to the animal’s first loss of blood, which weakens the bull.
In the next stage, the tercio de banderillas (“part of banderillas”), the matador attempts to plant two barbed sticks (banderillas, literally “little flags” as they are decorated with paper in the local colors) in the bull’s shoulders. These further weaken the enormous ridges of neck and shoulder muscle (which set fighting bulls apart from ordinary cattle) through loss of blood. By this point the bull has lost a significant amount of blood and is fatigued.
In the final stage, the tercio de muerte (“part of death”), the matador enters the ring alone with a small red cape in one hand and a sword in the other. The matador uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes. This stage ends with a final series of passes in which the matador attempts to maneuver the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the heart.
Tercio de Varas
The picador’s leg and foot is encased in steel, and the horse is covered in thick padding and blindered.
The bull charges. We can see the horse’s ears twitching to the sound, but it does not move. The matadors watch, seemingly casual about the situation.
Spanish fighting bulls weigh about as much as the horses do, but with momentum, the bull is able to lift the horse. The picador stabs the mound of muscle on the bull’s neck, weakening the neck and, through blood loss, the bull.
The picador persists in stabbing the bull, using the horse as a shield. Some of the matadors attempt to draw the bull’s attention. The horse behaves as if this is normal.
This bull charges low and fast, easily lifting the horse.
The bull becomes momentarily lodged under the horse. A few matadors attempt to draw it away.
This stage is a mandatory step in the corrida, and regulations require that the plaza judge ensures a certain number of hits are made before it is completed. In some rings, a matador may request more or fewer hits in order to correct any perceived defects.
Tercio de Banderillas
In this next stage, the matador attempts to plant two barbed sticks (banderillas, literally “little flags” as they are decorated with paper in the local colors) in the bull’s shoulders.
The bull is somewhat weakened from its encounter with the picadors, but is still a formidable creature. The matador must be quick and agile.
The matador and bull face off, pointy sticks against pointy horns.
The matador entices the bull to charge and must stay in front of the bull until the last moment. I would not be a good matador, I think.
Unless the bull is distracted by another matador, it charges the spear-sticker.
The repeated stabbings further weaken the enormous ridges of neck and shoulder muscle, and the bull continues to lose blood. By the end of this stage, the bull is exhausted.
The bull is weakened in body, but not in spirit.
Tercio de Muerte
In the final stage, the matador faces the bull with a small red cape (or muleta) in one hand and a sword in the other. This cape is stretched with a wooden dowel and, in right-handed passes, with the sword as well.
It is unclear (to us) why, but the bull charges the moving cape, ignoring the matador holding it.
The matador holds his cape near the ground as the bull charges.
The bull’s horn catches in the soil, and the bull tumbles on itself. The matador cringes; if the bull is deemed to be too weak, the fight could be terminated.
The bull is weakened, but charges the cape with all the vigor it can muster. Notice the stylized position of the matador, seemly cocky.
The bull is bleeding and breathing heavily. The matador calls to it to charge him.
The bull’s charges are becoming slower. The matador is having a difficult time inducing it to move.
The bull collapses. Still, the matador challenges it to charge his cape.
The matador cries aloud in a language I do not understand, and the crowd responds loudly.
At this point, the bull is so weak that the matador can get close with little danger to himself.
The bull’s blood covers the cape and the matador’s clothing.
The bull is exhausted, barely able to move. The matador again cries out to the audience.
The estocada stabs the bull between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart. The matador is trained to perform the thrust perfectly.
The sword penetrates, but not deeply enough. The matador pushes deeply, and the bull collapses.
The body is dragged out by a team of mules.
Under Spanish law, bulls must be at least four years old and reach the weight of 460 kg to fight in a first-rank bullring (such as in Madrid), 435 kg for a second-rank ring, and 410 kg for third-rank rings. They are so heavy that a team of mules must be used to drag them from the field.
The body of the bull, after the fight, is used for human consumption. Spanish fighting bull meat, however, is much more expensive than regular meat, since the years in freedom make for a very specific and intense flavor.