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HORSE

Horses leap bonfires in controversial festival

More than 100 horses and riders leapt the flames of roaring bonfires in a small Spanish town in a centuries-old festival that has raised the ire of animal rights activists.

Horses leap bonfires in controversial festival
"The horse does not suffer," said Diego Martin, the festival patron. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP

Smoke and flames filled the night in San Bartolomé de Pinares, a central Spanish town of some 600 inhabitants, in the annual festival held on Thursday, the eve of Saint Anthony's Day for the patron saint of animals.

One by one, horses and their riders jumped the flames of large bonfires lit in the narrow, paved streets of the town, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) northwest of Madrid.

"No one knows how old the tradition is. My grandfather told me that his great-grandfather took part," said 34-year-old Diego Martin, this year's patron of the festival of "illuminations".

"They say it could be 300 or 400 years old," said Martin, this year's festival patron, as he sat astride a Spanish horse, Fiel, and opened a procession of some 150 riders.

The town is fiercely attached to the festival, said by some to date back as much as 500 years, despite opposition from animal rights groups concerned about the safety of the horses.

Click here to see the best photos from this year's festival

Just a few days earlier, Spain's National Association for the Welfare of Animals asked the townspeople not to let their horses leap over the fires, apparently to no avail.

The horses, blessed before the festival, wear their manes and tails carefully plaited to prevent them catching fire as they jump over the centre or, in many cases, the sides of the bonfires, which have been sprinkled with water to produce more smoke.

"There was an epidemic that killed all the horses in the town. Since then, we have done this to purify them, to keep them from any evil by asking for the protection of the saint," explained 20-year-old Libertad Gómez, one of the few women riders, who has been taking part for seven years.

"More than a tradition, for us it is a feeling. It is something you live almost since you were born," said Libertad, who rode with dozens of others through the streets to be engulfed by the "saint's smoke".

Indeed, the smoke is so thick it stings the eyes and lends a ghostly aspect to the horse and rider as they leap the fires.

That does not stop youngsters taking part in a tradition passed down from father to child, such as 10-year-old Alejandro Nunez, who jumped for the second year running on a white horse.

"I really like it. At first, it was a bit scary but that goes," he said, equipped with a helmet and a checkered scarf to protect him from the smoke.

"A lot of people let go of the reins so the horse can decide. If the horse does not want to jump, it does not jump. It goes around the side," said Martin, who began riding at the age of four.

Other townspeople similarly reject accusations that the festival is cruel.

"The horse does not suffer," said Diego Martin, the festival patron.

"We have never had any accidents other than a horse slipping and falling but never because of the fire. They are our animals and we have the greatest interest in them not suffering any harm," Martin added.

Horse tamer Igor Villa, a regular participant, agreed.

"Sometimes they are a bit scared, it depends on the animal. But there is no danger to them," he said, dressed in a jacket and brown riding trousers as he sat astride a Spanish grey horse.

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FESTIVAL

The crazy ways to celebrate carnival in Spain

As carnival gets underway across Spain next week, The Local gives you the run down on where to see some of Spain's wackiest celebrations.

The crazy ways to celebrate carnival in Spain
Revellers dressed as clowns for carnival in Cadiz. Photo: AFP
Running from February 19th until Ash Wednesday on February 26th carnival week is a big deal in Spain. It is celebrated in dozens of different ways across Spain. Here are some of the biggest and more unusual parties.  
 
Mud madness 
 

Photo: AFP
 
If you’re spending Carnival in Galicia, chances are you’ll get more than just a spot of rain. So why not take it a step further and get involved in a full-on mud battle? Entroido Carnival, in the town of Laza, sees locals engaged in a friendly war where rags drenched in mud are thrown at random at everyone taking part.
 
Grotesque grins 
 

Photo: AFP
 
Entroido Carnival in Laza also offers an alternative to those who don’t want to wash mud out of their hair for a week. Os Peliqueiros, seen in the image wearing odd traditional clothing and creepy masks, are ancestral figures thought to represent Galician taxmen in the 16th century. Up to 150 run through the streets of this small town in northern Spain, whipping anyone who gets in their way.
 
Santa Cruz carnival, Tenerife 

Photo: Desiree Martin/AFP

Billed as the best place to celebrate carnival outside of Rio de Janiero, the Santa Cruz carnival in Tenerife runs from Wednesday 19t February to Sunday 1st March. It  draws crowds of 400,000 and involves street parties, parades, satirical street bands and of course, the crowning of a carnival queen. Full details of events found HERE:

 
Drag queen election
 

Photo: AFP
 
You can't get much glitzier than the annual carnival celebration in Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria. The surreal nature and extravagant costumes seen at each year’s pageant are a feast for the senses, making the event just as popular as the standard Carnival Queen election in neighbouring Tenerife. Anyone can take part in the drag gala, but only a handful of women have taken to the stage since the celebration began in 1998.
 
Where the wild things are 
 

Photo: AFP
 
If you fancy reliving some childhood nightmares head to the village of Piasca in Cantabria, northern Spain. There you will find half of the locals covered in animal skins and wearing unnerving animalistic masks, who will no doubt chase you away with their brooms. Another tradition of the so-called Zamarrones Carnival involves going from door to door begging for sausages, eggs and bacon while heading to the neighbouring village of Los Cos.

Carnival of Carrizo de la Ribera, Leon

Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP

Another carnival with cowbells, this time, locals dress up as characters called 'antruejos' (shown in picture, above), terrifying looking figures that you definitely wouldn't want to meet on a dark night. 

 
Powder party

 

Photo: AFP
 
Los Indianos festival sees thousands of people dressed in white take to the streets of La Palma (Canaries) and chuck talcum powder at each other for hours on end. The fiesta’s name refers to the Canarian migrants who sought a better life in Latin America in the 19th century and were greeted warmly on their return to the island of La Palma. As for the talcum tossing, it's thought to be linked to the disinfectant powder sprinkled on the travellers to avoid the spread of disease.
 
Load of bull?
 

Photo: AFP
 
It may come as no surprise that one Spanish town has linked two of the country’s greatest traditions together: bull running and Carnival. After all, if being chased by a 700-kilo beast seemed foolish enough already, doing it in fancy dress seems to make sense somehow. Head to Ciudad Rodrigo near Salamanca (west Spain) for El Carnaval del Toro.
 
Burial of the sardine
 

Photo: AFP
 
Celebrations turn a bit too surreal in many parts of Spain when on Ash Wednesday the streets are jam-packed with fake weeping widows, men and women, who follow a giant polystyrene sardine to its burial. The message behind the funeral parody is more symbolic than it may initially seem: the sardine represents life’s excesses and its burning at the stake, the purge of such vices and the rebirth of our souls. 
 

Basque bigfoots
 

Photo: AFP
 
Old habits die hard, especially ancient ones in the Basque Country and Navarre. Carnival traditions in the villages of Ituren and Zubieta (Navarre) see locals dress up as wild beasts from head to toe as they march through the streets escorted by Joalduns, “those who carry the bells” to scare away the evil spirits. Similar medieval traditions revolving around farming and animal herding are also found in Slovenia and Bulgaria.
 
Meet the giants
 
Photo: http://solsonaturisme.com

In Solsona, Catalonia, carnival festivities have a long history. Under Franco, the celebrations were forbidden; however, the city was the first to begin celebrating again after his death. This carnival gives you the opportunity to experience some Catalan culture traditions, chief among them the parade of the gegants or the symbolic hanging of the (Catalan) donkey.

Arrival of the birds

Photo: carnaval.villarrobledo.com

The carnival in Villarrobledo is another one with a long history which goes back to the 19th century. Traditionally, the festivities begin on Thursday with the Llegada de los Juanes, a parade of people wearing bird masks. They are the opening act for ten days full of costumes, fun and fiestas. There is also a children's carnival with its own costume competition.

Carnaval del Vino de Haro


Photo: lariojaturismo.com

In La Rioja, fans of classy celebrations might find exactly what they are looking for. This year's celebrations follow a Murder on the Orient Express theme, with wine playing a major role. Local bodegas present their latest creations. Salute!

Gay carnival in Sitges

More than 250,000 people flock to the coastal town of Sitges about 35 kilometres from Barcelona for one of the biggest gay carnivals in the world. Starting on Tuesday 18th to Wednesday February 26th, the week is packed with parades, parties and shows and the gay-friendly town opens its doors to thousands of revellers. By the way, this one is also said to be one of the safest street festivals of the world. Best party night is on Saturday!

Drink and dress up


A carnival choir entertains the crowds in Cadiz. Photo: AFP

The carnival in Cádiz is one of the most famous in Spain, dating back to the 16th century. These days it's all about dressing up and poking fun at politicians and people in the news, as well as the usual eating and drinking of course.