The Spanish festival where horse riders rip the heads off dead geese

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The Spanish festival where horse riders rip the heads off dead geese
A rider on horseback holds onto the neck of a dead goose during the festival of El Carpio de Tajo, Toledo, Spain. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

In the Toledo town of El Carpio de Tajo, contestants on horseback gallop towards a dead goose tied to a rope which they attempt to decapitate, yet another Spanish festival which rights groups criticise for its "macabre" animal cruelty.


In the town of El Carpio de Tajo in the province of Toledo (Castilla-La Mancha region), a strange event takes place every year during the last week of July to honour the patron saint - Santiago Apóstol. This year it took place on July 25th. 

During the festivities, riders on horseback, known as the riders of the Brotherhood of Santiago, gallop towards a dead goose (hanging from a rope) by its feet and aim to yank the head off the animal, followed by jubilant celebrations if they are successful.

A rider on horseback grabs the neck of a dead goose in a bid to tear its head off. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP
But of course, it’s not always possible on the first try and sometimes, riders make more than a dozen attempts.

This is accompanied by traditional music from local bands.

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While the goose decapitation is definitely the main event, there are other parts to the celebration, including a show of horsemanship and equestrian skills, where riders in pairs gallop through the streets, picking up speed, and making sure the two horses stay as close together as possible.

Riders on galloping horses clasp one another during the festival in the village of El Carpio de Tajo. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP


The local council believes these fiestas have been celebrated in the town for the past 400 years, as this was when they were first mentioned in the documents relating to the brotherhood, although there is evidence that it could have been celebrated as far back as medieval times.

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It is thought that the tradition was originally part of a training exercise for horse riders and slowly changed into a festival, to honour the patron saint.

Live geese used to be used for the event up until relatively recently, but now only dead ones are allowed to be used.

Using live geese for the festival in El Carpio de Tajo was banned decades ago. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

The decapitation of live geese was banned by the local government in the 1970s but was re-established later on. Then, after many complaints, it was banned again in 1983.

But even since the 1980s when using live geese was banned, animal rights groups have been campaigning to put a stop to the practice altogether.


Animal rights group PETA Latino has denounced the festivities as animal cruelty and explained that even though dead birds are now used, the geese are still killed for this purpose, “long before their natural lifespans”.

They are calling on people to “urge the mayor of El Carpio de Tajo and the president of Castilla-La Mancha to ban this macabre event”.  

The festival of El Carpio de Tajo is just one of many that involves animal cruelty in Spain. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP


Although 2023's event took place without criticism, it is often marred by protests from rights groups such as the Animal Equality Foundation and Spain’s Animalist Party Against Mistreatment of Animals (PACMA).

Local town authorities defend the tradition, citing its historic nature and claiming that it's not animal cruelty because the goose is already dead. Local TV stations in Castilla-La Mancha also appear to support the event, broadcasting it across the region. 

This is just one of many Spanish festivals that feature animal cruelty as the main event, such as the San Fermín Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, the Burning Bull Festival in Foios (Valencia), and the Rapa das Bestas in Galicia, where people trap wild horses to try and cut their manes.

A similar goose head-ripping event takes place in the Basque town of Lekeitio, where participants on small boats approach a dead goose suspended over their heads with a rope, to then hold onto the greased-up bird and attempt to rip off its head, whilst people on opposite sides of the bay yank the rope, propelling contestants for metres up into the air and down into the water.

According to the animal welfare organisation Observatorio Justicia y Defensa Animal, there are 3,000 festivals throughout Spain that involve some form of cruelty against animals. 


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