Horses are made to leap through FIRE at Spanish religion festival… with one father clinging on to his son while he rides through the flames
- Every winter the village of San Bartolome de Pinares, near Madrid, holds the festival of Las Luminarias
- The religious festival, which dates back 500 years, involves horses being made to jump through bonfires
- Animal rights campaigners say: 'There is no superstition or belief that should justify an act of such cruelty'
A father hugs his son close as he gallops through a roaring bonfire on a horse as they take part in the Las Luminarias festival in Spain.
The 'festival of the lights' dates back 500 years to a time when St Anthony the Abbot, the patron saint of domestic animals, was entwined in a Roman Catholic ritual to purify the mules, donkeys and asses in the village of San Bartolome de Pinares.
The animals - which were vital for the wellbeing of the village - were herded around bonfires because it was believed the smoke would purify them, warding off evil spirits and keeping them healthy.
Nowadays the village is only 30 miles from the sprawling suburbs of the capital, Madrid, and the festival is a spectacle largely put on for the benefit of tourists.
The bonfires, fuelled with petrol, are larger than they used to be and horses, rather than donkeys, jump over the fires rather than being led around them.
San Bartolome de Pinares has kept the festival alive with religious intensity and unswerving pride, fending off criticism from animal rights groups.
'There is no logic in forcing these animals into a stressful situation against their own nature,' said Juan Ignacio Codina, one of the most vocal critics of the festival.
'In the midst of the 21st century, this is something from a bygone era. There is no superstition or belief that should justify an act of such cruelty,' he added.
The Observatory of Justice and Animal Defence pressure group filed a complaint with the regional government in Castile in 2013.
But they replied that vets who examined the horses could not find they had sustained any injuries.
The town's Mayor, Maria Jesus Martin, insists the horses do not suffer burns and are not forced to jump: 'It makes me angry to hear the insults without those speaking knowing anything at all about the tradition.
'They call us stubborn, hicks. They have even openly called on social media to throw me, the mayor, into the bonfire.'
The festival is an opportunity for the men of the village to show off their machismo and bravado
The ritual dates back to the 16th century and the animals are blessed in the name of San Antonio Abad (St Anthony the Abbot)
The village of San Bartolome de Pinares is only a few miles from the town of Avila, which is itself about 30 miles from Madrid
This dramatic photograph shows a horse and its rider entombed in flames but the ritual takes only a few seconds and government vets have said there is no evidence horses are injured
Tourists from Madrid and further afield travel to the village to watch the spectacle
OK, I admit, it looks bad. And what is it with the men of Spain? Bullfights, Rejoneros*, and riding horses through bonfires...
But horses are ridden through some pretty alarming-looking flames in the movies too. And the USPCA sees to it that they come to no harm.
I would be interested in knowing if and how these animals are prepared for this event. If they were exposed gradually to the sight and sound of fire, they may be no more reluctant to dash through the flames than they would be to cross a stream.
*Rejoneros are riders of horses who fight bulls from horseback. A famous animal named Merlin is the subject of the video below.
I can see two sides here, although I don't believe horses or bulls should be placed in such peril. But one must admire the speed, agility and courage of the horse. His trust in his rider is evident, and the moves he makes are as balletic as a Border Collie working a stroppy ram.