In the small village of El Rocio, in the province of Huelva, deep Andalusia, Spain, I hear the girl next to me say: “Today is a big day.” I have just arrived from Finca la Donaira – in the highlands of Sierra de Grazalema – on time for Saca de las Yeguas, an ancient ritual among Spain’s most significant horse events.
I lay my eyes on the dusty town of El Rocio, a 60-minute drive from Seville, and it is hard to believe a place like this still exists in Europe. “Look at the streets,” says Max, my husband, “They are all sand.” It’s close to 9:30 am on the 26th of June, and locals start to gather in the main square. Around 10 am, under a burst of warm sunshine, the first herd of Marismeño horses ( a rare breed known for its endurance and strength ) is driven past the white church by its “yegüerizos” to receive the blessing by the Virgen del Rocio. The animals move closer together, directed by the movements of their leaders. Suddenly the chaos hits the sleepy town. There is not a single foreigner apart from us. The crowds, which are pretty much the cowboy friends and families, are anything but excitement.
And so is Eva, the Andalusian girl standing by my side as we watch several hundred horses pass by at speed in a wondrous spectacle. The scene has the feeling of a festival from centuries ago: cowboys of all ages elegantly dressed on horseback; their friends and families cheering them up as they enter the plaza guiding the herds on a gallop. “My brother and father are in one of these troops,” says Eva proudly, “Our entire family is here today to watch them take part of “Saca.” It’s a tradition we repeat every 26th of June, since many many years.”
The blessing concluded around noon; suddenly, everything is over in El Rocio. I look around, and the square is empty, the dust settles. The almost 2,000 horses are driven towards Almonte, where the local cowboys, their children, families, and friends gather once again in the forest for a picnic under the trees. Paellas are cooked over open fires, followed by plenty of drinking and a few “cigarillos.” After a long siesta, the herds are then lead into the nearby town, for the final parade. The troops thunder through Almonte’s narrow streets, while the elegant Andalusian audience packs sidewalks, bars, and restaurants. There is a “fiesta” atmosphere that lasts until late at night which celebrates the essence of the rural life in this precious corner of Spain.
The ritual, however, started the evening before (for some, a few days earlier) when the cowboys from Almonte corral the region’s famous semi- wild horses in Doñana National Park – a natural reserve home to endangered species such as the Iberian lynx. The horsemen go off into the marshes to collect the mares that graze throughout the year in different areas of Doñana and herd them together. Then, the celebrations start in the forest. There are beer, music, and horses running in fenceless freedom.
In the third and last day of festivities, some of the Marismeños are washed, vet-checked, and vaccinated. The Yegüerizos cut their manes and tails, making them presentable for potential buyers. I find a bit disturbing, though, when I witness a few cowboys using primitive techniques to keep control of these semi-wild animals. Only then I realize that “Saca” is a 500-year-old ritual with no administrative regulations or modern safety standards, purely guided by customs and common sense. The horses not put for sale are driven back to the wilderness, in Doñana National Park.
As we return to Lince Casa Rural, our beautiful bed & breakfast in El Rocio, I notice every house is surrounded by beams for tying up horses. Then I think about Eva’s words at the main square: “Like almost everyone in the region, my brother learned to horse ride as soon as he could walk.” At this moment, I comprehend how much of the local’s identity comes from their relationship with their animals and land. And I also recognize the privilege of being exposed to the world of an older Spain. The world of a singular way of life and devotion to holy and authentic traditions.
We traveled to Spain in June 2019. We flew from Lisbon to Seville with Tap, and from Seville to Munich with Lufthansa. We stayed at the fabulous Finca la Donaira, in Sierra de Grazalema; at Fince Casa Rural in El Rocio and Palacio Villapanes in Seville.