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The Annual Round Up of Spain's Marsh Mares

October 2017 by Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson, PhD (Social Sciences), CQUni Appleton Institute, South Australia
Dr Kirrilly Thompson is a cultural anthropologist, independent research consultant, dressage rider and board member of the Horse Federation of South Australia. She has published over 100 journal articles, chapters and industry reports. Together with Lynda Birke, she is co-author of the book ‘(Un)stable relations: Horses, humans and social agency’ (Routledge, 2017) which explores the practical and ethical implications of recognising horses as social agents in human-horse relations.
Assoc. Prof. Kirrilly Thompson image

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The Doñana National Park in Huelva province in southern Spain is one of Europe’s most important wetland areas. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, it is a haven for fauna, such as the Imperial Eagle and the Pardel Lynx. 

However, for as long as human memory serves, horses have also been living in the marshlands: los caballos marismeños. The horses that Christopher Columbus took with him on his expeditions to America from 1492 are widely believed to have been marsh horses and many people believe they formed the base stock of the modern American Quarter Horse. 

When I visited the town of El Rocio on the edge of the marshes in 2001, there were approximately 3,000 semi-wild horses, the numbers are now estimated to be around one third of that. The horses are referred to collectively as mares. They are referred to more generally as the mares - las yeguas - and those who own them, usually men, are known as los yegüerizos. 

Marsh horses are famed for their resilience. The marshes are almost dry from July to October and flooded with water during Winter. The horses pass half their year searching for food in dry, drought-like conditions, suffering from flies, eating all forms of vegetation and surviving on little water. 

During the remainder of the year, the marsh horses contend with the cold, the mosquitoes and water levels that are, at times, up to their flanks. Through the worst of Winter, they may graze with their muzzles under water level. Marsh horses are known to have very broad hooves to help them walking on aquatic terrain or cracked earth. Their death in old age or during difficult seasons is seen by many as a natural means of feeding other animals in the local ecosystem. 

Marsh horses live in semi-wild conditions, grazing and breeding with minimal human intervention. As part of a plan drafted between the National Park and the Association of Horse Breeders, the yegüerizos are allowed to enter the national park to view their horses only on specified days. 

Yegüerizos know roughly when their mares are coming into season, and they sometimes enter the park to locate a mare and take her to the herd of a stallion they prefer. Owners estimate when foals are due and are particularly proud of the fact they know where to locate a given mare, claiming she will always be found in the area in which she herself was born. This area is referred to as her querencia, the same word used to describe an area preferred by a bull in the plaza of a bullfight. 

Every year on the 26th of June, the marsh horses are systematically rounded up and herded en masse to the outskirts of Almonte, 15 kilometres away. This event is known as la saca de las yeguas, or ‘the taking out of the mares’. 

On the day before the saca, the yegüerizos head into the marshes on their riding horses, with a typical blue and white checked scarf to tie their caps to their heads, and keep dust from their faces, and a sleeping roll affixed to the back of their saddles. 

Some ride mules whose large, woven saddlebags are filled with dried ham, cheese and wine. Riders use a stripped branch of a wild olive or acebuche tree as a long whip. They make their way to pre-organised positions within the marismas at about midday, and organise themselves and their horses for the night. 

As the sun sets, the marsh horses will be looking for higher ground, leading their foals further out from the marsh areas to drier soil where they may be spared the irritation of mosquitoes.

On the morning of the saca, the yegüerizos saddle their horses, ready to round up the groups of mares, foals and the small number of stallions before they make their way to the lower grazing areas. 

The individual groups of yegüerizos sweep the marismas to join the tropas - herds - into one large group and drive them out of the marismas, run them past the doors of the impressive white church, which houses the virgin of the marshes, and then through the sandy streets of the town of El Rocio. 

The sight of around 3,000 horses cantering past the church nearing midday, flanked by the yegüerizos, is spectacular. Mares faithfully following the saddled horses ahead, the eyes of their foals scanning the unfamiliar sites of crowds of people, the church and the streets, and the cheeky few who try to make their own route through the town only to find a barrier of men on horses and mules in their path, and the stripped branches being held across their chests and heads to direct them back to the main group. 

The route from El Rocio to Almonte follows that of a wide river bed; at times mostly sand with small streams weaving their way forwards, whilst at other times thick black sand waits beneath the picturesque surface, waiting to catch any horse not quick and balanced enough on their feet. 

The riders work through the heat of the day to keep the horses together. Those that stray from the group are chased at the gallop up steep sand banks and guided back to the main group. 

About three or four riders will lead, looking behind them constantly to watch any mares who might try to overtake, and checking them with whips held across their path with cries of “yeeegua”. Leaving the riverbeds and turning towards the town of Almonte, the horses cross fields of golden sunflowers and tall grasses. 

The horses trot into the paved streets of Almonte at around 8pm, broken down into a number of smaller groups. The journey has taken the playfulness out of the smaller of the foals, but not their bewilderment at finding themselves trotting past the feria grounds and through corridors of spectators. 

Bystanders touch the coats of the passing horses and jump back onto the kerb when groups of horses stop abruptly, causing those behind to spill out into the crowds. The horses are herded through Almonte’s streets towards an area on the outskirts with a number of square corrals, outfitted with automatic troughs and dry feed. The corrals are shaded in one corner by eucalypt branches laying over a wooden frame. 

Over the next three days, each mare and foal has their manes and forelocks hogged with large scissors. Foals of less than a year’s age have their entire docks shaved. Their older companions have their tails cut to just below the dock or to the height of the hock. 

Stallions’ manes and tails are never trimmed. The trimming of the horses’ manes and tails is known as la tusa. La tusa improves the appearance of the horses, as well as protects them from becoming entangled in fences or other hazards they may encounter.

Mare owners are given the opportunity to see their new foals up close. The foals are branded with hot irons that have been over a naked flame. They are wrestled to the ground by two men taking hold of their ears, tails and finally their necks, possibly after being lassoed by one of their hind legs. 

The smell of burning hair is overpowering, but the foals are greatly soothed upon being released when they rush for the comfort of their mothers who have been anxiously watching the proceedings. Older horses, those that had been passed over in the previous year or who were too young to be branded are lassoed around the neck and directed into the crushes built into the fences between all of the corrals. Here they are branded and treated for intestinal parasites.

The corrals are also sale yards, as weanling colts are generally not returned to the marshes. Occasionally, gypsies will watch the eyes of keen buyers and mediate business negotiations for a small percentage of the final price. Most of the horses are sold for farm work, although I was told that some were sold for horsemeat in France. 

At about 8am on the morning of the 30th of June, the horses are driven back through the streets of Almonte, out into the fields and down into the dry riverbed on their way back to the cracked soil of the marismas. 

Like horses everywhere, they know where they are heading, returning in half the seven or eight hours it took the to reach Almonte the few days before. This is known as el regreso, or ‘the return’. In 2001, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of riding a marsh horse with the yegüerizos during the return. 

The saca and the regreso have taken place every single year since 1504 until 2017. This year, the mares did not leave the marshlands, due to fears they would not be allowed to return. 

Whilst I was shocked at this news, I was not entirely surprised. Mare owners had told me about tension with the park administration. They felt, as local Almonteños, they had a birth right to enter the national park and check their mares whenever they needed or wanted. However, their mares were being fenced out of certain areas and owners were only allowed access on certain days of the week. 

These restrictions were bad for mares who were prevented from reaching higher ground during flooding and bad for mare owners who could not freely express their yegüerizo sense of being. Park administration, on the other hand, thought controlling the movements of mares and owners was in the best interests of the native flora and fauna of the national park. 

More importantly, there has been tension between Almonte and the town of Hinojos, situated 30 kilometres away. Since 2015, Hinojos has requested the removal of 400 mares from their marshlands. The Andalusian government offered temporary accommodation for the mares in two forest areas. They refused on account of the indivisibility of marsh mares from the marshes in which they had developed and adapted over the past 500 years, and a lack of confidence in how many acres would ultimately be made available. 

The close connection that the yegüerizos of Almonte have with their horses and the marshlands is under threat, and with it their centuries-old traditions and core sense of identity. Sadly, their concerns are not unique. 

Whilst the global importance of environmental sustainability is undeniable, ideas of ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ are less clear, often used politically in relation to land ownership and use. This can be seen in debates over Mustangs on American rangelands, as well as Brumbies in Australian national parks. The challenge lies in serving the interests of all individuals – human and animal – whilst recognising the ways in which they function and work together as a system.