Spain: when horses cross fire to ward off epidemics

Spain: when horses cross fire to ward off epidemics


Full gallop, a horse emerges from the darkness and crosses the flames without slowing down. In the Spanish village of San Bartolomé de Pinares, every night from January 16 to 17, horses rush into fires to ward off epidemics, an ancestral tradition. 

Under the pallor of an almost full moon, the night of San Anton (Saint Antoine l'Abbé) may be icy, some municipal employees have their faces dripping with sweat when they supply dry branches to the pyres scattered on the main artery of this village of 600 souls, perched in the heights a hundred kilometers west of Madrid.

The bells ring and suddenly the metallic crash of hooves resounds on the cobblestones. < /p>

After the first horse, a second appears, then it is a herd that rushes, crossing the fires erected on its way.

Sparks spurt from the hooves to the cheers of hundreds of curious people gathered on the sidewalks, cradled by the heat and the crackling of the fire, hypnotized by the spectacle which casts a mystical and medieval atmosphere in the village.

For an hour, the equine procession performs loops, elated.

Called “Luminarias”, this tradition dates back to the 18th century and an epidemic that decimated the equine population. 

< p>“When an animal died after being infected, it was burned. And as the epidemic eventually disappeared, we began to believe that the smoke protected the animals”, explains Leticia Martin, 29-year-old physiotherapist riding “Fiel”.

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Purifying fires

“These purifying fires, intended to protect animals from all diseases, are celebrated (in this village) on the eve of the San Anton”, patron saint of animals, deciphers Anton Erkoreka, director of the Basque Museum of the History of Medicine, who recalls that across Spain, masses are celebrated to bless animals.

< p>“In this way, we seek to obtain the protection of the Saint for the animals”, he adds.

In other villages in Spain, fires are also lit every year – but in other dates and without horses — in memory of plague epidemics.

As humans have been battling a pandemic for nearly two years, this tradition takes on an allegorical dimension.

But “it has nothing to do with the Covid,” insists Emmanuel Martin, 26. “It's for the animals, to bless them, that they may be in good shape all year round: the smoke from the green branches comes to purify them”. 

“It's not a show , it's not made to amuse people”, insists this rider who participated in his first “Luminarias” when he was only two years old, on the withers of a horse in the arms of his father.

In a fanatical dash, a horseman crosses the pyres with his arms outstretched, encouraged by the public. He comes out intact, like his horse whose mane has been plaited and the hair of the tail pulled up in a kind of bun to prevent the hair from igniting.


Highly decried by animal rights defenders, this tradition “does not hurt either the horse or its rider”, assures Emmanuel Martin .

“You don't even realize it. It’s like passing your finger over a lighter,” adds his cousin, Andrea Penela.

Veterinarians sent by the regional authorities, as well as firefighters, come every year to oversee the event.

“If it were dangerous, we wouldn't question the pleasure of being with them all the time. 'year for just one night,' outbids Mario Candil, a resident of San Bartolomé.

“Nothing has ever happened to anyone”, smiles in the audience Monce Garcia, 49, who came to taste a again to “the atmosphere, the smoke, this typical village tradition”.

Descended from her horse, Noelia Guerra, a 46-year-old pharmacist, confides “the sensations, the adrenaline that animates you” as she “animates animals”. “You don't have to force them, they go there on their own,” she says.

After a one-year hiatus due to the health situation, the “purified” horses are going back to the stable, smoking nostrils, while another disease, Covid, is still disrupting the lives of human beings.

“In this village, there have been no cases of Covid until last December” and the arrival of Omicron. “We laughed about it here and said + that's because we didn't do the Luminarias in January +”, jokes Leticia Martin.


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