The saca de las yeguas, the round up of the wild horses from around the Coto Doñana marshes, is one of our favourite Andalucían spectacles. As we arrived with our friends Angus and Elaine in El Rocío, the starting point of the route to Almonte, we could see from the churned up sandy streets that some of the horses had already run through. Apparently the running of the horses past the church had started earlier than usual as it promised to be a very hot day. We squeezed past some guys watching the event in style from horseback and got ourselves a prime spot overlooking the area in front of the church, where we could see the next group of horses already being assembled.
Soon after we arrived, the horsemen prepared to set the next group of horses going. Off they went at high speed - and there were no fences between the horses and the crowds of spectators!
At some point the horses seemed to get out of control, galloping dangerously close to the excited onlookers, who got covered in flying sand!
Hundreds of horses thundered past us - only a metre or so away! Amazingly, despite the dense crowds always pressing forward to get a better view, the horses have enough sense to avoid running into people.
More horsemen brought up the rear of this group of a couple of hundred horses. Most of these guys had spent several days on horseback, rounding the horses up.
Not all riders followed the horses at full speed; some took it at a more leisurely pace.
As soon as one group had passed the church, the next group was already getting formed up. Horsemen waited in front of the church and the next lot of horses was driven to the holding area.
After only a short pause, the next group set off at full speed...
In the dense crowd of horses, foals tried desperately to stay close to their mothers’ sides. The smaller ones would often end up trailing behind in the rear.
As soon as the last group left El Rocío, we set off for the holding corral outside Almonte. But just before we arrived at the place where we had seen it in previous years, a small stream in flood blocked our way! A farmer harvesting plums nearby gave us directions to the new location of the corral. To our pleasant surprise he sent us on our way with a box of about five kilograms of big fat purple plums! We found the corral quite close to the main road between Almonte to El Rocío, set in the shade of pine trees.
As time went by, more and more people gathered, but because this was a new location for the corral, nobody seemed to know exactly where to expect the horses to arrive. There was a wide main sandy track and several smaller ones leading in from the direction of Rocío. Suddenly the first group came galloping in through the forest.
Only a short while later we saw the next group of horses approaching on the main track. We just got there in time to see the horses run past us.
The pine trees, which gave us and the horses some well deserved shade, made photography rather difficult at times due to the stark contrast between horses in light and shade. But it also produced some quite interesting images.
The horses didn’t all stick to the track, so at times we found ourselves surrounded!
The rear was brought up by horsemen and a mule train that supplied the riders with fluids along the way.
Many more riders converged from the smaller tracks, leaving us guessing where the next lot of horses would come from.
Suddenly more horses burst out of the forest! The sun’s rays coming through the pine tree canopy onto the clouds of dust, gave the whole scene a somewhat ghostly appearance.
On seeing the horses coming through the trees we had moved a bit closer. Suddenly they all turned and headed straight towards us. Before we could move we found ourselves totally surrounded by running horses, passing barely half a metre away! We stood against a pine tree, which the horses obviously had to avoid, but having so many horses thundering past at such close range was both exhilarating and a bit scary at the same time!
Some of the horses gave us a look that seemed to say, “What on earth are you doing here in the middle of our path, you fools?"
After hundreds of horses had run past us, the riders at the end of the group emerged like ghosts out of the dust.
We agreed that this had been by far the best and most exciting part of the round up that we had ever experienced and it will be difficult to beat such a close encounter with them again.
As soon as the horses had been driven into the corral, the riders took off to find their friends and families and picnic tables sprang up everywhere. It was time for us to bring our own picnic out too.
Horsepower of another sort was on display too – Audi seemed to have sponsored a car.
Now came the time to walk around the corral, marvelling at the horses. Given that they are left to fend for themselves in the wild, the horses were in superb condition – much better than many of the horses one sees tethered around villages.
The sheer numbers of horses in the corral was impressive – there were at least a thousand horses in there, all clustered together for comfort!
Mick found himself a good vantage point by climbing up onto the fence, to get a bit more of a bird’s eye view of the masses of horses.
Many horses, especially pregnant mares, appeared exhausted after their ordeal and were happy to lie down and rest.
Although there wasn’t much vegetation for the horses to feed on, a big skip full of fresh, cool water was laid on for them. Horses queued up to drink, but there was a clear hierarchy as to who was allowed to drink first.
For the foals it was easier to get a bit of sustenance – they simply went to mum’s milk bar! Although one little foal seemed a bit confused when it tried to suckle from one of its friends…
For these youngsters it must have been a very strenuous, exciting and possibly even rather scary day already, and it was far from over…
Soon the first owners started to walk the corral, looking over their horses.
With so many horses from different herds in a confined space, there was always the occasional disagreement, but overall the horses all seemed to get along peacefully.
Friends stuck close to each other, even sharing what little food was available.
Body contact, a comforting nudge or some grooming helped to reinforce bonds on this stressful day.
The bonds between mares and their foals were especially strong and the youngsters rarely ventured far from mum’s side.
It was amazing that in the mayhem of the round up foals didn't appear to get separated from their mothers. Close contact and comforting nudges were kept up at all times.
While most mares seemed quite contented with the behaviour of their offspring, some seemed not to be too pleased!
One little foal stood out from the crowd due to its much longer ears. Had a donkey stallion been lucky enough to sneak in to catch a few moments with a mare?
Looking at all the horses rounded up in the corral, we marvelled at all the different – and at times very inventive – brands. Finding a horse with a “MB” brand we wondered if we could possibly claim it?
In the mass of horses we came across a rather odd looking white one with pale blue eyes. It looked almost like an albino, but apparently this condition doesn’t exist in horses and this colour scheme is called “cremello". What is commonly called a “grey” is a horse that has a darkish grey skin even if its coat can turn very white with age. Cremellos have a pink skin and often pale blue eyes and their mane, tail and body hair are the same white or slightly creamy colour.
As these horses live wild all year round, they tend to be shy of people. But, as usual, there are always exceptions and this pretty little filly was more than happy to pose for our camera, giving us some rather unusual views and photos!
After a day out in the heat, we were pretty exhausted, although it was the horses and not us who had to do all the running. We hoped that they would get a bit of a break before heading on to Almonte in the evening, but at least they had a nice shady spot for a rest first. It certainly was the most spectacular running of the wild horses we have seen so far and it left us with fond memories of being surrounded by hundreds of thundering animals.
There are more pictures from previous years of the horses running through the streets of El Rocío, Almonte and the pine forests on our page from the round up in 2006 and 2007.