Galicia's wild horse roundup pits tradition versus animal rights

August 16, 2017, 4:06 p.m.
herd of wild horses being rounded up in Sabucedo, Galicia, Spain
Photo: avarand/Shutterstock

The hardy Galician horses of northwestern Spain typically spend their days foraging in the rugged surrounding forests and hills. Left to their own devices, they graze and roam free, only once in a while spotted by villagers and the occasional tourist.

Until roundup time.

Once a year, typically in summer, locals in villages throughout rural Galicia trek into the hills to herd the horses back home. For the Rapa das Bestas, or Capture of the Beast, the semi-wild horses are corralled by their rancher owners as villagers celebrate the longstanding ritual.

Records of the event date back to at least the 18th century, but some believe it started even earlier. As the horses are caught, their manes are cut and deloused and foals are microchipped and sometimes branded. Some animals are kept to be sold. The rest are returned to the hills until the roundup is held again the next summer.

According to the New York Times, the ranchers consider letting the animals roam free an efficient way to deal with the underbrush that is prone to forest fires. Although their numbers were as strong as 20,000 just 15 years ago, it's thought the horses number only about 11,000 today.

The popular annual ritual is coming under fire from animal rights activists who say the horses are mistreated during the rough-and-tumble event. Some even liken it to bullfighting.

Laura Duarte, an official from Pacma, a political party promoting animal rights, told the Times that elements of the roundup are hard to justify.

"We don’t criticize what’s being done, but how it’s been done, because it causes terrible stress to animals that live in the wild and aren’t used to human contact," she said.

"To brand a horse with hot iron can only cause huge suffering."

Even if a wild horse roundup isn't on the same level as bullfighting as far as cruelty is concerned, Duarte said "tradition" is still the same defense given for both.

"Any tradition that harms animals must be reviewed," she said, "and doing something for a very long time doesn’t mean it shouldn’t now be adapted to our times."

Related on MNN: 12 astonishing facts about horses