Residents celebrate the festival of San Bartolome de Pinares each January 16th on the eve of Saint Anthony’s day by building bonfires of burning logs and sticks in the streets, creating a race track not unlike the ones used in traditional horse-jumping events.
This year over a hundred riders took their horses through the flames and smoke in the controversial ritual which residents claim brings on the blessings of Saint Anthony. The animals are sanctified, they say and “liberated from all their ills.”
Animal advocacy groups state the obvious when they say that the event is cruel and causes the horses unimaginable amounts of stress. It doesn’t take a veterinarian or a biologist to know that fire universally terrifies animals – including humans – for a reason: that the heat and smoke can burn and kill us. This is why you do not see wild animals leaping through flames recreationally in their natural habitat. It’s common sense that these animals do not expose themselves to fear and potential injury without human coercion.
It must be noted that allegedly the riders are supposed to race their horses around the burning logs and not over the flames. But you can clearly see in photographs from the event that this guideline isn’t followed.
It presents a great religious irony that residents of San Bartolome de Pinares choose to honor the patron saint of animals by torturing and frightening horses with fire. More importantly however, it gives us a glimpse into the way that religion and superstition consistently view animals as expendable, lower, and not worthy of moral consideration. To superstitious residents, this ritual is a blessing to the horses, regardless of whether the animals want to participate or not.
Residents also cite the hypocrisy of advocates who criticize the treatment of horses in San Bartolome de Pinares but do not criticize horse racing or steeplechases. One resident said that no one complains about the suffering of horses during those events.
She’s right: both of these events are equally cruel. In San Bartolome de Pinares, horses are forced to jump through fire and in the US the sport of horse racing kills a thousand horses a year. Who’s to say that one is okay and the other is cruel?
We can’t make a meaningful change by drawing arbitrary lines between some kinds of animal abuse and saying that everything to one side is acceptable and everything to the other side is abhorrent.
We will only see an end to horrible rituals like this one and many others in Spain and across the world when we take a stand against all animal exploitation, from circuses and horse races to zoos, animal testing, meat, dairy, and eggs.
Photo: Mike Kirby