Understanding Bulls

Good bullfight aficionados watch the bull as closely as they watch the bullfighter. They spend time at the corrals and speculate on the bull’s character and look for defects. And especially, when he breaks into the ring, they watch him as closely as you might watch a famous personality—one you will see only at a brief public appearance—for the smallest sign of a character trait, good or bad.

Bull called “Insensato”(Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license photo by Puertomenesteo)

People who have no experience with animals of any kind would be surprised to learn that they are all different—that no two cats or dogs or even turtles are the same. Aficionados train themselves to become bull psychologists and veterinarians. Seconds after a bull appears in the ring the call might go up from the grandstands “Lame!” or “Blind in the left eye!” or “A coward!” or “Watch that left horn!” They see very quickly where each bull chooses to make his stand and how. They have no use for a bullfighter who fails to see those things or to take them into account while he fights. Many aficionados are called TORISTAS (as opposed to TORERISTAS) because they seem interested only in the bull, considering that it is the bull that determines the success of the fight. The bullfighter merely has to understand his bull and act accordingly. But understanding a bull is not easy. “I don’t think even the cows understand them,” the famous bullfighter Miguel Dominguín used to say.


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7 Responses to Understanding Bulls

  1. 100swallows says:

    Will: Thanks for your wonderful horseman’s view of the corrida de rejones. You got me excited about the jockey’s “volcanic thoroughbred” and I resolved to visit the racetrack again. I looked up a video of a fight by Lea Vicens and the old excitement came through. She is incredible! And there was old Angel Peralta in the callejón watching. He was one of the greatest horsemen I ever saw.

    I have to say that though I loved to see the beautiful horses and admired the riding and training skills of the riders, I ended up disliking that kind of fight. It seemed too much like a circus. And I suffered for the horse, who hadn’t enough protection. I saw two killed by the bull and some serious gorings. That seemed crueller than anything in the lone man-to-bull version.
    I’m like you: divided. Can’t defend the bullfight, admit its cruelty, realize it is well past its time. If someone rejects it right off, and even gets angry about the mistreatment of the bull, I understand him.
    Now is a critical time for it and I wouldn’t bet on its survival, though its aficionados have been a small minority for years. (Hemingway wrote in 1933 that “any day now” he expected to read in some American paper an article about the disappearance of bullfighting. It would be called “Bullfight on Wane as Soccer Sweeps Spain.”)

    Yet I am very glad it was still there when I came to Spain. It taught me all kinds of things: about courage, about crowds, about animals, about Spaniards and the language, even about myself. It was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. And I felt I was sitting with Goya and Picasso and Lorca and Dalí and Orson Welles and so many other great men while I watched the ring (on the edge of my seat) and tried to understand what I saw. Most of the spectators are middle-aged or old men and I was glad to have them beside me as teachers.

    At the bullfight you see things you can see nowhere else. The crowd and its reactions are on display there better than anywhere. Anger, fear, admiration, they all come out naturally and spontaneously. It was all a surprise to me, even my own reactions (how carried away I got). Of course it does so at a ball game too but as the stakes here are higher (life and death), the emotion is greater. The emotion is maximum. The crowd is all gooseflesh.
    Instinct is on display: the bull’s, the bullfighter’s, the crowd’s. Where else can you go to see that? ”It’s just like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you…” Hemingway wrote to a friend after having seen his first bullfights.

    Like Hemingway, I was fascinated by bravery and the unique opportunity to watch and study it. The danger is real and the bullfighter’s reaction to it is there for all to see. You can measure the danger for yourself and watch the ways men have of confronting it. You are for once not watching a Hollywood production or a circus act. You are watching the real thing and you are seeing it live.

    Then there is the unique mix of danger and art. Danger heightens the perception of beauty. When in spite of a near goring a bullfighter stands firmly in front of the horns, cites the bull, and guides it past himself with solemnity and grace, the result is something more than a display of bravery.

    Bullfighting taught me to personalize animals. Before my first bullfight an animal was a mere animated thing. In the ring I learned to examine each bull and discover its individual traits and “personality”. The “noble” bulls get as much admiration from the public as the bullfighters. Like you with your horses in the stables, I sketched bulls in the corrals, trying to get down some of what made me see them with awe.

    It was fun learning an old rite and understanding the science of bullfighting. And, like any hobby or afición, there was all the lore and gossip about the celebrities.

    These are not arguments in favor. Refutation would be easy: sure, and at a gladiator show you would also sit on the edge of your seat and learn something…or: Orson Welles and Montherlant and Hemingway and many others may have liked the bullfight but that doesn’t make it any more justifiable…And couldn’t you pick a better place to learn to love animals!

  2. will says:

    Your posts about bullfights are definitely great indeed, Swallows. I have never seen a corrida in real, but I have long felt attracted by them. I love animals, but I am fascinated by bullfights:I struggle with this (apparent?) contradiction. I have read Hemingway, Montherlant and Ibanez. I have watched Youtube sequences, and read aficionados posts…and did not resolve anything, on the contrary I guess, I went further into this puzzling position.
    You said somewhere that the hero is the bull. I can understand that too, while being so impressed by the crazy courage of the toreros. So many have been gored and yet came back to the arena.Your point about the vital need for the bullfighter to understand in no time a wild animal he has never seen before is a wonderful mystery. It is somewhat similar to the relationship between a jockey and the volcanic thoroughbred he is going to ride for two minutes only, and that he generally has never met before. Not only he has to ride him, but more importantly he must find the ‘buttons’ that will allow him to obtain that the horse offers him his best energy and speed. The bullfighter has to understand the toro not only to avoid being slaughtered by him, but reach this amazing and so rare harmony in slow and fluid faenas that make the spectator cry with emotion.
    A last word about the rejoneadas. I believe that they are going less deep in the emotion of life and death that our dear MB has been so brilliantly translated in his art, but they interest me from the horseman’s viewpoint. Here the hero is probably the horse first. What courage they show in front of this frightening, ferocious adversary! It is hard to believe it when as a rider you have met so many horses who go crazy at the sight of a mere plastic bag blown by the wind in front of them!!There is even a grey ridden by Diego Ventura, ‘Morante’, who is so bold that he attacks the toro and tries to bite him..Rejoneadores are true classical horsemen. They have reached the dream of all who ride,i.e. total confidence being established with their companion, where both rider and mount are equal in taking decisions, and understanding themselves instantly, without any physical signal. Two brains in one body..Ventura, Hermoso de Mendoza, Galan, Cartagena etc.. are among the best horsemen in the world.
    Corridas de rejon are also conspicuous in that ladies can be outsanding performers in this fight that one would think is so manly. I have a particular admiration for Lea Vicens, who is an absolute joy to see riding.
    Thanks again, Swallows, for opening such opportunities for discussions on outstanding topics
    Best Regards

  3. Rags35 says:

    To “Miki”:

    I don’t understand what is meant by the “vices” of a bull, as I would have thought that a vice was a purely human thing, a moral weakness, but I have only seen one bull fight and I don’t think I want to see another one….no, not even on TV.

  4. 100swallows says:

    You are a real temptress, Miki. Yes, a passion; yes, a restraint. I don’t really want to write about the bulls now but I have trouble ignoring your capa desplegada (your outstretched cape. I know you understand Spanish but I’d better think of other readers). I haven’t gone regularly to fights in a long time so I don’t feel up-to-date. A back injury made it impossible for me to go to the ring for years. Then I moved to the country, which made me even forget about the corrida except during the town fairs every year. What do I do–post memories?

    I see you really know about things. I have seen fights in all the towns around Madrid and in places like Pamplona and Valencia but never on the south coast. It’s true that I had forgotten about how TV has changed things for the fighters. A corrida in the provinces is televised the same as one in Madrid, so they have to keep on the straight and narrow.

    Yes, they have, many of them have, pundonor and vergüenza torera (a sense of honor) and they try to do their best always. But the public makes a big difference. If the crowd doesn’t pay attention to what you are doing or you see they don’t appreciate the real thing, you may give up quickly if the bull is tough.

    In Madrid the spectators, the ones in the tendido 8, are vicious. They claim to know the bull better than the bullfighter and they instruct him. Not only don’t they let him get away with easy tricks, they force him to take greater risks than he would like to. They make some bullfighters so nervous that they shout in anger back at the crowd. I once saw Palomo Linares become so hysterical when the 8 accused him of using the point of his muleta instead of presenting it squarely to the bull (¡Pico! ¡Pico!)–he became so hysterical that he threw himself on the bull’s horns.

    And that’s right about the danger of bad bulls. But the increased danger doesn’t make anyone respect those fights more. Precisely, the top bullfighters get the good bulls and the other bullfighters have to put up with the bad ones. Because both the fighters and the bulls are second-rate, no one is much interested in what they do. It doesn’t matter that the modesto torero may need and show more skill at subjecting a bad bull than a more respected torero.

    Yes, that is the attraction of the novilladas: the kids try hard. A long time ago in the old Madrid Plaza de Vista Alegre they used to hold novilladas sin picadores (without picadors because the bull is so small that he gets tired after only banderillas) at 11 pm. Night fights. The atmosphere was a little like after-dark high-school scrimmage matches, a little like–like nothing else. The bullfighters and the young bulls would end up rolling on the ground wrestling. The bulls came hopping out of the toriles (gate) and just overpowered the kids, who kept getting up and flopping their muleta in the big rabbit’s face. It was fun and funny and there were few spectators and all of us high from supper wine and we’d shout to the bullfighter who was maybe fifteen or sixteen and fat or teen-lanky and sometimes he’d talk back. Now and then a serious Manolete type stood tall and solemnly before he was rolled over. I’m sorry they did away with those fights. For awhile they had them in Las Ventas too (the big Madrid ring) on a Wednesday night. Damnedest things you ever saw.

    The great fight? The greatest one was the one I didn’t see. Some other time I’ll tell you about that, you tongue-puller (me tiras de la lengua). Rafael de Paula destapó el frasco de la esencia, as those conservative bullfight critics used to say. They pick up these phrases and everyone passes them around. Rafael had long been crossed off as a phoney who lived del cuento–off the myth that he was divine. No one thought he would ever give them their money’s worth. Me, for instance, so I didn’t go to Vista Alegre that afternoon, though I could have. God was I sorry. That glorious gypsy had them crying in the grandstands. It was the greatest fight of the decade. For years fans talked about it. He hypnotized the whole plaza with the infinitely slow dance with his cape. Sebastian Miranda, the 90-year-old sculptor, threw his hat into the ring as a tribute; and the harshest critics, the greatest sceptics, came away asking if they could have been dreaming. “Now I believe,” said Vicente Zabala, the ABC critic. “I’m a Paulista. How can I begin to tell you what it was like?”

  5. Miki says:

    Thank you for this insightful continuation of your entry… this is exactly what I was hoping, to “tease” you a little bit to tell us more about bullfight… !Ole! :-)
    Thank you so much for that.
    I can feel a kind of passion in this comment, which you perhaps tried to control before, for the same reasons as I normally don’t dare to speak about the bulls…

    In most of the fights I have seen in Benidorm the horns were shaved, indeed. At least the last 10 years. I unfortunately cannot remember for sure how it was in the more ancient past, as there were not so many tourists here. But I think to remember that there was a time where the bulls here were much better quality.
    But I would not say that the bullfighters here don’t take risks. I have been scared to death more than one time, and not because I am an ignorant and let me impress through some theatrical gesture and so on. Don’t you think that the great bullfighters, like great artists for example, have a profession ethics and try to do their best, where ever they fight? Especially today where everybody can know everything through the internet, a “relaxed” fight, even in a Benidorm arena, wouldn’t be a good advertising, even for the best bullfighter.

    And anyway, concerning the risks, bad bulls are many times more dangerous than good bulls, theirs vices can be lethal, so I would not say that in the pueblos arenas the bullfighters are exposed to less risks… I have even seen some of these lazy coward bulls suddenly changing totally their behaviour towards the end of a fight,getting furious and wild and totally uncontrollable, where normal bulls get quite tired.

    What is still quite good at these arenas like here, are the novilladas. The novilleros still give all what they can. I have seen brilliant novilladas about 30 years ago in the arena of Alicante, and even Benidorm.
    I don’t believe I have ever seen one of these great fights you are speaking about, or at least I don’t remember. It has been a long time ago since I haven’t gone regularly to bullfights… But I have seen many of the big names and some beautiful fights…

  6. 100swallows says:

    Miki: Yes, Madrid aficionados are arrogant. They think the bumpkins in the pueblo rings don’t know a bull from a cow. And they don’t respect the awards (ears) given to bullfighters at those rings filled with tourists on the coast. The bullfighters themselves relax a little when they fight there because the pressure is off. If they flub, few will know and it won’t matter much. And they don’t take risks either because, heck, it’s only a bread and butter fight for ignoramuses. You are right: the bulls for those fights are also second-rate. Sometimes their horns are even shaved—that is, the tips or points are cut off and the horns are then filed down to create new ones. This makes a cripple of the bull who for five years has learned to judge his goring distance.

    I got my aficionado training in the Madrid ring and so I was shocked when I went to a pueblo fight. A bullfight there is part of their village fair and so the people show up tipsy and in a mood of fun. They eat and drink during the fight and their attention flags all the time. Even during the critical moments they keep talking. Most of them clearly don’t understand what they’re seeing.
    Yet the bullfight is that—it comes from the pueblo fiestas, of course. The Madrid thing is the exception—a sophisticated development.
    Basically, the bull is there to scare. Country kids love to run ahead of a charging bull and fool him. They do that in their encierros, like the one in Pamplona. There are encierros in all the towns of central Spain. People can never get enough of provoking a bull, though he is dead tired and gasping, and making him run after them or just shake his horns. The way they toy with him—that is cruel, not the actual bullfight.

    Yes, a bad bullfight turns everyone off. The fact is, most are pretty boring for someone who hasn’t developed a taste or curiosity for certain details. A real aficionado gets his money’s worth out of any bullfight but the first-time goer who must base all his knowledge on that one-time fight will probably leave, wondering what the whole thing was all about. Unless he is very lucky and sees the great fight we all wait for. Have you ever seen one of those, Miki?

  7. Miki says:

    Great post, I am always so happy to read something about bullfight! And I would say, it is really vital that the bullfighter himself is a good bull psychologist!
    By the way I guess this is exactly what nowadays makes the big difference between a great arena like Madrid and a touristic one like Benidorm: the bulls. We have here exactly the same bullfighters as in Madrid, but surely not the same bulls, and the poor bullfighters shave here no chance to make a great fight… but well, the tourists generally won’t see the difference. The problem being that a bad corrida is something quite awful and ugly and all the tourists go home then being convinced that bullfight is really horrible!

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