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  • Writer's pictureKristin Pineda

The Horses' Pilgrimage

Each year, the cowboys of Spain - vaqueros - gather up the over thousand mares and their foals who graze freely in the wetlands of Andalucia. In passing the chapel of El Rocío, the horses are blessed by one of the most important religious icons in all of Spain: la Virgen del Rocío. Welcome to the Saca de las Yeguas.

There is expectation in the air. People are crowding along the strong barriers where the mares will pass, while horseback riders and donkey carriages have gathered at a safe distance. A shaggy dog is milling about on the sandy square outside the white church building. He lifts his nuzzle and sniffs into the air. Yes, there’s defenitely something there. We are in El Rocío, a small village in the middle of nowhere in south-western Spain, and a big adventure awaits.

It is somewhat strange that there is a village here at all, in the middle of the 543 km² large National Park of Doñana. Here, on the flat sand- and wetlands, where flamingos stroll around picking crayfish at the water’s edge amongst egrettes and black ibis. But even stranger is the village’s history, which goes back to a Catholic legend from the 15th century. A few hundred years before that, the story goes, a shepherd is supposed to have found a small, wooden figure of the Virgin Mary in a tree. He picked it up in order to take it to his village, but fell asleep along the road. When he woke up, the figure was gone. He walked back to the tree - and found the figure nesting in the same spot. After this curious incident, the people in the nearby town Almonte decided to build a chapel in honour of the ”Virgen del Rocío”, the Virgin of the Dew, on that very spot. And so, a small town started to form around the church, under the name El Rocío.

The shaggy dog suddenly sharpens his ears.

- Woff, he says, and runs off to his owner.

Little after, even our human ears hear it. The sound. The thundering from thousands of hooves. The whinnying from over a thousand mares and the shrill reply from their foals. For Doñana and El Rocío are also known for something completely different than rich birdlife and Maria-figures: La Saca de las Yeguas, more or less ”The Rounding-Up of the Mares”. All the half-wild mares who spend all year grazing freely on the wetlands of Doñana are rounded up once a year and brought back to the ranches of their owners to be vaccinated, tended to by vets and to be shoed, if they are to be sold. And now, it is time. The Spanish vaqueros (from vaca - cow) or yegüerizos (from yegua - mare) have been riding for days across the great, flat lands to gather up all horses, old and young. They are close to home now, but the most important part of the journey remains - passing by the chapel of the Virgen del Rocío. For according to Spanish tradition, the Virgin gives her blessing as they pass the church, which thereby gives them protection during the rest of the year.

In the distance, we see sand whirling up towards the clear blu sky like in a Western film. The noise of hooves is approaching. And suddenly - the horses come thundering in, flooding the whole square, herded by tough yegüerizos in all ages. Most riders wear the typical Andalucian cap or a hat against the hot sun and a handkerchief tied around their ears, as protection against the dust.

The riders explode onwards, past the herd of mares and foals, and - just like magic - manage to stop the herd right in front of the church. The doors are wide open so that the Virgin can ”look out” on the horses. The riders take their hats off and bow deep. It actually almost looks like the horses are peeking into the church. And then, they’re off, bursting past the white chalked houses, with sand spraying everywhere, before the next group of horses and riders enter the square. And the next, and the next. Such, the grand show continues, hour after hour, until all horses and riders have passed.

After El Rocío, the troup heads towards Almonte, the village where the horses are separated according to farm and brought to their home ranches. But we haven’t had enough yet. We get into the car and head out into the sandy forest where only pine trees and the occational shrub manage to grow, trying to find the herd again. We take a shortcut through the forest, get a tip from a lone rider of where he last aw the herd, park our car at a strategic position - and then we wait. After about half an hour, we are rewarded. A few yegüerizos appear behind the trees, followed by the large herd or horses.

Watch out! You’d better take shelter and push up against a tree when they roam past, without andy barriers to hold them back. Several of the mares stop right in front of us, sniff at us before they decided to carry on with their flock. It feels so powerful, so natural and original that we are getting goosebumps.

A strange peace and quiet rests over the forest when the last mare has disappeared between the trees. Only the lingering dust from the sand lets on that something has happened here.

We say goodbye to the forest and the horses and already start looking forward to next year.

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