during the event rapa das bestas in Galicia Spain, the villagers ride horses without any tool for cutting the mane

The last wild horse and Rapa das Bestas

Juan Villanueva

1st of July 2022

In north east Spain, it is the last wild horse, the garrano. A small but strong horse has inhabited the mountains alongside humans since thousands of years ago, but in the current context of climate crisis and biodiversity, it is endangered. Each year people from the village bring them down to cut the mane. It is the Rapa das Bestas, an event where man and animal confronts face to face.
The Green Bee

The garranos gather in free herds of 40 mares and one stud in the mountains. They have a strong territorial character, therefore in case of having one more male, they would fight and split the group up. But every year, people from the village bring them down to cut their crin and remove parasites; it is the event Rapa das Bestas (Cutting the beast’s hair in Galician)

Also, they chip the beasts for conservation purposes; in 2005, it was around 24,000 horses. Now it is only half.

Ancient paintings are graphic evidence that the horse-human relationship began 20,000 years ago. They are not tall but muscular, with big bellies and thick fur to protect them against cold, some people call them the Galician ponies. They live in the free in the mountain, although they are livestock property of associations. As an example, the organisation in Sabucedo is the biggest one with 400 heads; after the wildfires in 2006 decimated its population. 


The rapa in Sabucedo is every first weekend of July. However, each association has a different date, and there are more than ten associations in Galicia.  

To immobilise the horse in the rapa das bestas, the men work in teams of three. They ride the horse, and when it stops they embrace its head. Juan Villanueva The Green Bee
To immobilise the horse, the alloitadores work in teams of three. Credit: Claude Le Gall

The previous days the aloitadores –as the association’s members are called- bring the herds closer, and on Friday, they and volunteers bring them down to the arena or curro. The association president, Pulo Vicente, explains that the horses are very nervous while they are locked and kick frequently. Therefore, it can be dangerous for the aloitadores.

After that, the Rapa starts. People from Sabucedo respect the old tradition of three aloitadores with bare hands. The first one jump over a horse and ride it; meanwhile, a second one pull it from the tail and operate him, avoiding hitting the walls. Afterwards, at the right time, the third one jumps beside the horse, enclose its head with his arm, and covers its eye. Finally, the first one jumps down on the other side, does the same technique with the other eye, and immobilise it. They do it without tools or ropes, man versus animal. But the beasts are strong, hence the aloitadores should repeat the same operation several times. 

The garrano is key in the galician ecosystem

The association highlights the garrano’s role in conservation and its ecosystemic value. Monteagudo explains, «the horse is an extinguisher machine; it eats the brush and keeps it low and young. Furthermore, it keeps the trails clean, which works as a firewall. Moreover, the herbivores keep the nutrient cycle from minerals to vegetation. They are perfect nature-based solutions in the Galician ecosystem.

Traditionally, the mane was sold, and the farmers traded the equine livestock in the curro, and still, some rapas are commercial today. But in Sabucedo, they give it as a gift to the visitors. The group makes money from food and tickets, which is hardly enough to cover expenses. «The real aloitador is who goes every weekend to the mountain to look after the beast,» says Monteagudo. It is a very physically demanding task, and the young people are moving on to the city. 

Garranos from the rapa das bestas are quite territorial. They gather in herds of 30 and when another stud comes closer they fight
Garranos fight frequently as they are quite territorial - Credit: Rafael Saenz

Despite it, Monteagudo is not optimistic about the garrano’s future. He uses as an example the renewable boom, which needs a large land extension. «I honestly don’t think the garrano will last for much longer,» he said. «Life is changing, and the countryside is abandoned. Furthermore, no one helps with its protection, and there is public or private funding.»

Are they truly animal lovers?

The Rapa das Bestas is a centenary tradition. Recently, they have had some critics from animal lovers groups, but they replied that they have a clean process rooted in respect for the animal. «Three men catch the beast without tools or ropes. Believe me when I say the most bruised at the end of the day is the aloitador.» the association explains. 

For example, they are on good terms with other rural groups. They have no issues with livestock farmers or gaming aficionados; the horses keep the balance between cattle and wolf as ecological added value. However, sometimes they conflict with agricultural farmers as the horses get into the field and eat the crops. «The fence is prepared for a chill cattle, not for beasts. We reach economic agreements with the farmers because we understand the horses cause damage». 

The aloitadores are the last wild horse’s guardian, looking forward to the conservation of a species. Garranos are a key to the delicate balance of nature, and they are a cultural value for the Galician people.