Baptism of fire for horses at Spanish festival

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Braving flames that can leap several metres high, about 100 horsemen celebrated the centuries-old festival of San Bartolome de Pinares in Spain, a dramatic and controversial rite.

Every year on the night of January 16, the eve of Saint Anthony's day, the patron saint of animals, the paved streets of the small town of 600 people are transformed into a sort of racetrack in which the fences are burning logs.

"It's a festival in which the horses are sanctified by the flames, they are liberated from all their ills," said Quique, 30, who takes part in the festival every year.

Tree branches for the fires are collected for weeks ahead of the festival. The flames are regularly doused with water to produce columns of smoke intended to purify the animals.

The tradition is under threat from animal rights groups, who say the horses suffer as they leap over the flames.

But the residents of San Bartolome de Pinares fiercely defend the festival, arguing that if the horses were really suffering they would not go near the flames.

"We don't force them," Quique said.

At first, the horses are afraid to approach the flames. But "they get used to it over the years," said Quique, as he platted the mane of his horse Neron so it would not catch fire.

"During (regular) horse races or a steeplechase, the horse receives a crack of the whip, it suffers in certain way, and no one complains about that," said Nuria Pedrero, 38, a woman whose two children take part in the festival every year.

The tradition has survived thanks to a tacit agreement under which the horsemen agree not to leap over the flames but merely to pass round the burning logs.

Some however do leap through the flames, to the applause and cheers of the public, many of them children.

© 2011 AFP

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