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El Rocio - Death in the afternoon

Por: | 06 de junio de 2014

Picture the scene, an ordinary Thursday morning in Seville. The streets are crowded with a line of muscle-bound oxen, pulling gypsy-style caravans, all striving to outdo each other with an array of billowing fabric and garish colors. Proud Andalusian stallions flick their tails excitedly as a pedestrian skims their hind quarters. A dark-eyed young woman adeptly applies her lipstick, whilst sitting side-saddle on her steed, dressed immaculately in a polka-dot flamenco dress and matching flower in her hair. The beer is already flowing and the drums rolling, the excitement and expectation hang unmistakably in the air, as man, woman and beast wait impatiently to begin their  week-long round trip, taking them through the wild, Andalusian terrain to the object of their devotion, the Virgin of Rocío.


Rocieros waiting to leave Plaza Salvador in the heart of Sevilla, destination: El Rocio

Welcome to the world of Romerías, which directly translated means pilgrimage, but bears no relation to the sexless, sterility of any catholic religious festivals I was forced to attend as a child. And nowhere tops the drama and spectacle of the Romería like ‘El Rocío’, the week-long festival that takes place in the baking Andalusian late springtime, where religion, fashion, flirting, booze and revelry join together in a heady mix that guarantees a week of sore feet and hangovers.

The dancing and revelry starts as soon as the procession begins

But it’s that very combination of intense Andalusian sun, long days crossing the parched earth and even longer nights of intense partying, that each year has a somewhat less folkloric side effect; the unpalatably high level of equine collateral damage, with horses dropping dead on route from exhaustion and others dying at El Rocío itself from starvation, lack of water and colic. And this year as the hermandades (brotherhoods) set out slightly later than usual in the first week of June, the unforgiving heat promises to push the thermometers up to heat-stroke-inducing levels.

CaballoMuerto el rocio
Photo of dead horse reportedly taken in El Rocío in 2012

 Each year without fail horses, mules and donkeys perish, but the highest number of deaths was 25 in 2008, with 17 failing to make it back home last year. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, none were as a result of neglect or cruelty, and occurred rapidly, some dying in seconds. Animal charity Asanda begs to differ, compiling their own report by equine veterinary specialist Marta Gallego Torres, on the possible causes of death, in which it was concluded that the most likely were indeed ‘lack of water, stress and extreme exertion’. It went onto say that in contrary to the official verdict of a swift end, much more likely would have been an ‘agonizing and painfully slow death’.

But why do these avoidable casualties continue to happen? It would seem that amongst the more knowledgeable riders making the pilgrimage to El Rocío, there’s also a less-experienced bunch riding rented animals, with very little common sense or indeed interest in treating their mounts as anything other than disposable modes of transport. In other cases horses that are barely exercised all year are pulled out of their field, with no level of fitness and expected to last the six-day return journey. Not surprising then that some fall by the wayside. As humans we wouldn’t expect someone to run an ultra-marathon with no training, in Saharan temperatures, with little water, without expecting some fatalities.

But what to do? Different organizations try to take proactive steps to promote responsible animal welfare during the pilgrimage, such as handing out leaflets and providing volunteer vets on site. The official Plan Romero 2009 ‘Guidelines for the care of horses during El Rocío’ encourage riders to ‘be conscious that your horse is a living being and not a machine…. And to respect and treat it like the friend that it is. Horses tire, need feeding and decent water…. They are grateful for a loving treatment and an encouraging pat during the camino. If we don’t forget any of this, we will have started the journey in an appropriate manner, together with our loyal companion.’ For most animal lovers these would seem like rather obvious suggestions, but the fact that since their publication in 2009, 83 equine deaths have resulted, perhaps the touching sentiment has fallen on deaf ears.

As well as the El Rocío equine guidelines, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing and the Environment provides an official veterinary presence as part of their ‘Operación Romero’.  But Asanda’s report calls for more vets both at El Rocío and on the pilgrimage route itself and for owners to immediately call on their assistance as soon as an animal shows any sign of physical distress.

A lack of interest in these statistics by the powers that be would suggest that these animal deaths are not considered worthy of prosecution. In Spain abandonment and cruelty to animals is punishable by law with potential fines of between €2,000 and €30,000, but the regular fatalities during this religious festival are rarely punished, mainly because proving they are not as a result of natural causes and are in fact directly related to abuse and neglect is extremely difficult. Last year not one of the 17 deaths (14 horses and 3 mules) was even reported to the police.

So, it’s just a matter of waiting and seeing. Some horses and mules will die during the duration of El Rocío, that is a given, in the same way that in UK that at least one horse will be put down at some point during the Grand National. Is it hypocritical then for me to come down so hard on the Rocieros and let the racing world off the hook? In part maybe it is, but in the racing world animals are generally cared for, trained, respected and rarely abused. Whereas at El Rocío, in some quarters, showing off and partying take precedent over the fair treatment of the animals that have duly transported the pilgrims to their week of fun.

In the end if every animal is cared for responsibly, not just as it makes its way to El Rocío and back again, but in the weeks leading up to the Romería and on its return, then this for me will be a sign of progress. And maybe, just maybe, fewer will die as a result.


Hay 2 Comentarios

Deberían traducir este artículo para la edición española, ya que la mayor parte de los españoles desconocemos lo que sucede cada año en El Rocío con los caballos. Somos unos bárbaros!! Está bien que lo sepan fuera, pero los españoles debemos estar informados también de lo que sucede en nuestro país.

Un año mas se masca la tragedia, shame of them... Ferias y Romerias... ¿Solo diversión y jolgorio todos los dias...?

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check:

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