Warning: this series contains descriptions and images of graphic violence
The tag-team stage of wearing down the bull is the shortest. Next come the picadors on horseback, cantering into the plaza while the bull is distracted by the toreros. The two horses are clad in their golden suits, their riders bearing long, golden rods with sharpened ends. One remains at the far end of the arena, and one trots over to where the thick of the action is. Once situated right next to the wall, the picador kicks out his feet…which have cowbells attached to them. The loud noise gets the bulls attention, and it charges the horse with all the fury of hell behind it. The bull lunges into the horse’s side, stabbing it again and again in its eagerness to gore. Sometimes it shoves the horse against the wooden wall. Sometimes its horns get stuck in the folds of the horse’s suit. Once, the bull’s head found its way beneath the horse’s stomach and began lifting it off the ground. It’s like seeing a rhino charge a giraffe.
That suit the horse wears? Armor.
The horse is covered in full-body armor, its ears plugged, its eyes blindfolded. Horses spook very easily, so their riders need to make sure that they have no idea of what’s going on. The picadors themselves quickly adjust to maintain their balance on the being-lifted or being-crushed horse, and plunge their golden rods into the bull’s back/neck area at least once. The number of subsequent times seems to depend entirely on how quickly the bull disentangles itself from the horse’s armor to go after the toreros, who have run up beside it with their waving capes, shouting at it, “Toro! Toro! Toro!” Sometimes the bull charges the second picador (and gets stabbed again). Sometimes it charges the first one a second time (and gets stabbed again). But as soon as it loses interest in the horses, the picadors are dismissed from the field, the first blood of the fight still smeared across the horse’s golden armor.
We were worried for the horses at first. Killing a bull with a long, drawn-out execution for a crowd was one thing, but “Those poor horses!” we cried…at first. Then we realized that the suit the horse was wearing was armor. After seeing the horses nonchalantly leave the field after being smashed, lifted, and nearly gored by fully-grown bulls, we were desensitized. The horses were safe: it was all a part of the show.
This is a major turning point. The bull has been injured, bleeding from its neck area. There will be no returning it to the pen.
The bull is still energetic at this point, but the loss of blood will make it more and more fatigued as the night wears on. This is the real bulk of the bull-fight: a battle of attrition in which the humans aren’t fatigued at all. The next stage demonstrates this well: the banderilla stage. The toreros regroup on the field, three of them now holding the colorful, ribbony banderillas. They play tag team with the bull again until one of the banderilleros decides he’s ready, and yells at the bull to charge him. Like a well-trained acrobat, he leaps out of the way while simultaneously plunging the banderilla into the same spot punctured by the picador’s spear. A job is well done if the banderilla sticks in the bull’s back, the four sticks hanging out of the bull’s back like a price tag on a ceramic toy. Every banderillero will try his shot. It’s no easy task: only once did all three banderilleros get their banderillas to stick on the bull.
The bull is still energetic enough to charge, but not quite as eager. It has 0 to 3 sets of colorful ribbon-poles hanging out of its shoulders, and its blood is dripping onto the sand below.
But let me tell you something about Spanish fighting bulls. On TV, you always see a black bull. While there were also brown, tan, and blonde bulls in our corrida, black was by far the most common coat color. Why? It was easy to realize once we saw our first brown bull: with a light-colored bull, you can see the blood, so plentiful that you can spot it flowing down the bull’s sides from quite a distance. With the black bulls, you can see light reflecting off of some kind of liquid IF you look closely. With the black bulls, you root for the toreros, you root for the humans, so small compared to this muscular tank.
With brown bulls, you root for the bull.
After all three banderilleros have taken a literal stab at the bull, they leave the field. Only the matador remains, his yellow-and-pink cape traded in for the famous red cape, the capote. He holds a sword in his other hand.
But we’re not at the climax yet. This is the rising action, the part where the matador literally struts his stuff and shows what he’s got. The long-ranged charge you see on TV happens here maybe once or twice. The rest of the time, it’s an intimate dance between the matador and bull, only ever two feet away from each other. Swish after swish after swish of the cape. If the bull is smart, it bucks in the air like an agitated horse and nearly kicks the matador away, warranting a gasp from the crowd. But most of the time, the matador confidently leads the bull around. He knows the bull will only get tired. The bull predictably charges the red capote again and again and again. It starts to stumble. Blood starts to dot the ground where they stand. With each flurry of the capote, the crowd yells “EY!” slowly increasing its cheers in volume as the matador achieves more and more consecutive spins with the bull. We swear that after each spin the matador shouted out to the crowd, “Como?” (How well?) and the crowd answered “Bien” (Well done), but your Spanish gets shaky in a loud, crowded stadium. When the consecutive spins finally stop, the crowd cheers, and the bull, panting, stands by while the matador turns his back on the animal and raises his arms to the crowd, drinking in the applause.
Then the bull stops charging so much. It takes more than one wave of the cape, more than one shout of “toro!” (bull!) “mira!” (look!) or “ven!” (come) from the matador to get it to charge. The charges are weaker. The matador spends more time strutting and engaging the crowd. And it is a strut. Confident, arrogant, over-the-top.
I swear they designed this part to be boring. Just a matador spinning around in a circle with a cape, evading a bull that has never once touched a hair on his head. I bet it’s designed to be boring after all that fast-paced excitement to make you impatient, to make you call for blood. Why are they taking so long? Even the brown bulls you were just sympathizing with are now nothing but your only opportunity for entertainment. You now realize how boring it is when they’re not being stabbed: you want the matador to use that sword.