A spectacular annual event in late June, when free-roaming horses are rounded up from the marshes and forests near the Coto Doñana National Park. Large herds of horses are driven past the hermitage in El Rocío, where they are blessed, before heading on to Almonte, where they run through the crowded streets.
Over 1,000 horses live semi-wild in the marshes and forest around the Coto Doñana area. They forage on natural, wild vegetation and most appear to be in formidably good shape.
Once every year, in the days leading up to the 26th of June, they are rounded up for the "Saca de las Yeguas" event, the rounding up of the wild mares and their foals. This event has a 500 year long tradition, and coincides with the Saint's Day of San Pedro, the patron saint of Almonte. Around 300 horsemen, the so called yegüerizos, ride out in small groups to round up the horses from the Doñana surroundings (although not those grazing within the National Park itself) and gather them on the outskirts of the little town of El Rocío. In good years of lush vegetation, when many foals have been born, as many as 1,500 horses are rounded up. They get split into five or six groups, which are then driven by the yegüerizos to the hermitage of El Rocío, where horses and riders are blessed by the local priest.
The horses gallop through the sandy streets of El Rocío, with no barriers separating them from the large numbers of spectators who gather to watch the event in the early hours of the afternoon. The groups of horses are lead and followed by bands of a dozen or so yegüerizos, and, miraculously, nobody seems to get hurt despite having wild horses running through relatively narrow corridors of onlookers.
From El Rocío the horses are driven through pine forests towards a holding corral some five kilometres outside of the town of Almonte. As soon as the leading yegüerizos see spectators lining the tracks, they spur their horses into a gallop, kicking up clouds of dust and urging the following horses to start running too.
Each group comprises several hundred horses, that emerge from a veil of dust that hangs over the forest tracks.
The rear is brought up by more yegüerizos, who make sure that none of the younger and already exhausted foals get left behind.
As soon as the dust of one group has settled, the next group of horses is driven through.
After all the horses have finally been driven to the holding corral outside Almonte, the last yegüerizos make their way to this resting area, where lots of people have gathered to eat and drink together and rest in the shade of pine trees until the evening.
Not everybody can afford a splendid horse to ride on, so some make their way on their trusty old mules. Mules are also very popular to pull the carts carrying essential supplies for the yegüerizos.
When it is time for horses and riders to take a break, some of the luckier horses get a proper bath in a nearby stream, but all get watered in a big watering trough outside the corral.
The wild horses are all quite tired after this exciting morning and in desperate need of a drink. It is quite an amazing sight to see 1,000 or more horses all together in one big corral. It is even possible to walk in among the horses and marvel at their beauty and excellent condition.
But where there are so many horses gathered in a confined space, there are always some squabbles. The stallions especially try to defend their mares from competitors and occasionally a proper fight ensues.
The next stage of the event takes place later in the evening, when the horses are split up into smaller groups again and are driven into Almonte. There is even a statue paying homage to the yegüerizo, and all horses run past it. Again there are no real barriers, and people line the cobbled streets through which the horses run. By this time, most of the horses, and especially the foals, are quite tired, and it is more a case of trotting through the streets rather than galloping.
The yegüerizos again lead the groups of horses and bring up the rear. They make quite a spectacle riding proudly on their fine horses.
Once again, mules are just as proudly ridden through the streets as horses.
The wild horses are held in another corral, where they stay for the next couple of days, during which they have their manes and tails cut, the foals get branded and some of the horses are selected to be sold. When all this is over, the owners return small groups of horses back into the wild, where they remain unbothered until the next year.