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Spain & Bullfighting

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Last Updated on June 3, 2015 by

Julia, our resident Spain expert, breaks down the controversial topic of bullfighting. How did it orginiate and how is it done today? Read on:

Whether you are for or against it, bullfighting is a significant part of Spanish culture. Even if it isn’t as popular as it has been in the past, bullfights continues to represent Spanish tradition, and incite passionate debate.

Historically, bullfights were popular in Rome, but it was the Moors in 711 AD who developed the contests into a ritualistic occasion, observed in connection with feast days where they would mount highly trained horses, and confront and kill the bulls. Today bullfighting is big business in Spain with the top matadors earning large salaries and being viewed as idols.

A Spanish bullfighting arena is called the Plaza de Toros.  For a traditional corrida de toros, three matadors each face two bulls.  Each matador (also called torero in Spanish) has six assistants: two picadores (lancers on horseback), three banderilleros (also toreros, but carry two small spears and no cape), and a sword.  Together, they are called a cuadrilla. Like someone’s entourage.

A classic Spanish bullfight has several scenes before the final act. A corrida starts with the paseillo, when everybody involved in the bullfight enters the ring and presents themselves to the president and public to the sound of a traditional paso doble. The bull is then let loose in the ring.

The bull first faces off against the matador, who uses his cape to incite the bull into running toward him, noting the animal’s movements and behavior. Next, two picadors enter the ring on horseback with a vera (long spear). The picadors will attempt to stab the bull in the upper back.  The matador will continue to watch the bull very closely  to determine his approach and strengths for when he faces the bull again.  These first two blows are intended to weaken the bull and prevent it from raising its head.  In the second stage, three banderillos attempt to stab the bull in the shoulders with two sharp, barbed sticks.  This further angers and weakens the bull before the matador faces it.

The final stage begins when the matador re-enters the ring with a small red cape and sword.  Bulls are not drawn to the cape because of its color, instead it is because of its movements as they are color blind. It is thought the reason the cape is red is to mask the bull’s blood, but today it is matter of tradition.

The matador uses his cape in a series of passes with the bull for two reasons: to wear it down and to produce a display of faena (graceful movements).  Many historians have seen similar movements between a bull fighter and a flamenco dancer as it appears he is gracefully dancing with the bull, sometimes brushing against its side as it passes.


The faena must be done with extreme care because even though the bull is injured and fatigued, it is still very dangerous.  If miscalculated, the bull can charge at the matador and injure him. After wearing the bull down enough, the matador will strike the bull between the shoulder blades in order to strike the bull’s heart.


If the toreros performance is particularly artistic, he will be awarded the bull’s ear and tail. Everyone in the audience waives a tissue in the air to petition the judges to award him such prize. They will then parade their prized ear around the arena.


Bullfighting is an extremely controversial topic in Spain, both among Spaniards and foreigners. It is commonly viewed as an argument between older generations and younger generations, who view it as an outdated tradition that is a form of torture for animals.  Older generations argue it is no worse than killing an animal for meat.

While some view the drawn out stages as taunting or playing with the bull, the bullfighter can be seen as actually formulating a strategy for when he later faces off against the bull.

Bullfighting in Spain adds more than $3 billion a year to the Spanish economy and directly employs more than 10,000 people. It’s not just about the matadors, their agents and bull breeders, it’s all of the activities surrounding it: the restaurants before and after the corrida, the street vendors that sell souvenirs, the transportation to the bullfighting ring, etc.

However, with all the elegance and glamour of the bull fighters, this is a dangerous and violent sport. Animal rights activists consider it a cruel and bloody sport and have organized many protests demanding the banning of bullfights. This led the region of Catalonia to ban bullfighting in 2011, what many animal right activists view as a step in the right direction.


What do you think? Would you go to a bullfight? Read more from Julia about where you should study in Spain here. And find out more about our programs in Spain on our website.

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