It’s May time, with long summer days, not with the harsh heat of July and August, but with softer warmth, along with blossom and spring flowers and its also when the fiesta days of the San Isidro Romeria occur.
It is a time of year when the skills of the horsemen and the horses themselves are on show and villages all over Andalucia stage Romerias. These have a religious and cultural origin going back into the mists of time. A horse-drawn covered cart contains a religious statue, usually of a local saint or diety and in a procession leads the people to the open air site of the celebrations.
A programme of events, lasting usually from Thursday to Monday, begins with the loud bangs of rockets fired high into the blue sky. Dancing and drinking, but mainly drinking, occupies everyone’s attention. Large paella’s are cooked for all and tapas from the large bar maintains the stomach’s balance with the drink. Traditional music is played by live bands for couples and families. In the late evening there is a disco for the youngsters who flock from near and far.
The main event for the ‘Caballeros’ is the ‘Cinta’ competition. This involves the horse and rider to be in perfect unison as they gallop at a wire containing rolled ribbons with a hook hanging down. A small spear the size of a pencil is used to lance the hook which unfurls the ribbon and is tucked into the horseman’s belt. This competition continues for hours with much drinking of whisky by the men to counter the dust that is churned up by the horses. The spectators yell encouragement and then need drinks as well so that the whole dusty area becomes a noisier and busier bowl of people and horses. Occasionally a horseman will lose control and the horse will skitter towards people crowded against the bar, a space opens up as if by magic as men, women, children and drinks swerve away from the horse until the rider regains control. Sometimes there is a competition where a lance is used to lift a Cinta from a post in the ground. This is often towards the end of the afternoon and is a very hit and miss affair with participants often giving up.
The horses are trained to respond to the riders’ slightest leg movements and make detailed and delicate side and high-stepping movements. The acceleration is amazing to watch – from a standing start to a full gallop in seconds. It is said that the horses have Arab bloodstock from the time of the Moors. They certainly have a grace and slimness combined with a sturdiness that is unlike other horses.
Salitre is an area set high up with its back firmly set against the mountains looking down to the Guadiaro River valley where Estacion Cortes de la Frontera, also known as La Canada del Real Tesoro nestles between the river and the railway. Quite what the road of the royal treasure refers to is a mystery and as metal detectors are frowned upon no treasure has turned up.
Cortes de la Frontera lies opposite Salitre on the other side of the valley. The concentrated white of its pueblo blanco contrasting with the speckled spread-out houses of Salitre.
The setting for the Romeria is in an out of the way old quarry along a dusty and rocky track just off the A373 road that drops down from El Espino on the A369 Gaucin to Ronda route.
The area for the Romeria is small, especially for the horsemen. Lines of horses crowd together, often waiting on the hillside edges, queuing to charge the Cinta ribbon line which gets obscured by fine dust kicked up from the sprinting horses.
The manes of the horses are all plaited by their owners in unique styles. Sheepskin covered saddles and woven leather halter straps complete the picture. Square iron stirrups give strong support to the riders’ legs so they can lunge forward at the right moment.
Sitting proud and high in the saddle, whether in traditional horseman clothing with a round Cordobes hat, or in check shirts and a flat cap, or a combination of the two; the poise and balance of these riders on rocky, difficult ground is remarkable and a tribute to the age old traditions of horsemanship in this area. This is epitomised when a youngster is seen carried in front of the father on the horse or is left for a while, alone in the saddle, under careful eyes, while the horse stands restful.