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Portuguese Bull Fight

Wednesday, 20 June 2018


Increasingly controversial, deeply rooted in custom and part of the rich fabric of Portuguese life, the spectacle of bull fighting comes with more than a few twists.

Many would decry the brutality suffered by the hapless bull but as we discovered the Portuguese have added an element to the contest that requires courage beyond imagination that left us captivated.

As the crowds gathered in the small town of Bencatal:

We followed a side street to see the majestic horses awaiting their part in the unfolding theatre. Specially bred for the fight these surefooted Lusitanos are usually highly trained in dressage.

Lusitano horses

The Portuguese style of bull fight differs from the more widely understood Spanish style in the participants and their respective roles:

      Let's meet the characters in this performance........

The horses are ridden by the Cavaleiros (male riders) and Cavaleiras (female riders) who wear 18th century costumes and are the stars of the day.

Cavaleiros in costume

With expert horsemanship they will try to stab the bull from the saddle with three or four small spears called bandarilhas,


On foot and wearing their traditional costumes come the Matadores (costumes with gold sequines) and the Bandarilheiros. Their only protection is their evasive skills and the cape.

Bandarilheiros with their capes.

Their part is to use their abilities to distract and position the bull during the fight.


The most extraordinary and unexpected characters in this play are the Forcados. Without any protection they will face the charging bull and attempt to subdue the massive animal by hand only.

Forcados addressing the crowd.

This bull fight was conducted in posthumous honour of the forcado Jorge Aldeagas who we understood died on the horns of a bull. This isn't a sport for the faint hearted as you will see.


The pageant begins with a general parade of the participants in their beautiful costumes and some theatrical dressage from the horses.

The band plays and the crowd settles in.

The Opening Parade

When the ceremonial pleasantries have finished the arena is cleared and we get our introduction to the first of four raging bulls...........

Enter the BULL.

The bull's horns are fitted with leather protectors and he is allowed to race about the bullring charging at the walls, barricades and anything else that should come into view including the spectators above the wall.

Soon a bandarilheiro comes from behind his barrier and attracts the bull's attention with his cape. This is in a similar style to the Spanish matadores but there is no weapon and the bull is taunted but not harmed.

The bull charges the evasive Bandarilheiro

While the bull is distracted the Cavaleiro and his horse prance into the bull ring to the cheers of the expectant crowd.

Cavaleiro and prancing horse.

Extreme skill is required to prevent the bull from harming the nimble mount and the balance of entertainment lays in keeping just out of reach of the lunging bull.

The cavaleiro and bull charge at each other.

A routine is repeated where the cavaleiro astride the horse faces off against the bull.

As they charge the horse is positioned to allow the rider to thrust the barb into the bulls back. 

The rider strikes again.

The distressed bull is goaded into chasing the horse and fatigues from the repeated charges and stabbings.

Under the watchful eye.

A near miss.

This routine is repeated until three or four barbs are embedded in the powerful and resilient bull.

Between the assaults from the cavaleiros, the bull is distracted by the bandarilheiros who with exquisite timing and judgement distract the bull and allow the rider to rest or exchange his horse.

Bravery and training meet anger and determination.


Unlike the Spanish equivalent the bull is not killed in the arena and is sometimes rehabilitated and used for breeding. A bull will never be used of fighting twice.


The next act of the bull fight took me by surprise and I stand in awe of the brave teams of Forcados.

While the bull is still in the ring the leader approaches the fatiguing bull. The crowd knows what will come next and the bull is far from finished.......

The leader in the ceremonial cap and his team prepare for the bull to charge.

Risking serious injury or death, the captain must withstand the impact of the bull and try to hold onto it's head until he is assisted by the team.

These men attend special schools to learn the exceptional techniques and teamwork required to catch the bull with bare hands. Very few forcados walk away uninjured and if you have any doubts then look at the faces in this sequence of images:

The team surrounds the angry bull and wrestles to free the team captain. When he is safe the last man who is "controlling" the bull by the tail releases the beast which again charges only to be distracted by the bandarilheiro.


Another twist awaits the uninitiated:

As the wounded bull paces the empty ring the gates open and allow a team of oxen and their handler to enter the arena. The bull sometimes joins the group and will occasionally chase them out of frustration. 

The herd of oxen enter the ring.

The pacified bull leaves the ring with the oxen and may be allowed to live out it's days in the Portuguese meadows.


After several bulls have been fought in this manner the final act of the day is the ceremonial presentation of the participants before the crowd and officials.

Acknowledging the officials.

As the spectators depart there remains just one more duty to perform.....

The Team Photo.

The team captains with their floral bouquets.


If you would like to see a two minute movie of the brave bandarilheiros then click on this link: