A rough guide to bullfighting and what to look out for when watching a bullfight
The month of May sees Madrid bring together some of the best bullfighters and most respected breeders in the great bullring of Las Ventas.
The Feria of San Isidro is arguably one of the epicentres of the bullfighting calendar and matches the finest bullfighters with the finest bulls for a month of top class fights between man and beast.
Outside Spain there is very little understanding of what is a bullfight and yet so many tourists who come to Madrid find themselves buying inflated priced tickets to see one out of curiousity and have no or little idea let alone appreciation of what they are looking at.
We have compiled a rough guide to watching a bullfight with some terminology to help you go from bemused onlooker to passionate afficionado in one corrida!
The season starts in mid February and last till mid October. The village of Ajalvir is the first taurine festival in the Comunidad de Madrid. Las Ventas has a Spring and Autumn festivals as well as the more important fights of San Isidro starting in May
7pm to 9pm. It has been said it’s the only thing that starts on time in Spain!
How many fights
A fightcard ( cartel ) of 6 bulls – 3 Matadors. Each fight of 20 minutes
Type of fight
Corrida de Toros is a fully licensed and professional bullfight with seasoned Matadores and fullsized bulls of at least 4 years old and up to 700 kg. This being divided into three parts ( tercios) for the Picacdores, Banderillas and the Matador.
Corrida de Rejones is bullfighting on horseback. Mounted bullfighters battling fully grown bulls. A wholly different fight with tremendous skill.
Novillada con Picadores – A grade below the Matador de Toros and with younger and smaller bulls. Same fight structure of the Corrida de Toros. The fighters ( Novilleros) make up lack of professional experience with enthusiasm and desire to prove themselves to the ever critical Madrid crowd.
Novillada sin Picadores – same but without the mounted Picadores.
What is the structure of a bullfight?
The start is the parade of the participants who salute the crowd and the President
The bullfight is divided into three stages ( tercios or thirds) each announced with a trumpet call
Tercio de varas. This is the first stage of the bullfight and first contact of bull and Matador and where the bull engages the Picadores ( mounted on horseback with lances) whose job is to weaken the bull by lancing the animal in his neck muscles and draw first blood.
Tercio de banderillas. The second stage sees the three banderilleros try to stab the bull in the neck with their banderillas ( type of wooden and sharpened skewers – one in each hand).
Tercio de muerte. The final act with the death of the bull. The matador, alone who engages the bull with passes leading to killing by his sword.
What is the crowd looking for?
The bullfight is a spectacle testing strength, skill and courage. As the old saying goes it takes two to tango and it´s no different in a bullfight.
The bull – is bred for aggression and the crowd expect ( and are paying) to the see Toro Bravo ( literally “ fighting bull”) live up to his name and breed by charging and responding to the bullfighter as well as having the endurance for the fight. Certainly the breeder will be hoping the crowd will applaud him for having his bulls in the fight.
The bullfighter – will need to show great skill and courage to face the bull. To do so he will need to engage the bull with elegant and skillful passes. The crowd will be looking to see how he does this in relation to how he understands the character and movements of the bull. These passes build to the point of the kill where he will need to dispatch the bull cleanly, with one blow. Low behold him if he is needlessly prolonging the death through clumsy attempts.
The crowd – the audience are highly influential in the outcome of a bullfight as they are the ones who judge the matador’s performance by waving their white handkerchiefs in approval and to persuade the ‘President’ or ‘Judge’ to award trophies being the award of ears ( 1 or both) – ears and tail – and very occasionally carried on the shoulders of his Cuadrilla through the Puerta Grande.
Does the bull always die?
Overwhelmingly – very occasionally a particularly brave and strong bull will be spared. For the this the President of the proceedings will take heed from the crowd. The bull then retires to a life of Riley and breeding.
Are there injuries to the bullfighter?
Bullfighting is a dangerous activity – the bulls are aggressive and feel under threat. They remain potent killers to the end. There are frequent injuries including to some of the leading fighters and occasionally deaths. Goring is a particular danger and can be fatal. Recently Juan Jose Padilla was gored through the eye – remarkably returning to the ring to continue as one-eyed matador – and more goring. Young Matador Victor Barrio was tragically killed in 2016 which was the first fatality since the 1980´s
What happens if the bull doesn’t want to fight?
A herd of oxen ( buey) who are brought into the ring and the bull will generally follow them as they are herded out.
What tickets should I buy?
Sol y Sombra – Sun or shade. The cheaper being the former ( think of that late afternoon in your eyes). Sombra is the side where the dignitaries and guests will be seated ( palcos). The closer to the ring the more expensive is the rule. Barrera, Contrabarrera, then numbered rows (Filas) from 1 to the gods up above. This reviewer spent his formative bullfighting watching years at the top – brandy and cigar in hand to get an appreciation and understanding from the old boys up there!
Important bullfighting vocabulary
Aficionado/a – Someone who is a fan and assumed knowledge of bullfighting.
Alguacililloe. The President’s representative in the bullring. They are in charge of symbolically picking up the toriles’ key and to hand prizes to matadores.
Apoderado – The matador’s manager.
A porta gayola – An opening pass with the matador kneeling before the main gate from which the bull charges into the ring.
Banderilla – Literally, little flag. A dowel-stemmed dart, metal-tipped with a single barb. The wooden stem is decorated with colored paper strips.
Capote – The Cape
Cartel – Bullfighting fightcard for the festival with programme dates, Matador / Bull / Breeder names
Casta – Quality of bull breeding.
Citar – To incite the bull to charge.
Cuadrilla – The matador’s team (consists of two mounted picadores and three banderilleros).
Desafio – The bull scraping the ground before charging.
Embestida – The bull’s charge.
Encuentro – Both bull and matador face each other to meet & fight.
Espada – Sword & synonym of matador.
Estoque – A curved sword to kill the bull.
Ganadería – Bull breeding farm
Manso – Weak or non-fighting bull.
Matador – A killer of bulls.
Montera – Matador’s hat.
Mozo de espada – Page boy who carries the sword in the opening ceremony.
Muleta – Small red cape, stiffened with a rod, used by the matador the final tercio.
Novillero – Aprentice matador.
Picador – Mounted torero armed with a lance.
Plaza de toros – Bullring.
Querencia – A spot in the bullring the bull always returns to. It’s a sign of weakness because it shows that the bull runs away from a confrontation with the torero.
Rejoneador – A matador fighting a bull from horseback.
Remate – A finishing flicking pass to fix the bull in a precise spot at the end of a series.
Rubio – Ideal spot in the ring where the matador can make his kill.
Suerte – Good luck, fortune – without which few would enter the ring.
Tendillo – Section of rowed seats up to the covered gods at the top of the bullring
Torero – One who practiced bullfighting.
Toro bravo – Literally, brave bull. Breed developed exclusive for bullfighting (also known as toro de lidia).
Traje de luces – Literally, suit of lights that is worn by the Torero. Beautifully made and with corresponding price tag.
Verónica – A typical pass involving holding the cape up in front of the body with both hands enticing the bull to charge.
Where can I buy a bullfighting ticket in Madrid ?
The ticket office in Las Ventas or online at :