Understanding Spanish bullfight rules

Understanding Spanish bullfight rules is essential if you want to understand what goes on at the bullring during a bullfight.

Bullfights are events in which little margin is given to improvisation.

Therefore, like any spectacle regulated by rules, to enjoy a bullfight you should know at least the basic rules and the meaning of a bit of bullfighting vocabulary.

It’s not rare to see aficionados explaining what happens in the bullring to people who come to the bullring for the first time.

That’s way I have decided to put up this guide that will help you enjoy your first time attending a bullfight.

If you are interested in the current season, check the official dates of Madrid and Seville.

Are you planning to attend one? Make sure to get your tickets well in advance!

 

How Spanish bullfight rules started

Bullfights became incredibly popular and nowadays they are one of the most ancient mass entertainments of the world. In fact, modern bullfighting has evolved very little, adopting its current rules from 250-year-old customs.

Actually, bullfighting is a universe of its own called tauromaquia. Made of hundreds of rules, thousands of traditions and a little bit of superstition, bullfighting evokes one of the most passionate and controversial discussions in and out of Spain.

 

What are the main Spanish bullfight rules?

The regulations on bullfighting define in exacting detail the structure and procedure of bullfighting in Spain.

There are two sources on which the Spanish bullfight rules are based:

  1. In 1992, the Ministry of the Interior of Spain in 1992, enacted the Royal Decree 176/1992, Bullfighting Regulations. It provides a framework on how a number of bullfighting activities should be carried out.
  2. Published in 1943 under the name ‘Los Toros. Tratado técnico e histórico‘ (‘Bullfighting. Technical and historical treatise’), it was written by José María de Cossío and it’s popularly known as ‘El Cossío’. It’s the only work that gathers everything and all that can be said about bullfighting: its origins, roots, circumstances, protagonists and custom.

It would be impossible to summarize the contents of both sources into a few paragraphs. So I have just selected the main Spanish bullfight rules that you need to know:

  • The president has the highest authority in the bullring and is responsible for making sure that bullfighting legislation is followed and for making sure that the bullfight runs correctly.
  • The two circle lines (white in most arenas like Madrid, and red in Seville) painted on the sand act as indicators of the correct distance for the picador to perform. While it’s not compulsory to respect that distance those who take their horses beyond the outer line will be quickly berated by the public.
  • All bullfights follow the same structure or pattern.
  • The three bullfighters parade during the paseíllo in order of seniority. Seen from the front, the most veteran is to the right, the most novice is in the middle and to the left is the one with intermediate experience.
  • The subalternos are situated also from right to left, according to their seniority and they march behind the matador.
  • During the tercio de varas, there are always two picadores: one in charge of wounding the bull, and another to guard the opposite gate preventing the bull to escape.
  • The tercio de banderillas is performed by the three banderilleros of the bullfighter’s cuadrilla or team, and only two of the three banderilleros who make up the cuadrilla place the banderillas.
  • The number of pairs of banderillas that may be placed on the bull is a minimum of two and a maximum of three.
  • A strict order is necessary to perform the tercio de banderillas:
    • One bullfighter, the lidiador, is be in charge of conducting the bull and .
    • The first of them to act is the most senior one. He’s in charge of placing the first and third pair of banderillas.
    • Then, the second banderillero places the second pair of banderillas.
    • In the meantime, the third banderillero performs the functions of brega (placing the bull correctly, so that the banderilleros can place the banderillas properly) and aid if an incident occurs.
    • When this matador and his team fight their next bull, the banderilleros exchange their turns: the banderillero who placed the banderilleras before, now performs the brega and vice versa.
    • The third banderillero keeps the same turn in both bulls, placing the second pair of banderillas.
  • As soon as the bugle sounds to signal the beginning of the tercio de muerte, the matador has ten minutes to carry out his performance. If he does not kill the bull within this time frame, a warning will sound granting him a further three minutes to finish the performance before a second time warning. He has two more minutes, but after the third warning, the matador must withdraw and the bull is returned to the pen for slaughter.

 

The president’s handkerchiefs

The president has five handkerchiefs of different colors with which he gives the orders and communicates with the people that are at the arena, in the alley or in the grandstands (e.g. the musicians)

This is a good time to know the meaning of the handkerchiefs that the president can show during the bullfight:

  • White: It’s the one that you’ll see on most occasions. It marks the beginning of the bullfight, the release of each bull, the change from one tercio to the next, the warnings to the matador and the trophies.
  • Green: The president commands the return of the bull to the corrals, due to a physical problem.
  • Red: The president orders to put black banderillas to the bull as an extra punishment because the bull has not attacked the picador‘s horse.
  • Blue: The president grants the return to the arena of the dead bull and awards it a lap of honor.
  • Orange: It’s the maximum recognition to a bull, granting him the pardon for its bravery and allowing it to survive. The matador, the breeder and the audience must agree.

 

This article is part of a complete tutorial about bullfighting in Spain where you can read all the information you need to organize your road trip around the country.

Here is a complete summary of all the guide:

1. What is bullfighting?
2. How to watch a bullfight
3. Bullfighting festivals in Spain
4. How to buy your bullfight tickets
5. 7 Bullfight tips to make the most out of the experience
6. FAQ about bullfighting, Spain’s oldest tradition
7. Understanding Spanish bullfight rules
8. Who are the bullfight participants?
9. Spanish bull fight preliminaries
10. First Spanish bullfighting stage: tercio de varas
11. Second Spain bullfight stage: tercio de banderillas
12. Third Spain bullfighting stage: tercio de muerte
13. The bullfight awards
14. 27 Interesting and curious bullfighting facts
15. A brief history of bull fighting in Spain
16. Glossary of bullfighting terms