What is bullfighting?

what is bullfighting

What is bullfighting? This Spanish tradition is a performance in which a bullfighter faces a bull according to a set of rules and guidelines.

The Spanish bullfight is a fight to the death between a man and bull.

Actually, it’s much more than that.

Bullfighting is part of the cultural heritage of Spain and some other countries, and it’s entrenched in Spanish history, providing also a very popular identity ground in the country.

But before we start…

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

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

What is bullfighting?

The Spanish word for bullfighting is corrida de toros that can be literally translated as “running of bulls”.

A bullfight is always held in a round-shape arena or venue called plaza de toros.

Bull fighting in Spain is an iconic tradition in which 3 toreros have to fight 2 bulls each and, ultimately, kill them. So if you decide to attend a bullfight, you’ll see a total of 6 fights.

The matadores perform in order of seniority, which is set according to the date of each matador‘s alternativa. More on this ceremony below.

Thus, the senior one will participate in the first and fourth fights. Then, the second oldest matador will confront the second and fifth bulls. Finally, the least experienced will fight in third and sixth place.

If a matador is gored or injured in any way that prevents him to continue, the senior matador must replace him and complete the fight.

Types of bullfighting

There are two different types of bullfights.

The most common one is the corrida a pie (on foot) in which the matador fights the bull face to face on the arena.

Among the corridas a pie you can watch:

  • A corrida de toros, in which professional bullfighters face 4 to 5-year-old bulls.
  • A novillada with picadores, in which semiprofessional bullfighters perform with 3 to 4-year old bulls.
  • A novillada without picadores, in which semiprofessional bullfighters perform with 2 to 3-year old bulls without the use of picadores.

However, there is also the spectacular corrida de rejones in which the matador, called rejoneador, fights the bull on horseback.

The only major difference is the way of fighting the bull and the rejoneador’s clothes.

On foot the matador look more elegant, while on horseback the rejoneador wears a more casual and countryside outfit. A rejoneador‘s usual costume consists of a dark waistcoat (usually brown or grey), brown leather chaps and a broad, straight-brimmed hat.

Other than that, the corrida follows the same structure.

How is a corrida de toros structured?

Every bullfight follows the same pattern and is organized identically. Generally speaking, bullfighting is a very strict event and its participants must respect certain rules at all times.

The event starts with the paseíllo, a parade of all the participants. It’s basically a presentation of the matadores and the rest of their team.

Once the paseíllo is over, the matadores are ready to start their fights – one at a time and following a certain order. Remember that you’ll watch a total of 6 fights – two per matador, and that the senior matador goes first.

Every bullfight (also called lidia), each of the fights that you’re about to watch, lasts between 20 and 25 minutes approximately.

Once the bull has been killed at the end of each fight, the matador may receive an award if his performance has been outstanding.

After killing the sixth and final bull, the three matador teams salute the president before parading again across the middle of the ring and out of the arena.

What are the 3 stages of bullfighting?

A fight against a bull is divided into three tercios or stages. Each one starts and ends after a member of the music band blows a bugle.

Each stage lasts around 8-10 minutes and the matador, who is the one in charge of asking for a change of tercio, must respect the timings or the president will warn him.

The order is always the same:

Once the bull is dead, the fight is over and the matador is eventually rewarded if his faena was exceptional. Then, the next matador enters the scene to fight the following bull.

The same sequence goes on until the sixth bull is dead.

The matador‘s rite of passage

He begins as a novillero

Trainee matadores are first called novilleros. Hence the name novilladas for these type of fights involving young bulls with little fighting spirit.

You’ll easily recognize novilleros because they wear silver braid.

Before becoming an acknowledged matador, the novillero has to perform at least 25 fights without picadores. In these fights, bulls are between 2 and 3 years old.

He them moves on to fighting older bulls (between 3 and 4 years old), this time with picadores.

He then receives the alternativa

The alternativa is the transition from novillero and professional matador. It can take place in any bullring around the world, regardless of its category.

For this occasion, the aspirant novillero is finally allowed to wear gold braid.

The short ceremony takes place at the beginning of the first bull’s tercio de muerte, right before the about to become matador starts his faena.

The senior matador (the one who received the alternativa first of the three matadores present in the bullring) acts as padrino (godfather) to the newcomer. He hands him the estoque (sword) and the muleta (red cape) along with a few words of wisdom and encouragement.

The second most experienced matador acts as a testigo (witness) to the occasion.

The only difference between a bullfight in which an alternativa takes places and a regular fight is the order in which each fight takes place:

  1. That the death of the first bull of the fight, which is usually that of the most experienced matador, is conceded to the new matador.
  2. The second bull is for the godfather (the senior matador).
  3. The second matador in seniority, the witness, fights the third of the bulls.
  4. The rest of the bulls are fought in the regular order according to the matadores‘ seniority. So the fourth bull is for the newcomer.
  5. The fifth bull is for the second matador in seniority.
  6. And the sixth and final bull is for the most experienced matador.

Finally, he gets his confirmación

The confirmación de alternativa is the act by which the bullfighter validates his alternativa.

This happens the day that the matador acts for the first time, after taking the alternative, at the Plaza de Las Ventas (Madrid).

What are the differences in a corrida de rejones?

Not many, really. The main one as I previously explained, is that the rejoneador or mounted bullfighter fights on horseback, assisted by subalternos (secondary bullfighters) on foot.

As in a corrida on foot, the rejoneador receives the bull after it enters the ring.

He or she tries to provoke the bull to attack and run after the galloping horse (as in the matadores do with their capote).

Similarly to a regular one, a corrida de rejones is also divided into three stages.

Tercio de varas

Thoughtout the tercio de varas, the rejoneador stabs one or two of rejones de castigo (punishment lances of) into the bull’s back. As with the puyazos of a standard corrida, the rejones de castigo weaken the bull through blood loss to allow a less dangerous confrontation between the rejoneador and the bull.

Tercio de banderillas

At the same time, in a corrida de rejones, the rejoneador places up to six banderillas (also called rosetas). This tercio is exactly the same as the tercio de banderillas in classic bullfighting. The rejoneador may also use smaller banderillas to show his ability to approach the bull.

However, it’s during this stage that the rejoneador displays his skill and nerve, making the performance a spectacle similar to the matador’s faena during the tercio de muerte. The rejoneador may even decide to touch the bull’s head while it charges and pirouettes and other equestrian tricks.

The tercio de bandilleras is where the public will most evaluate the rejoneador performance.

Tercio de muerte

Finally the rejoneador kills the bull with a rejón de muerte (lance of death). The rejón de muerte is a sword shaped into a lance.

Ideally, the bull dies quickly and cleanly. However, on some occasions the bullfighter will need a second attempt.

Is it always the same horse?


A rejoneador often use several horses during a performance. They are of various single and mixed breeds.

Typically the rider has at least one of each of the following horses:

  • A parade horse – physically attractive and disciplined.
  • A horse for the tercio de varas (entrance of bull) – very fast and brave.
  • A horse for the tercio de banderillas – fast, agile, and with a natural instinct for fooling the bull.
  • A horse for the tercio de muerte (death of bull) – very steady.

The horses are extremely well trained in dressage.

This article is part of a complete tutorial about bullfighting in Spain where you can read all the information you need to make the most out of your experience.

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

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