It was a simple phrase, invitación a una tienta, a chance to visit a Spanish bull ranch where I would be allowed to face an animal that wanted to kill me. Yet the words, delivered casually by my Spanish landlady, promised more than an exercise in violence and danger—they were an invitation to experience a personal "moment of truth" and the fulfillment of a dream.
In 1964 I was an exchange student at the University of Salamanca, 110 miles northwest of Madrid. Salamanca is one of the major districts in Spain where brave bulls are raised. It had taken me nine years, from the time I saw my first corrida, to get this close. During those years I learned and endlessly practiced the beautiful, complicated movements of la fiesta brava and I longed for the ultimate confrontation.
I had been very lucky to live with the family of Señorita Concha Infante, a tall, spare woman in her mid-fifties who was infinitely patient with me and my severe case of bull fever. She understood the passionate attraction of the bullfight, man's domination of a wild animal, with its heady combination of art, danger, bravery and death. While I admired the formal bullfights in the big rings, I sought a more personal satisfaction.
I had pleaded with Concha to wangle me an invitation to a tienta, at which fighting stock is tested. Concha had several cousins who owned bull ranches outside Salamanca and it was one of them, Carlos Sánchez Rico, who agreed to let me participate. Carlos looked like the model of a Spanish grandee: black hair combed straight back, strong features and a thin mustache beneath the sharp promontory of a nose. He met me at Concha's house and as we drove through the unyielding landscape, bright with February sunshine, he explained that today's event would be a retienta. Several cows would be retested to verify the results of a previous tienta and, in some cases, to assess the effect of motherhood on their bravery.
Brave cattle are highly specialized bovines, a separate subspecies whose breeding is as exacting as that of thoroughbreds, except that the desired quality is not speed, but ferocity. The tienta, in which aggressiveness is judged and evaluated, is the basic tool in the raising of fighting stock. These are wild animals, not forced or trained to charge; they do so by natural instinct. Only the fiercest animals are chosen for breeding or, in the case of bulls, for the ring. Bulls are caped only briefly when they are very young, since it is their innocence of the cape's deception that is the foundation of the bullfight. Sometimes bulls are caped illegally in the fields by young aspirants, and when they enter the ring years later, they are murderously dangerous, having already been exposed to the lure.
Since the bulls inherit much of their brave spirit from their mothers, the cows are worked exhaustively, both with capes and against a mounted picador, who holds a lance with a small steel tip. Those cows that charge the picador and the capes repeatedly, without provocation, are chosen to further the line. The rejects are destined to become beef. Fighting bulls have been raised on the Sánchez Rico ranch since the beginning of the century, but the bloodlines of the stock can be traced back to 1790.
About an hour out of Salamanca, Carlos turned the car off the main road onto a wide dirt track marked only by two large stones. A few minutes later a low stone ranch house with a red tile roof came into view. Some 300 yards farther down the lane I saw the curved wall of the practice ring; it sent an electric jolt through me.
Once introductions were made among the 10 or so participants, someone suggested we inspect the cattle to be tested after lunch. At the ring we climbed stone steps to the top of the walls that overlooked the corrals where the cows were waiting. It was a mistake. All I could see were horns, a thicket of them attached to half a dozen fighting cows. These were not snuffling 2-year-olds with buds for horns but animals whose armament had grown fully forward. Brave cows are as dangerous as bulls, only smaller. They are strong, extremely fast and virtually udderless. These cows were black and menacing as they stared back at us. The most formidable were two big 5-year-olds with plenty of weight and widely set stiletto horns. The old range mothers, called machorras, would be handled by the professional torero among us, a workmanlike but moderately succesful matador named José Luis Barrero.
The other members of the party were mostly experienced amateurs, family members and friends who liked to be part of the fun, tradition and danger of the tienta. The tienta is less formal than the ritualized structure of the corridas in the big plazas. All aspirants are given chances to cape the animals, but in no particular order. And while the work is directed by the professional, in this case Barrero, there is little rigid form to the action.
I'm sure that the lunch was delicious but I remember practically nothing about it, having left my appetite up on the plaza wall. All I could think about was what would happen after lunch. I knew I would face one of the smaller cows, but that was little consolation when I remembered that writer/aficionado Barnaby Conrad had received an eight-inch horn wound in his thigh at a tienta just like this one, a gash inflicted by a cow smaller than those in the corrals down the lane.