The Rules of Bullfighting

This article is from the November 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.

The Bullfight, What You Will See
by David Simmonds

At each event, called a corrida, six bulls are fought by three matadors. Each matador fights two bulls for approximately twenty minutes. The most experienced matador will fight the third and the last bull and the least experienced will fight the first and fourth bull.The matador will have the help of five assistants, usually three banderilleros and two picadores. The assistants are usually not dressed as colorfully as the matador. The spectacle starts with a trumpet blast which commences the paseo, or march, of the bullfighters. The second blast precedes the entrance of the bull.

The first person to approach the bull is the chief assistant, who will test the bull’s mood, speed, power and agility. The matador is watching carefully to see how the bull reacts.

The third trumpet signals the arrival of the picadores, on horseback, who carry long pikes with a steel tip which is prevented from penetrating the bull more than four inches by a metal guard. The purpose of this is to weaken the massive tossing muscle between the shoulder blades of the bull. The bull is reduced to carrying his head low at this point.

The crowd determines whether the bull is brave or a coward by the bull’s reaction to the pike. The brave bull will disregard the pain and charge even harder, while the cowardly bull is reluctant to charge again and is roundly booed by the crowd.

The bullring president determines how many picks the bull will receive, usually two or three. The picks are separated by periods of the bull’s being lured away by the banderilleros.

After the fourth trumpet the banderillos will try to place their banderillas in the bull’s withers (the ridge between the bull’s shoulder blades). This will further weaken the bull so that the matador can work more closely with the bull. Up to four pairs of the banderillas (wooden sticks decorated with colored paper) will be placed in the bull.

The fifth trumpet commences the faena, where the matador makes a series of passes with the muleta, a piece of thick red cloth draped over a short stick. First the matador removes his black winged hat and dedicates the death of the bull to the bullring president or to the crowd. The muleta can be held in either the left hand or draped over the espada, the killing sword, which is always held in the right hand. The pass is called the natural in which the muleta is first held in front of the matador to site the bull and is then swung across and away from the matador’s body, taking the bull with it. The matador will continue to perform a number of different passes varying in skill and showmanship until he has complete control over the charging bull.

The next step is to kill the bull. Standing some ten feet from the bull, the matador keeps the bull fixated on the muleta held low in his left hand and aims the espada between the shoulder blades. If the sword goes all the way in, the bull will drop immediately to his knees, dying. If the bull fails to die the matador may take the descabello, a sword with a short cross piece at the end, and stab it into the bull’s neck severing the spinal cord. The bullfight has come to an end.

The president now awards trophies to the matador, depending on his bravery and skill.

The trophy may be one or two ears, the tail and the hoof. The crowd will wave white handkerchiefs to encourage the president to award the trophies, continuing after the award in an attempt to get the matador to throw his trophies into the crowd. The crowd returns the honor by throwing flowers into the ring.