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Cavalls, Cavalls, Cavalls

The smallest of the three main Balearic islands, Menorca is circumscribed by a 400-year-old 186 km dirt trail called the Camí de Cavalls ("path of horses" in Catalan). Originally established to connect the island’s costal defenses, the trail remains in full use today, repurposed to guide the hordes of summering Italians, Germans, and English to the isolated beaches and hidden coves that comprise Menorca’s pocked coastline. Even still, the path maintains its equine origins, as bands of horses are shuffled between pasture and stable by local caretakers and tour groups on horseback push aside beachgoers laden with packs and bags.

The island in fact has its own distinct breed of horse, characterized by its deep black coat and slender physique, the latter of which makes it better fit for riding than for labor and particularly apt at doma minorquín, a riding style in which the horse is reared back on its hind legs for extended periods so that it appears to be dancing. This special talent is central to the island’s summer festivals, which ostensibly celebrate a village’s patron saint but in truth are celebrations of Menorca’s abundant hippophilia.

Throughout the summer are a panoply of such festivals, where under canopies of pastel streamers a procession of riders pass through meandering crowds to a plaza thronged with locals and tourists alike. The horses are attired with floral accents, which are set off by the animals' obsidian coat like wildflowers in a lava field. The crowds part as the horses enter the plaza where they are then reared up again and again to encouraging cheers from the crowd, each “hurrah” seducing a rider to hazard longer and higher and more dangerous acts. Small groups of revelers attempt with outstretched arms to protract the horses' sallies while a single festive waltz is played over and again by local musicians on a nearby grandstand.

Touching the stallions is considered good luck, but to be directly under a high rear is something altogether more thrilling even as it is terrifying, as awe quickly morphs into fear when a half ton of black bone and muscle begins crashing down above you. The rush is a literalization of the Spanish idiom meterse entre las patas de los caballos ("to put oneself under the legs of the horse"), which means to get out of one’s depth or to get oneself in a troubling situation.

Above all, these festivals evoke a sense of eternity that lies at the heart of any tradition, connecting participants with all those past and future.  Even now among the multitude of cell phones and selfie sticks that crown the mobs little is changed: the familiar waltz played over and over, the row upon row of local riders dressed in traditional garb, the repeated hoists and exuberant cheers, each of these enacted again and again for whole days at a time yet somehow never palling but instead holding the audience in a fevered pitch that lasts long after the music has stopped and the last horse has gone off into the darkness.


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