I would pay to be a “mulillero”
“Being a “mulillero is a passion that I would even pay to do”, says Chema Zabalza, who has been one for 23 years.
First, who is a “mulillero”? They are horsemen, dressed in black with capes as did mounted officials in the 17th century. Behind them go two groups of three “mulillas” – which translated literally means small mules, although these mules are horses which will later be used to drag the dead bulls from the ring. These “mulillas” are dressed in their finest – bells and colorful pennants attached to their harnesses.
Chema Zabalza has been a “mulillero” for 23 years. When he heard that people were needed with a knowledge of horses, Zabalza never doubted an instant in joining the team. In Pamplona, if you put an ad in the newspapers asking for “mulilleros”, close to 1,000 may apply for the post. There has been a waiting list of 300 in the line for years.
Now there are nine “mulilleros” – one of the youngest is Chema Zabalzaś brother. The most veteran, almost 40 years as a “mulillero”.
Duties of the “mulillero”
Among his duties, Zabalza checks out all the gear of the horses to make sure all is in order. Zabalza must also decide how to hook up the bull. Once in the ring, and after the “paseíllo”” parade of horsemen and “mulillas” receive from the president of the fight the keys to the enclosure from which the bulls enter the ring. They gallop around the ring one or two times and deliver the keys to the man in charge of the corrals in a symbolic act.
In spite of the work that this job implies, Zabalza and his companions work ahead of time to have as much prepared as possible to have some time to enjoy the fiesta. They begin at 4 p.m. and finish around 9 p.m. The mounted horses are taken to Dominicos, where they wait to calm their nerves until the camera session with the “mulillas” is finished.
“The first thing we do is go to the bullring and harness the horses. We clean them up a bit, and we are ready at 15 minutes to 5 p.m. to go down the Paseo de Hemingway, Estafeta and Mercaderes or find an alternative route if there are too many people in the streets, and we stop at the Town Hall where everybody is waiting with cameras.
This is the moment when the “mulilleros” have to be the most careful. According to Zabalza, “we have parents who want a picture with their children, and they do not worry about stepping under and around the horses. Others, who know a little bit about horses, respect them and act in a different way.” We have to watch out for people who go with sugar cubes and carrots because that makes the horses hard to control. At first the animals are very nervous, but they relax later on, and, on the last day, you can almost throw a bomb at them with no reaction. The company tries to use the same horses year after year. Y con los “mulillos”. They are not, however, trained to stand noise, which comes with experience.
Once in the ring, at 5:30 p.m., the horsemen have arrived from Dominicos, joining the “mullilos” and the Pamplonesa Band head for the bullring. If anything goes wrong, there are substitute horses waiting.
“The nice part”, says Zabalza, “is that we can see the bullfight from a privileged area behind the barriers in the ring and right in the middle of everything. We see the matadors face-to-face as well as all the problems that take place before and after the fight. You see how much these people suffer when they step onto the sand because they are risking their lives. We see the gorings exactly at the moment they happen, and when they are badly wounded.”
Two “mulilleros” are in charge of hooking up and and dragging out the dead bulls while the others hold it down. Some years ago, there was an accident in the bullring of Pamplona. As prepared as we are, we never know if, for some reason, the “mulillos” are going to behave. “If the horses say that they are going ahead, you do not stop them because a really startled horse cannot be stopped,” says Zabalza, remembering how bad it was once when the “mulillos” began to race around the ring at the hour of picking up the dead bull. They still do not care for the smell of blood. We were lucky to be able to stop themhim.” On the other hand, after the initial jolt of fear, the public applauded and cheered.
One of the little-known responsibilities that is extremely important during the fiesta is that no spectators are hurt. Zabalza explains that there have been “mulilleros” badly injured, but we concentrate on the safety of the streets each year. If all goes well, the “mulilleros” can then enjoy Sanfermines.
Text and photos by Carmen Gómez
Translation by Lucinda Poole