A man rides a horse through a bonfire on January 16, 2012 in the small village of San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain.
Credit: Jasper Juinen

You can lead a horse to water... and then you can make it jump through fire.

That's what people have done for hundreds of years each January in the village of San Bartolomé de Pinares, in central Spain.

To celebrate the feast day of St Anthony, the patron saint of animals, daring riders jump their steeds through a string of bonfires lining the narrow streets. Tradition has it that the smoke cleanses the horses and strengthens them for the coming year.

"It is really a pagan tradition," San Bartolomé native Anibal Martinez told Agence France-Presse. "With the smoke and the fire the animals are blessed so they will be purified for the whole year and won't get hurt or ill."

The horses are doused with water before the jump to prevent their coats from singeing.

Riders say the animals are used to it and do not suffer, but animal rights activists have long complained that the practice is cruel, according to Al Jazeera.

Yet the villagers of San Bartolomé remain fiercely attached to the tradition, which is said to have begun during a time of sickness around 500 years ago.

"There is no danger," 14-year-old participant Sonsoles Hernandez Martin told AFP.

"The tradition goes back to the Middle Ages and nothing has ever happened. It is a feeling you have to live through. If you don't ride, you don't live it."

  • A series of bonfires are set up throughout the narrow cobbled streets of San Bartolome de Pinares, in central Spain.
    Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez
  • A man rides a horse through a bonfire on January 16, 2012 in the small village of San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain.
    Credit: Jasper Juinen
  • A boy watches the bonfire from behind a pile of wood that will be used to feed the flames.
    Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez
  • The festival is also a time for general celebration. Here, man drinks liquor next to one of the bonfires in San Bartolome de Pinares.
    Credit: Jasper Juinen
  • Hundreds of riders take part in the annual festival.
    Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez
  • The parade begins at 9pm on the eve of Saint Anthony's Day. The feat demands strong nerves from the riders, who are supposed to throw their arms in the air as their horses enter the flames.
    Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez
  • Tradition has it that riding through fire purifies the horses and protects them through the year to come.
    Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez
  • The horses are doused with water beforehand to prevent their coats singeing.
    Credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez
  • After the night's festivities, a man pours water on the bonfire to extinguish the flames. After the horses have finished the course, the bonfires are used as barbecues.
    Credit: Jasper Juinen
  • It's not just horses that take part in the festival: San Anton is honored by many Catholic churches in Spain where thousands of animal lovers flock to their nearest place of worship to have their pets blessed. Here, Father Juan Manuel Villar blesses a dog at the San Anton church on January 17, 2012 in Madrid.
    Credit: Jasper Juinen

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