IN PICTURES: The Siena Palio, Italy’s historic horse race

The Palio di Siena is a twice-annual festival that sees the Tuscan city's various districts compete in a bareback horse race.

IN PICTURES: The Siena Palio, Italy's historic horse race
The Palio di Siena, one of Italy's oldest horse races. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Dating back centuries, it's one of Siena's most important traditions and thousands of locals and tourists gather in the central piazza to watch it unfold.

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The first of this year's races – known as the Palio of Provenzano in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, an icon kept in a local church – takes place on the evening of July 2nd.

There's a second on August 16th, as well as a series of trial runs in the days leading up to each race.

Children cheer their local district. Photo: Nico Casamassima/AFP

For the Siennese, the contest is a chance to celebrate local pride and honour the city's long history. 

But the event isn't without its controversy, and city authorities have passed regulations aimed at ensuring the animals' wellbeing after campaigners criticized the fact several horses have died in the race over the years.

A collision in July 2016. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

The successor to earlier races run on different courses or on buffalo and donkeys, the Palio as we know it today first took place in 1633. Many of the traditions established in its earliest years still remain in place.

The day begins with a final trial, known as the 'provaccia', that takes place on the morning of the race. 

Horses and riders then receive a blessing from their local priest, who concludes with the traditional commendation: “Go, and return victorious!”

Blessing a horse and its rider. Photo: Claudio Giovannini/AFP

The afternoon sees a costumed parade through the city centre, with participants carrying flags showing the symbol of their district or 'contrada'.

Each one is named for an animal or symbol and has its own colours, as well its historic allies and rivals among the other contrade.

Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Only ten of the city's 17 districts take part, according to a limit imposed in the 18th century to reduce the number of accidents. The seven which didn't participate the previous year automatically get a spot, with the remaining three chosen by drawing lots.

There is huge rivalry between the districts, and the district that goes the longest time without a victory gets the moniker 'nonna' (grandma).


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The parade, or Corteo Storico, includes around 600 people dressed in medieval costume, from musicians to flag-bearers known as 'alfieri'.

The procession leads spectators to the impressive Piazza del Campo where the race takes place. 

Arriving in Piazza del Campo. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

After a signal is sounded around 7:30 pm, nine of the ten horses line up behind a rope and wait for the final horse, selected at random and called the rincorsa, to gallop into the starting area – the cue for a starter to pull the rope away and begin the race.

The horses prepare to start. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

The competitors must run three laps around the sloping medieval square, which is covered with earth and protected with crash barriers for the occasion.

The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line – with or without its rider, who may well fall off.

Photos: Claudio Giovannini, Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

The jockeys each carry a long whip, which they are allowed to use not only to encourage their own horse, but also to distract or jostle other riders and their horses.

After all the anticipation the race is over very quickly, rarely lasting longer than a minute and a half.

Immediately afterwards comes the awarding of the prize that gives the race its name: a palio, or banner, usually decorated by a local artist.

The victory is a huge source of pride for the winning contrada.

The Onda district celebrates its victory in the August 2017 Palio. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The celebrations conclude with a hymn of thanksgiving at the nearby church of Santa Maria in Provenzano.

There are further festivities in the autumn, when the winning contrada hosts a victory dinner at which its champion horse is the guest of honour.

The Pantera district won the Palio with its horse Choci in July 2006. Photo: Roberto Carli/AFP



OPINION: It’s time to take horse-drawn carriages off the streets of Mallorca

Horse-drawn carriage rides for tourists have been banned in other cities around the world but they still operate on the Balearic island of Mallorca.

OPINION: It's time to take horse-drawn carriages off the streets of Mallorca
Photo: miff32/Depositphotos

When Palma city hall introduced a measure during the heatwave this summer to stop horse-drawn carriages during the hottest part of the day  – between 12 noon and 5pm on days when heat alerts were in place – it caused fury amongst carriage drivers who said their livelihoods were threatened. 

It was, they argued, a long tradition and they followed regulations imposed by the town council to ensure the horses were well cared for.

A recent protest by locals in Palma. Photo: Asociacion Animalista ICA.

Despite calls by local animal rights groups and pledges by councillors to tighten animals rights legislation concerning the horse-drawn rides, a carriage ride is still a popular activity among tourists.   

But Elisa Allen, who recently visited the island, argues that it's time to put a stop to it. Here she explains why:

Two years ago, a horse used in Mallorca's carriage industry was killed when he suddenly bolted and crashed into a wall, panic-stricken, after being startled by a tourist who wanted to pet him. This accident not only cost the horse his life but also put bystanders at risk of serious injury.

Yet, it's far from an isolated incident. Wherever there are carriage rides, there will be accidents – and lives will be endangered. Horses startle easily and are extremely sensitive to loud and unexpected noises, and busy city streets have plenty of both, which often leads to accidents. The honk of a car horn – or even just an insect bite – can be enough to trigger a horse to bolt.

In New York City, a frightened horse collided with some parked cars and flipped his carriage over onto himself, becoming pinned under the wreckage. He survived but was led off limping and bleeding from a leg wound. In July 2011, in New York City, three tourists and a carriage driver were hurt when a taxi rear-ended a horse-drawn carriage near Central Park. One passenger was thrown to the pavement, and the driver sustained a serious head injury. The horse was knocked to the ground, and the carriage fell on top of him. In Rome, a 17-year-old horse named Birillo fell and broke his leg on a cobbled street after being hit by a lorry. He writhed in agony for four hours before a veterinarian finally arrived to euthanise him. Another horse died after being struck by a car.

But, despite such incidents and the danger of more to come, exhausted horses in Mallorca are still being forced to pull carriages through the island's busy tourist spots of Palma, Alcúdia, and Sant Llorenç des Cardassar even in the summer months, when temperatures regularly reach 40 degrees, causing many to collapse from heat exhaustion. In addition, pounding the pavement day in and day out takes a considerable toll on horses' legs, hooves, backs, and lungs, and they commonly suffer from respiratory ailments as a result of breathing in exhaust fumes.

In response to similar horse-drawn carriage accidents, many cities, including Barcelona, Beijing, Las Vegas, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, and Toronto, have banned carriage rides, making the simple and ethical choice to retire their beleaguered horses and relegate the carriages to the dustbin of history, where they belong. Mallorca's cities must follow suit. They could replace the use of horses with modern, eco-friendly, electric-powered antique cars, which would retain the nostalgic flair but eliminate the cruelty to horses.

PETA have launched a petition asking authorities in Mallorca to ban horse-drawn carriage rides. 

Elisa Allen is the director of animal rights campaigning group PETA UK

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