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Spanish town criticized for tradition of horses and riders jumping through bonfires

Every winter, horses and riders have been jumping through bonfires in an isolated village of the barren landscape of Avila, northeast of Madrid.

The tradition, which honors Saint Anthony the Abbot, dates back five centuries to when Catholic rituals were used to fight the medieval plagues.

Defying modernity, the inhabitants of San Bartolome de Pinares have kept the “luminarias” tradition alive, even against the criticism from animal-rights groups and the rigours of an economic crisis that has sent young people into the cities.

But many of the young people return every winter to the village for the festival, including 18-year-old Maria Alonso Costumero, who lives and studies in Madrid.

“The funnest thing about it is to experience it with your people,” she says.

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In recent years, tourists, journalists and photography aficionados have brought the festival to the attention of many, including the pro-animal rights groups.

The most vocal critics say the “luminarias” break regional and national laws of animal protection and public entertainment shows.

One group, the Observatory of Justice and Animal Defense, filed a complaint against the regional government in 2013.

In its reply, the government of Castilla y Leon, the region where San Bortolome falls, replied that vets sent by authorities couldn’t find any injuries by the bonfires in the horses.