Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Fire leaping and samurai battles: Are these the world's craziest horse festivals?

By Sheena McKenzie
August 26, 2013 -- Updated 1131 GMT (1931 HKT)
Each year, the pretty city of Siena in Tuscany is transformed into a medieval race track, with around 50,000 spectators cheering on 10 bareback riders. As the dust settles on this year's Palio di Siena, CNN takes a look at five weird and wonderful horse festivals from around the world. Each year, the pretty city of Siena in Tuscany is transformed into a medieval race track, with around 50,000 spectators cheering on 10 bareback riders. As the dust settles on this year's Palio di Siena, CNN takes a look at five weird and wonderful horse festivals from around the world.
HIDE CAPTION
Ride into the sunset
1. Palio di Siena, Italy
2. Luminarias Festival, Spain
3. White Turf, Switzerland
4. Pasola Festival, Indonesia
5. Soma-Nomaoi Festival, Japan
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As the dust settles on Italy's Palio de Siena, CNN looks at wild horse festivals
  • Includes fire leaping in Spain and samurai battles in Japan
  • A world away from traditional races such as Royal Ascot or Kentucky Derby
  • Some ancient horse shows date back to 10th Century

Editor's note: Winning Post is CNN's monthly horse racing show. Click here for program times and latest features.

(CNN) -- Each summer, more than 50,000 people pour into a cobblestone square in Tuscany for a gut-wrenching 90-seconds.

That's all it takes for the flamboyantly dressed jockeys of Italy's legendary horse race -- Palio di Siena -- to race bareback around the medieval square.

It's been called the "most dangerous horse race in the world" -- about as far away as you can get from the genteel green lawns of Britain's Royal Ascot or the multimillion prize money bestowed on America's Kentucky Derby.

Now as the dust settles on this year's colorful Palio di Siena, CNN takes a look at five weird and wonderful horse festivals from across the world.

The Hannon family's racing dynasty
Are you fit enough to be a jockey?
Horse racing's 'speed gene' test

Palio di Siena, Italy

On two days each year, the pretty town of Siena in northern Tuscany is transformed into an elaborate medieval race track, with 10 riders careering around the iconic city square three times.

Dating back to the 17th century, each rider represents their local neighborhood, competing not just for the coveted victory banner -- but good luck for the coming year.

Read: Hot to trot -- jockey fashion secrets

Luminarias Festival, Spain

Fire and horses may seem like an unlikely combination, but that's exactly the dramatic scene which takes place in a small town in central Spain each year.

Horse are ridden over blazing tree branches as part of the Luminaries Festival in San Bartolome de Pinares, in an effort to purify and protect the animals.

The controversial tradition, which has been criticized by animal welfare groups, dates back 500 years and is held on the eve of Saint Anthony's Day.

Watch: From camel racing to prized jockey

White Turf, Switzerland

From fiery Spain to snowy Switzerland -- there's not a bonfire in sight at the glitzy White Turf racing carnival, held on the frozen Lake St Moritz.

The remarkable competition includes skijoring, where horses thunder around the icy track while their riders hold on for dear life to a harness at the back, trailing behind on skis.

Don't let the demure appearance fool you. Audrey Hepburn, better known as Eliza Doolittle in 1964 film My Fair Lady, knew how to scream obscenities with the best of them -- especially at the races. Don't let the demure appearance fool you. Audrey Hepburn, better known as Eliza Doolittle in 1964 film My Fair Lady, knew how to scream obscenities with the best of them -- especially at the races.
Fairest of them all
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
Royal Ascot: Lords and My Fair Ladies Royal Ascot: Lords and My Fair Ladies
It might look like a palace, but this is in fact the Grand Stables in Chantilly, northern France. It might look like a palace, but this is in fact the Grand Stables in Chantilly, northern France.
Fit for a prince
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
France\'s $3M horse museum France's $3M horse museum
Colorful, shiny, and flamboyant. Welcome to the world of jockey silks. They might look like circus costumes, but these uniforms have a rich tradition and important function. Colorful, shiny, and flamboyant. Welcome to the world of jockey silks. They might look like circus costumes, but these uniforms have a rich tradition and important function.
Rainbow riders
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Dressed to impress Dressed to impress

In such extreme weather -- around -20C -- fur coats are the order of the day for the champagne-sipping spectators who are perhaps better known for their luxury lifestyles than racing tips.

Read: Cool racing -- horses battle on snow

Pasola Festival, Indonesia

The glitz and glam of snow-capped St Moritz couldn't be further from the spear-wielding horsemen of Indonesia's annual Pasola Festival.

The fierce festival -- held on the island of Sumba -- sees two teams go head-to-head on elaborately decorated horses, throwing blunt spears at each other as part of an ancient ritual battle.

It is believed that every drop of blood spilled will bring a good harvest.

Soma-Nomaoi Festival, Japan

If you like your ancient festivals a little less violent, there's the 1,000-year-old Soma-Nomaoi wild horse chase in central Japan.

The three-day festival sees samurai horsemen compete in different challenges -- from racing over a one kilometer track to battling over sacred flags.

Dressed in extravagant armor, helmets, and carrying swords, the fantastical warriors appear to have stepped straight out from the 10th Century.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
Ever thought zebras couldn't be tamed? Think again. Gary Witheford has a remarkable way with wild animals -- which he proved after a pub boast.
October 9, 2014 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
The internet went wild for so-called "horse yoga" -- but there was something deeper going on that reconnects humans with the animal world.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
The going is always soft and the only permanent building is a toilet block. It's the antithesis to the pomp of Royal Ascot ... welcome to Irish beach racing.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1107 GMT (1907 HKT)
Each August, over a thousand tents and hundreds of horses converge on Little Big Horn River in Montana for the Crow Fair and Rodeo.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 0957 GMT (1757 HKT)
Show me the money! Hollywood star Tom Cruise was a big hit when he visited the Glorious Goodwood festival.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Little-known outside the tribes of the Rocky Mountains in the American northwest, Indian Relay is a "magical" horse-racing relay.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
Now in his 50s, one of the world's most successful jockeys explains why he gave up acting to return to the sport that nearly crippled him.
Winning Post's Francesca Cumani is impressed by the all-round multitasking skills of Ireland's champion trainer Aidan O'Brien.
June 7, 2014 -- Updated 0853 GMT (1653 HKT)
 An infrared camera was used to create this image.) A horse and exercise rider head to the main track for morning training at Belmont Park on June 4, 2014 in Elmont, New York.
More people have walked on the moon than have won the fabled Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing. California Chrome is seeking to square that score.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
A long history of controversy made him the "enfant terrible" of horse racing, but veteran jockey Kieren Fallon is looking for redemption.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1131 GMT (1931 HKT)
Joel Rosario on Animal Kingdom competes to win the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race, at Meydan race track in Dubai on March 30, 2013. The 2011 Kentucky Derby winner (11/2), trained by American Graham Motion and ridden by Rosario, beat home English raider Red Cadeaux by two lengths while another English-trained runner Planteur was third.
With owners ranging from presidents to sheikhs and queens, horse racing is known as the "Sport of Kings" for good reason.
ADVERTISEMENT