Alain Bonijol
Jeff Pledge

There was a great article in the last La Divisa, No 158, by its editor Tristan Wood, on the changes there have been over the years in the way bulls are picced. Among other more interesting things, it had quite a long quote from a post I had written on the Internet, concerning Alain Bonijol, the French supplier of picadors' horses. I think I said Alain was just about the best thing since sliced bread, or something like that. He is putting through a quiet revolution, or not so quiet, in the way the suerte de varas is run in France, and it has to be said that bullring audiences, or some of them at least, are reacting very positively to a new, or perhaps old, way of giving the pics.

In late May 2004, Alain's horses appeared for the first time at the Whitsun feria in Vic-Fezensac, which in my book is certainly the premier fair in the taurine world today. They made a great contribution, especially on the historic Whit Sunday, one of the most exhausting but rewarding days I've ever had in a bullring. Two corridas, morning and afternoon (with a Gascon lunch in between), and over 40 pics. One bull was given a vuelta, another had a great appeal for one (rightly not granted), while a third had an appeal and for me deserved his vuelta but didn't get it. And all this in one day. Last year, in Vic's not too distant neighbour ring in Céret, Alain took an ovation at the end of the feria, as Jock Richardson reported in La Divisa No 154, and this year in Vic he repeated the feat. I've never before, in the history of the corrida, heard of a horse contractor being applauded like this, called out for a real ovation at the end, just like a ganadero or mayoral.

The details of all this belong in a separate account. But I would like to quote some words from Jock's article about Céret 2003. He said that everyone present contributed to ensuring that “the suerte de varas is treated here with the seriousness it deserves. When it is so treated … it adds a whole new dimension to the corrida. More importantly, it does not spoil the bull in any way for the subsequent suertes.”

Before he wrote that, Jock thought about it. Whether he really meant “new” dimension I'm not sure (and the word “more” seems superfluous to me), but such forces as may be guiding the development of the fiesta brava would do well to listen. Experiences like this in a bullring forge a new kind of afición, and give the occasional old aficionado enormous pleasure and satisfaction.

I told Tristan some time ago that I would try to interview Alain Bonijol for La Divisa , and, just after the Vic fair of 2004, I invited him (and Aurélia) round for dinner. I can't really claim that we are close personal friends, but Alain at least knows who I am. When I was an active aficionado práctico, a decade ago now, most of my “career” took place in his practice ring, and he and his friends often intervened to get me out of trouble. His place is only a few miles away from us, over the hills of the Costières, in the hamlet of Franquevaux on the edge of the Camargue, and he has there what must be one of the busiest taurine installations in France, if not the world. There always seems to be something going on there. In fact, I had my 60th birthday party there, in 2003, in the form of an entertaining fiesta campera (see La Divisa No 153), though that doesn't seem to rate a plaque on the wall.

Alain Bonijol was born in 1954 in Nîmes. In the early 1970s, he was playing around at trying to become a torero, and into the early 1980s he was organising novilladas for himself to perform in, often at a financial loss to himself, of course. In all he had around a hundred novilladas, in France and Spain. I remember seeing him one Saturday night in September 1984, in St Gilles near Nîmes, where he was not actually bad – he cut a decent ear – but was convincingly outperformed by Jaime Malaver junior (anyone remember him?) and Fernando Lozano. By 1986, now into his thirties, Alain was beginning to draw some conclusions about his prospects as a torero, and he spotted another niche for himself. He set about learning, from scratch, how to ride and train horses. When I first met him, in 1993, he already had his present place, about equidistant from Nîmes and Arles, whose rings are now two great customers of his, though they weren't then. He was servicing minor shows, here and there, outside the major ferias.

His first breakthrough came in the late 1990s, when he got the contract in Arles, towards the end of Hubert Yonnet's long reign there. Arles has two big ferias each year and various other minor events. Alain's position was greatly strengthened when he was taken on in Nîmes too, in 2000. Nîmes has three ferias a year, and really counts as the capital of taurine France. The ring there was at the time being run by a régie, a municipal body which, under EU rules on public procurement, had to put all contracts over a certain value out to open tender, and Alain slipped in a bid and snaffled the job from under the nose of the very long-term incumbent.

This was the firm of Heyral, which was by then being run by the young Philippe, after the retirement and death of his father Louis (or Loulou), who wrote a fascinating book called Mes chevaux de picador , which includes photos from the period before and just after the first World War, when grandfather Jacques was developing the first petos to be seen in the public corrida. These were much lighter and smaller than the present model, offering far less protection.

I'm not sure how well the story was publicised in Spain, but when Luis Francisco Esplá took on six bulls in a corrida-concurso in Zaragoza in June 2000, there was a simultaneous concurso of horse contractors, and Bonijol won, against Chopera's man Fontecha and Navarro from Valencia. The winner in 2001 was Fontecha. How on earth this was judged, and who by, I have no idea. Some might see it as a bit like giving a prize to the best team of toilet attendants, but I wouldn't agree. Better horses can make a real difference to the lidia. I also reckon that for aficionados to become aware of all that is involved here is a great way for them to deepen their knowledge and appreciation.

Alain has developed the Kevlar peto. Kevlar is a registered name, by the way, not to be used generically. It belongs to Dupont, like Roundup does to Monsanto, and the material is used for many sorts of protective garments and equipment, including bullet-resistant jackets. The website says that “ KEVLAR ® performance technology combines high strength with light weight and comfort with protection. It protects against punctures, cuts, gashes and slashes. Because its lightweight strength enhances manual dexterity and comfort while helping to prevent accidents and injuries, workers can focus on the job at-hand without worrying about the effectiveness of their protection, and their management can enjoy increased on-the-job morale, improved performance and lower medical costs”.

You can't say fairer than that, though I'm not sure that the person who wrote it was really thinking of a picador's horse as the worker and the picador as his management. If the latter enjoys increased on-the-job morale, I think that's wonderful.

Alain has already supplied his equipment to other piccing outfits elsewhere, including Seville, where he took payment in the form of a horse…

Although he is now rising 50, Alain Bonijol is very lean and wiry, with tousled black hair which makes him look fortyish at most. His idea of alcohol consumption during our meal was one beer, not finished, and a couple of glasses of wine. He sat for an hour or more, talking intensely, with half a glass of red in front of him, something I could never do in all my born days. Like a lot of people involved with the bulls, he is a very talkative sort of chap, when he gets going. However, he talks not only at length but also pretty cogently. During our meal I did, though, manage to put a couple of direct questions. No more than a couple, to be honest. (Yes, Jeff Pledge, out-talked). One of them was whether he had, in developing his business, studied the history of the suerte de varas, this being one of my own great interests. I suggested above that what he is doing is harking back to earlier forms in our favorite spectacle. No, he said, he hadn't looked at the past. He had just looked at the present and thought about what could be done to improve it. His great idea is the “cheval acteur”, the horse as an active participant in the corrida, not just an object to be thumped into.

There was thus no point in asking Alain what the suerte de varas was really like around 1850. This, to me, is one of the central questions for the taurine historian, as is how the varilarguero began to turn into the picador a century before.

Funnily enough, and quite by accident really, Alain came to us on the evening the Beneficiencia was being televised live from Madrid, and he had some comments to make on the performance of the horses there, especially one who, after the bull charged and then stepped back, fell over towards the bull. The main thing Alain's horses are trained to do is to keep their balance when they are hit, allowing themselves to be pushed along or around, rather than thrown over. They can also regain their balance when they do lose it, getting up off the ground, and they certainly never just collapse.

Alain is adamant that his horses are not “drugged” (which really only means tranquillised, rather than given anything hallucinogenic), and certainly they look lively enough in the ring. Their ears are stopped up, however, with crumpled newspaper. I should have asked precisely why, but didn't think to. A nice detail is that they are blindfolded with properly made hoods, rather than just a bit of rag. Both eyes are covered.

Another nice detail is that the horses are not normally accompanied in the ring by a monosabio or two with sticks, thwacking and jabbing them to no particular purpose. Everybody is behind the fence, but ready to jump out when necessary, especially Alain himself.

I once took part in a training session in Alain's ring, when I was still young and vigorous. He has built, on a pair of wheels from some piece of farm machinery, a kind of heavy-duty carretón, which has a pole with a flat plate on the end sticking out the front. Several hefty blokes shove it into the horse, who is wearing his peto, and try to push him over or back, and he learns how to handle the pressure. This is the only ram I've ever seen in a bullring. I've also, more recently, seen Alain practising with a live bull (but semi-tame, one who would not persist in hard charges, just giving occasional bashes), with no blindfold on the horse. This, he told me, is a technique for training, not for use in real corridas, but I wonder where it might lead.

One of the sillier criticisms I've come across of Alain's horses is that the way they resist being thrown over prevents us seeing the full power and fury of the bull, to the detriment of the spectacle. His Kevlar peto, it seems, also offers less purchase to the horns. The assumption seems to be that we ought to be allowed to see overthrows more often. To me, this is a bit like saying, in the days before the peto, that the gauge of the bull's bravura was the number of dead and injured horses. Surely it's clear that when the horse is thrown over neither purpose of the pic (to test the bull, and to reduce him and slow him down) is being served. Not that the odd derribo isn't inevitable, but it is to be avoided, not invited.

Alain's horses are famous for being small and lively, but honestly the difference in size doesn't seem that great to me, compared with the usual “percherón”. The real difference is in the training. By the way, the Percheron is a quite specific French (and US) breed of draft horse, not nearly as big as some others, like the Suffok punch, but in Spanish the name seems to be used for any draft horse. Alain prefers a crossbred, draft x saddle, the draft side often being Breton, Comtois, both again quite small as draft breeds go, or what he calls a cob.

Alain is quite open about his ambition to be the horse contractor in Madrid. He says that Las Ventas is the ring that shows the way, but I have to add that as far as I can see it is Alain Bonijol who is showing the way at the moment. For the time being, at least, he has replaced Fontecha in Vic-Fezensac, and he has now been booked by the Choperas for Bayonne too. Support like that of the Choperas means a lot, and gives Alain a great opening into Spain, but I wonder if he should not look out with some care for his home market. There is a limit to the number of corridas a single outfit can service at the same time. In 2004 Alain provided the horses for both Vic and Nîmes, in the twin Whitsun fairs. He currently has 17 piccing horses, plus three more in training. He could easily find himself spread very thin if he aimed too high and wide. His own presence counts, and he can't be in two places at once.

Madrid, with its great May-June fair, and its full season as well, would be an awful lot for Alain to chew on, even if he could bite it off. There's no way he could do Madrid on the side, and his business would have to be expanded and relocated. At the moment, in fact, he seems to have pretty much of a monopoly in his own market (like Curro Romero or Luis Francisco Esplá – just no one else quite like him). This cannot be a good thing, and it can't last. His Javier Conde or his Luis Miguel Encabo is bound to spring up, and good luck to him, says I. Alain told me that he would welcome this.

Another thing, however, is Spanish nationalist protectionism. As soon as there is a real slip, some of them are likely to be down on him like a ton o' bricks. But honestly, doesn't it show how the world (and Europe) has developed? Twenty years ago, let alone 50 or 100, the idea of a Frenchman being horse contractor in Madrid would have been laughed out of court. Now, it looks a real possibility.

And a worrying one, if it takes him away from where I am in France. He really is one of the best things since sliced bread, a very down-to-earth bloke, but something of a visionary in his way, and one whose vision is taking shape out on the sand before our very eyes, or mine anyway. The toros and the toreros will always be the main thing, of course, but some of the toreros are horses. What Alain Bonijol has achieved so far is the most positive and encouraging structural development I've seen in the corrida in my 40 years as an aficionado.

What interests me most is how far all this can go. In the early days of the corrida, 200 years ago, the suerte de varas was not just the beginning of the show. It was really the whole thing. The picadors stayed in the ring thoughout the corrida, except when going for remounts, and work with the muleta and sword was just a little interval now and then, for tidying up. (I may be going a little far there – perhaps this view should be “nuanced”). Over the decades, the emphasis has gradually shifted, and now the main thing nearly everyone is waiting for is the faena de muleta, which often takes well over half the time the bull is in the ring.

There is no reason to think that this kind of evolution in the corrida has now stopped. It could well go into reverse, as I have suggested it may have done under Alain Bonijol's influence, or it could slide off in other, new directions. The corrida might even split into different kinds of spectacle, which could lead us down some very interesting paths. I'm very happy to be an aficionado at this juncture in the history of the corrida, and I plan to follow developments as closely as I can.