The description below is taken in part from the Wikipedia entry on bullfighting to avoid issues of copyright and partiality (it’s worth mentioning that my own writings elsewhere have been used as sources and references by Wikipedia itself). To really understand, there is a great deal more one needs to experience and know, but as a skeleton, an armature on which to hang what one ever one later sees and reads, this is as good a place to start as any.
The traditional and most famous form of Spanish-style bullfighting is called la corrida de toros, ‘the coursing [hunting at a run] of bulls’, or more generally la fiesta brava, ‘the fierce festival’. In a traditional corrida, three matadors, ‘killers’, each fight two bulls, each of which is at least four years old and weighs at least 460kg (1,000 lbs / 72 stone) in a primary category ring. Each matador has six assistants — two picadores (“lancers”) mounted on horseback, three banderilleros (“flagmen”) – who along with the matadors are collectively known as toreros (“bullfighters”, although more correctly ‘those who deal with bulls’) – and a mozo de espada, ‘sword page’. Collectively they comprise a cuadrilla, ‘troop’.
The modern corrida is highly ritualized, with three distinct acts or tercios, ‘thirds’, the start of each being announced by a trumpet sound. The participants first enter the arena in a parade, called the paseíllo, ‘procession’, to salute the presiding dignitary, accompanied by band music. Torero costumes are inspired by 18th century Andalusian clothing, and matadors are easily distinguished by the gold of their traje de luces, ‘suit of lights’ as opposed to their banderilleros who are also called toreros de plata, ‘bullfighters of silver’.
Next, the bull enters the ring to be tested for ferocity by the matador and banderilleros with the magenta and gold capote, ‘cape’. This is the first act, the tercio de varas, ‘the third of the lances’, and the matador first confronts the bull with the capote, observing the behaviour of the bull while performing tandas de pases, ‘series of passes’, to impress the crowd.
Next, a picador enters the arena on horseback armed with a vara, lance. To protect the horse from the bull’s horns, the horse is surrounded by a peto, a protective mattress-like covering. Prior to the 1930s, the horse did not wear any protection, and the bull would usually disembowel the horse during this stage. Until this change was instituted, the number of horses killed during a fight was higher than the number of bulls killed. At this point, the picador stabs just behind the morillo, a mound of muscle on the fighting bull’s neck, weakening the neck muscles and leading to the animal’s first loss of blood.
The manner in which the bull charges the horse provides important clues to the matador about which horn the bull favours among other behavioural traits such as fortitude, readiness to charge, type and speed of charge etc. Due to fatigue, the bull will hold its head and horns lower during the following stages of the fight. This makes the bull’s charges less frequent and fast and often more reliable in direction, enabling the matador to better perform his art at the end.
In the next act, the tercio de banderillas, ‘third of the flags’, the three banderilleros each attempt to plant two banderillas, barbed multicoloured sticks – often in the colours of the flag of the country, region or town – into the bull’s shoudlers. These reinvigorate the bull who has been tired by struggling against the weight of the armoured heavy horse and the damage he has taken from the lance. Sometimes a matador will place his own banderillas.
In the final act, the tercio de muerte, ‘third of death’, the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape, or muleta, and a sword. It is a common misconception that the colour red is supposed to anger the bull, but bulls, in fact, are functionally colour-blind. The cape is thought to have been red to mask the bull’s blood, although it is also a matter of tradition. The matador uses his muleta to attract the bull in a series of passes which serve the dual purpose of wearing the animal down for kill and producing a beautiful and dangerous dance-like display or faena. He may also demonstrate his domination over the bull by caping it especially close to his body.
The faena is the entire performance with the muleta and it is usually broken down into tandas, ‘series’, of passes. The faena ends with a final series of passes in which the matador with a muleta attempts to manoeuvre the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart by going over the horns to expose his own body to the bull as he kills. The act of thrusting the sword is called the estocada.
If the matador has performed particularly well, the crowd may petition the president to award the matador an ear of the bull by waving white handkerchiefs. If his performance was exceptional, he will award two, and in certain more rural rings a tail can still be awarded. Very rarely, if the public and matador believe that the bull has fought particularly bravely, they may petition the president of the plaza to grant the bull an indulto, ‘pardon’, before the estocada. The bull’s life is then spared and it is allowed to leave the ring alive and return to the ranch where it came from to become a stud bull for the rest of its life.