MADRID — The horses trot softly across sandy terrain and scrubby oak brush on Spain's central plateau, their riders listening for a rustle in the leaves, searching for a patch of wiry black fur betrayed by the sun.
Finally, the hunters spot their prey. Ranch owner Ramiro Maura breaks the silence.
"Venga! Arriba!" Maura screams — "Come! Up here!" The riders yank their reins in unison, aim their spears and urge their horses up steep terrain laced with shriveled tree roots and boulders. Ducking low-slung branches, they race across Mother Nature's obstacle course, in feverish pursuit of a giant wild boar on the run.
The sport went unnoticed by animal rights groups until last summer, when the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha, south of the Spanish capital, included pigsticking in its updated hunting regulations. Rules now specify how many riders may be armed (four) and limit hunting to full-sized boar during certain periods outside the creatures' mating season. The region is also considering plans to sell off some public land to be converted into private hunting reserves.
"It's something I think most Spanish citizens are not aware of. If they were, I'm sure a great percentage of them would be against this kind of cruel sport," said Sharon Nuñez, a spokeswoman for the group Animal Equality.