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.
Just 20 minutes' drive from downtown Madrid, Maura and other ancestral landowners are reviving the ancient hunting ritual of "pigsticking" -- hunting wild boar on horseback with spears, rather than with guns. Hunters stalk the animal and chase it down, which sometimes takes all day, and then stab it to death with 9-foot, long-bladed spears.
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 Nunez, a spokeswoman for the group Animal Equality.
She said her group was adding pigsticking to its anti-hunting campaigns, but so far had received no complaints about the pastime from the public.
Pigsticking, or lanceo in Spanish, has been around at least since Roman times. Prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira, on the Cantabrian coast of northern Spain, depict early man stalking wild boar with spears. Others show hunters on horseback. The sport was also popular in colonial India, where the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, won pigsticking championships and wrote a seminal 1889 book about the sport.
But such practices pose a dilemma for modern Spain as it struggles to strike a balance between its rural traditions and the progressive society it has become. The country is home to a burgeoning animal rights movement, which claimed a major victory with a ban on bullfighting in Catalonia that took effect last year.
"It's difficult to reconcile these traditions," said Jose Manuel Calvo, opinion editor at Spain's leading newspaper, El Pais. "We try to make a distinction between the roots of a culture and customs of the rural world, and the brutality -- things that we in the 21st century can't let go on."
Since pigsticking was added to Castilla-La Mancha's hunting regulations, its popularity has grown, though exact numbers of kills are unknown because the animals are wild and much of the hunting takes place on private land.
The sport is bolstered by groups such as the Pigsticking International Club, which describes itself as a "gentlemen's club for hog hunters." Ranch owner Maura's group, the Pigsticking Club of Spain, has more than 6,000 supporters on Facebook and hosts hunters from around the world.
"For thousands of years, the only way to get a boar was to chase it with a horse. There was no other weapon," said Maura, whose great-grandfather established his family's ranch near Madrid around the turn of the 20th century. "Then firearms started, from shotguns to rifles and from rifles to automatic rifles.... How can we protect the ancient ways of hunting, when there's no limit to the capability of mankind to make more sophisticated weapons?"
Though hunting with firearms is legal in Spain, it's a bit too easy, Maura says. He sees pigsticking as a more natural, traditional way of hunting, part of a move toward sustainable land use. He and his fellow pigstickers hunt free-range wild animals and eat what they kill.
And if it weren't maintained as a hunting reserve, Maura's ranchland might become overgrown and vulnerable to the summer wildfires that ravage Spain's increasingly depopulated countryside. While Northern Europe gradually began urbanizing in the 18th century or earlier, rural Spaniards' flight to cities, in search of jobs, has occurred only in the last 50 years. In much of the countryside, the youngest residents are 75. Villages are being abandoned for lack of a local economy.
"That's the thing that makes me most sad. We are now the 5%, people who live in the country," said Jaime Patino, who wore his grandfather's leather chaps and a 19th century-style suit jacket on a recent pigsticking trip.
"We are the lovers of the hunt and the sport, and we are the people who really protect nature," he said. "You cannot understand how nature works if you don't see what's going on. It's very important that children know how the eagle eats the mouse, and the fox eats the eagle, and it goes on. It's nature, and it's life."
Frayer is a special correspondent.