Spanish-style bullfighting is called a corrida de toros (literally a "running of bulls"), or fiesta brava. In traditional corrida, three toreros, also called matadores or, in French, toréadors, each fight two out of a total of six fighting bulls, each of which is at least four years old and weighs up to about 600 kg (with a minimum weight limit of 460 kg for the bullrings of the first degree). Bullfighting season in Spain runs from March to October. The fights that attract most spectators are the ones held during fiestas patronales, named ferias taurinas. The most prestigious of such fights is held for the fiesta of San Isidro in Madrid.
The modern corrida is highly ritualized, with three distinct parts or tercios, start of each announced by a trumpet sound. The participants first enter the arena in a parade or paseíllo to salute the presiding dignitary; presidente, accompanied by band music. (The corrida happens to the tune of live-played Pasodobles, many of which were composed to honour famous toreros.) The ritual is a key factor, for example the oldest matador goes to the far left, while the newest will be placed in the middle. If a matador is new to the Plaza, he will do the "paseíllo" without his hat on. Torero costumes are inspired by 18th century Andalusian clothing. Matadores are easily distinguished by their spectacular and quite costly "suit of lights" (traje de luces), custom-made and embroidered with silver or golden thread.
Next, the bull enters the ring to be tested for ferocity by the matador and banderilleros with the magenta and gold capote, or dress cape. Bulls are raised on the open range by specialist breeding estates called ganaderías. Each bull is recorded meticulously with its name, weight, and age to profile the estate, which keeps their pedigrees. The bull enters the arena with a rosette on its back bearing the colours of the estate it belongs to. For example, Miura colours are green-black in Madrid and green-blue in the provinces. Each estate owner is represented by a mayoral and if his bulls display an exceptional performance, in the end he will be invited to share a lap around the ring with the toreros.
In the first stage, the tercio de varas ("Lances third"), the behavior of the bull is observed by the matador, and the manner in which he attacks capes thrust by the banderilleros. The matador is particularly interested to know which horn the bull prefers to use, and whether the bull charges in straight or curved lines. He will observe whether or not the bull has eyesight problems; poor vision in one eye, for example, could result in unusual head movements. Sometimes the bull will head for a particular part of the ring: a querencia, or territory. A bull trying to reach its querencia is often more dangerous than a bull that is attacking the cape directly. The matador will note the bull's peculiarities and then decide his strategy: how long the fight will last, which passes he'll try, and how close he will get to the bull. The matador then goes and confronts his adversary; if he performs with art and courage he will be rewarded with an ovation. This initial section is called suerte de capote ("luck of the cape"), and there are a number of fundamental "lances" or passes that matadors make with the cape; the most common being the "veronica".
Next, two picadores enter the arena, each armed with a lance or varas. The picadores are mounted on large heavily padded and blindfolded horses. The bull is encouraged to attack the horse which is protected by its padding and generally treats the attack with stoic patience. The way the bull charges the horse provides further important clues to the matador on which side the bull is favoring. The picador stabs a mound of muscle on the bull's neck leading to the animal's first loss of blood. This loss of blood further weakens the bull and makes him ready for the next stage.
As the picador pricks the top of the bull with the lance, the bull charges and attempts to lift the picador’s horse with its neck muscles. This causes further weakening of the neck. If the picador does his job well, the bull will hold its head and horns lower during the following stages of the fight. This makes him slightly less dangerous while enabling the matador to perform the elegant passes of modern bullfighting.
This is the first major test of the bull's bravery, and most bulls' behaviour changes dramatically after encountering the lance. This stage is viewed as a crucial and mandatory step in the corrida, and regulations require that the plaza judge ensures a certain number of hits are made before it is completed. In some rings a torero may request more or fewer hits in order to correct any perceived defects.
In the next stage, the tercio de banderillas ("banderillas third"), the three banderilleros each attempt to plant two barbed sticks (banderillas, literally "little flags" as they are decorated with paper in the local colors)
on in the bull's flanks shoulders. These further weaken the enormous ridges of neck and shoulder muscle (which set fighting bulls apart from ordinary cattle) through loss of blood, while also frequently spurring the bull into making more ferocious charges. The placing of the banderillas into is the last chance to correct or fine-tune the charging tendencies of the bull. Some of the more skilled matadors will often do this themselves, notably Carlos Arruza. If the bull proves to be extraordinarily weak or unwilling to fight, the presidente may order, to the disgrace of the breeder, the use of black banderillas.
In the final stage, the tercio de muerte ("death third"), the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape or muleta in one hand and a sword in the other. This cape is stretched with a wooden dowel and, in right-handed passes, the sword as well. Lighter muletas are handier but, since regulations require the heavier ones, ring doctors routinely provide certifications on "wrist injuries" allowing the matador to use the light variant. Having dedicated the bull to an individual or the whole audience, he uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes, both demonstrating his control over it and risking his life by getting especially close to it. The red colour of the cape is a matter of tradition, as bulls are actually colour blind: they attack moving objects (the real reason that a red colored cape is used is that any blood stains on it will be less noticeable). There are a number of distinct styles of pass, each with its own name. The fundamental pass with the muleta is the "natural," traditionally meaning a left-handed pass with the muleta without the aid of the sword to prop it up.
The Faena ("work") is the entire performance with the muleta, which is usually broken down into a series of "tandas" or "series". A typical tanda might consist of three to five basic passes and then a finishing touch, or "remate," such as a "pase de pecho," or "pase de desprecio." Spectacular passes are celebrated by the audience with shouts of ¡ole!". 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. The entire part of the bullfight with the muleta is called el tercio de muerte ("third of death") suerte de muleta ("act of muleta").
The act of thrusting the sword (estoca or estoque) is called an estocada. A clumsy estocada that fails to give a "quick and clean death" will often raise loud protests from the crowd and may ruin the whole performance. If estocada is not successful, the matador must then perform a descabello and cut the bull's spinal cord with a second sword called verdugo, to kill it instantly and spare the animal pain. Although the matador's final blow is usually fatal, it may take the bull some time to die. A coup de grâce is therefore administered by a peón named a puntillero, using a dagger to further pierce the spinal cord. The matador must kill the bull in fifteen minutes after the first muleta pass, at most. After ten minutes, if the bull is still alive, the presidente will order an aviso, a warning given with a trumpet sound, followed by a second after further three minutes and a following third after further two. The presidente will then give an order to have the bull returned to its pen (corral).
The bull's body is dragged out by a
set team of galloping mules. If the presidente is impressed by the performance of the bull, he orders a tour around the ring to honour the animal. Very rarely, a bull will be allowed to survive a fight as an indulgence granted in recognition of an exceptional performance. The spectators will demand an indulto from the presidente, by waving handkerchiefs, before the estocada. The matador will stop and look at the presidente. If he stands still, he will resume his action and kill the bull. But if he has an orange handkerchief hung on his balcony, the matador will imitate the estocada with a banderilla or with the palm of his hand and the bull will be "freed". Such bulls are generally retired from competition and raised as studs, as their experience in the ring makes them extremely dangerous opponents. A fighting bull is never used in the ring twice, because they learn from experience, and the entire strategy of the matador is based on the assumption that the bull has not learned from previous experience.
This also invalidates bulls who have been run in their estate by illegal fighters (maletillas), who in earlier times would sneak into an estate by night to practice their skills.
A trofeo (trophy) is the usual indicator of a successful faena. When the records of bullfights are kept, trofeos earned by the matador are always mentioned. If the crowd demands, the matador is allowed to take a lap of victory around the ring. If more than or about half the spectators petition the presidente by waving handkerchiefs, the presidente is obliged to award the matador with one ear of the bull. To award the matador with another ear or with two ears and the tail; los máximos trofeos, depends solely on the presidente's appreciation. The matador who won at least two ears is given the permission to be carried on the shoulders of the admirers (salida en hombros).
Some matadors have been gored many times. A special type of surgeon has developed, in Spain and elsewhere, to treat cornadas, or horn-wounds. The bullring normally has an infirmary with an operating room, reserved for the immediate treatment of matadors with cornadas.