The feast day of St Anthony, the patron saint of domesticated animals, is celebrated in one Spanish village by making horses jump through huge bonfires – a practice that many say displays cruelty to domesticated animals.

Spain horses fire las luminarias
Sergio Perez/Reuters

Every year, on the night of 17 January, horses are ridden through huge flames and clouds of smoke on the streets of the village of San Bartolome de los Pinares, about 100km (62 miles) north west of Madrid. It is believed the annual tradition known as Las Luminarias purifies the horses and prepares them for the year ahead. Some say the celebration dates back five centuries to when the plague was fought with Roman Catholic rituals that used smoke for purification.

The village keeps the festival alive with religious intensity and unswerving pride, fending off criticism from animal rights groups. Juan Ignacio Codina from the Observatory of Justice and Animal Defence, says: "There is no logic in forcing these animals into a stressful situation against their own nature. In the midst of the 21st century, this is something from a bygone era. There is no superstition or belief that should justify an act of such cruelty."

However, the regional government of Castille and Leon said that veterinarians sent by authorities couldn't find any injuries on the horses from the bonfires. "Not one burn, not even one harmed horse," said the mayor, Maria Jesus Martin, who insists that no horse is forced to jump over the flames. "It makes me angry to hear the insults without those speaking knowing anything at all about the tradition," she said. "They call us stubborn, hicks. They have even openly called on social media to throw me, the mayor, into the bonfire."

Still, some in the village of 600 people think it would be better to return to a more moderate version of the festival. They say branches of pine and shrub for the bonfires used to arrive in small quantities on the backs of donkeys, but now the fuel is hauled in by trucks and the bonfires are much bigger and the smoke thicker. Some people also would like to see a halt to the controversial jumping of the bonfires, since the original tradition only envisioned purifying the animals by walking them around – and not over – the flames.