Siena Palio: All In 90 Seconds

Siena's Palio is one of the most difficult and ancient bareback horse races in the world with origins dating back centuries. Held annually in July and August, it attracts thousands of Italians and foreign visitors.
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By Antonio Busiello with Paula Silbey

Siena's Palio is one of the most difficult and ancient bareback horse races in the world with origins dating back centuries. Held annually in July and August, it attracts thousands of Italians and foreign visitors.


A few years ago I was asked to photograph the world famous Palio horse race but turned it down initially due to my concern that the animals might not be treated well.

I had read news accounts about the mistreatment of Palio horses which made me wary of covering the event since I am very sensitive to issues involving animals and their well-being. However, the idea of shooting the Palio stuck in mind. Why? Perhaps it was because of my academic studies in anthropology and my longterm interest in the relationship between humans and animals.

So I decided to visit Siena to learn more about this renowned historical and cultural annual tradition. Rather than finding mistreatment, I discovered that the horses in Siena are worshipped. For the people of Siena, the Palio horses are sacred. They are treated very well, even after they no longer run the race.


The city's government pays for horse clinics and provides for their retirement in the beautiful Tuscan countryside. The Palio horses, along with rescued horses, spend their final years taken care of, complete with veterinarian care. .

Additionally, in the last few years strict laws have been enacted to protect horses before, during and after the race.

The Palio is the most important event for the people of Siena. Although the race lasts less than 90 seconds, the citizens spend an entire year organizing it. Every detail has to come together precisely. The tension mounts day by day, culminating on race day in July and again in August. After a year of planning and working on every aspect of the race, it begins and ends in under two minutes.


I had the privilege of "living the Palio" with the Tartuca, one of the 17 contradas or districts competing each year. I worked side by side with the men of Tartuca for Palios in July and August. Siena is divided into 17 districts but only ten participate annually. Each one has its own flag, government and constitution and sees itself as a small city-state.


The Benediction:
Early in the afternoon, just before the Palio, each contrada takes its horse and jockey to its own church. There the hopeful and enthusiastic contrade watch as a priest blesses the special horse and its jockey.



The most important and exciting moments occur when the "Mossiere" tries to line up the horses correctly between front and rear hemp ropes for the actual start. During this crucial process, the jockeys make their agreements and alliances with other jockeys and develop the running strategies.


Lining up the horses can take anywhere from a few minutes to hours. On some occasions it takes so long that the race occurs at dusk or even gets suspended because it becomes too dark. Nine horses are aligned between the ropes while the tenth horse takes up the rear. This tenth jockey and horse decide when to start running at which point the Mossiere drops the front rope. The race finally begins as the riders take off in a flash.

The contrada is also a social organization with its own church, museum, hymn, insignia and patron saint, a perfect example of a community coming together for the benefit of all. Beside activities relating to the Palio, contradas have social activities several times a weekly throughout the year.


The older men mentor the younger members and all work together for the good of the city. The contradas also spend a lot of time and money organizing the Palio.


During the three days of trials, the alignment of horses is known by all. However, for the actual Palio, only the Mossiere knows the horses' order until the last minute. As the horses and their jockeys parade to the starting line, tension mounts as all await this crucial announcement.

As the suspense builds, the Mossiere shows the white envelope to thousands of onlookers. Complete silence overtakes in Piazza del Campo, creating a surreal atmosphere. It seems as if everyone is holding his or her breath. Finally, the Mossiere reads out the order of the race and a storm of shouts and cheers breaks out.

Siena's Palio is without any doubt an extraordinary event that has deep social, anthropological, religious and cultural meanings. Only by visiting Siena during the last four days of the Palio and experiencing the atmosphere of this amazing event, is it possible to understand its genuine meaning.

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