Swiss Cow fights in Martigny
Swiss Cow fights in Martigny

Alexandra Gordienko

Text, photo

The fights of "queen" cows are an annual entertainment in the Swiss canton of Valais. Despite the visual similarity with bullfighting, this action itself has little in common with Spanish tradition. We managed to take a look at such competition at the arena in the town of Martigny.
Only one breed of cattle can take part in the competition — Val d’Hérens black cows, which are grown in this region of Switzerland. A hierarchy is naturally formed in their community — there always must be a queen, otherwise, you would not be able to control the herd. And the cows compete for this title of honor between themselves.
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Brown wool is a mutation of this breed.

Martigny, Canton of Valais, 2021.

In a natural environment, such fights sometimes lead to injuries, but never to fatal casualties. But a person should definitely not interfere in these heart-to-heart talks — the cows are too strong. By the way, that’s why only pregnant cows in the last months participate in the Martigny fights in the fall (they give birth in October-November). This does not allow them to fight in full force and as a rule, there are almost no injuries in the arena.
We talked with Rafi, the owner of the herd. He was going to send one of his cows to the competition in 2021, but shortly before the selection, her rival injured her nose while sorting things out in the herd. So this year he was left without contestants. But a few years ago, one of his cows won the queen fights — this is an incredible prestige for a farmer and fame for a cow.
Competitions are held in Martigny at the historical arena, which was built at the beginning of the II century. It was restored in 1970 and has since been used as an active urban space for events, including cow fights. The very same tradition of cow fights has existed for a hundred years — since 1922. They are considered part of the cultural heritage of Switzerland and the Canton of Valais. Now it is a national kind of spectacle: hundreds of people gather in the arena, and thousands watch the broadcast on television. They place bets on cows, hoot, support the favorites, and the jury approaches the judging with full responsibility.
The battle of the queen cows is based on the natural hierarchy in the herd. When placed in the same space surrounded by other cows, females with leadership qualities begin to defend their territory: they lower their heads, showing horns, dig the ground with their hooves and call on their fellows to confrontation. Gathered in the same arena, they also begin to sort things out instantly, without any prompting from the hosts. And, in general, they also quickly admit their defeat or on the contrary, the victory.
The winner of the fight is easily determined: as soon as the cow refuses to fight further, she has lost. This continues until the final, until there is only one queen left.
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Competitions are conducted by category, depending on age and weight. Qualifying rounds are held before lunch, after which there is a final round among representatives of all categories. The first six places are awarded with prizes: the winners receive bells with leather collars with embroidery and ornaments, and a cow queen is presented with a flower wreath and she is solemnly conducted along the edge of the arena.
Learn more interesting things about how people live in the mountainous regions of Switzerland from our new exhibition "Highlanders". Don’t miss updates on our website!
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