Luis Parra Villanueva's shadow is projected next to Bloodbuzz's head in the arena at sunset.
Luis Parra Villanueva's shadow is visible next to Bloodbuzz in the arena at sunset. Credit: Courtesy / Bonnie Arbittier

Spring was my first season in San Antonio. I began my job at the Rivard Report last year with the craziest of all assignments: Fiesta. Being from Philadelphia, I had never experienced anything like it. I fell in love with San Antonio in a very Fiesta-themed way, amid the cascarones, the parades, the flower crowns, and the charreada – the almost rodeo-like Mexican cowboy tradition.

I’m no stranger to rodeos – I’ve photographed my fair share of them in Cuero, Texas. Yet when I parked my car at the ranch on the Southside of San Antonio on that Sunday during Fiesta, placed my camera strap around my neck, and approached the arena, what met my eyes took my breath away.

Colors are abundant in the charreada. As I admired the men’s large hats and the leather boots and the escaramuza’s bright skirts, someone hoisted me up into the judges’ booth on teetering metal steps to get a view of the whole show. I could see the beads of sweat on the horses from above as the charros prepared for their events. I witnessed a connection between rider and horse that I had never seen before.

Through the charreada, I met a young charro named Luis Parra Villanueva. We kept running into each other at different Fiesta events because he represented the Asociacion de Charros San Antonio. We connected on social media and through ongoing conversation became good friends. I wanted to know as much as I could about the charreada, and he wanted to know about photojournalism.

One day in the heat of July, Luis messaged me, saying he had just rescued a horse from dying of neglect in Houston. He asked if I wanted to document the process of bringing the horse back to health. I said yes immediately and was at the ranch the next day.

My heart sank when I saw the horse for the first time. His ribs were visible through his skin. Infections had taken over his hooves. When I approached him, he sunk his nose into my hand. I think he was telling me he had been through a lot of hardship.

Luis was not daunted by the extent of the horse’s sickness. He was confident and determined that everything was going to be okay, and I believed him. Being trained in veterinary medicine, he knew how to help the horse.

I kept returning to the ranch – once a week if work allowed, or every other week. I watched Luis give the horse medicine and food and was in awe when he set the horse’s hooves on fire to rid them of infection. I laughed as the horse rolled around in the mud. The progress was slow, but each week I saw improvement.

Luis told me from the beginning it was my job to name the horse. I tried names in English; I tried names in Spanish. Nothing fit and everything seemed cheesy. One night, as I drove to the ranch in late August on a rare cool evening, the song “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National came on my radio. The song was drenched in nostalgia and reminded me of all the cool nights of summer up north. It seemed perfect. I arrived at the ranch at dusk with my camera and a name for the horse: Bloodbuzz.

Luis Parra Villanueva sets Bloodbuzz's hooves on fire to rid them of infection.
Luis Parra Villanueva sets Bloodbuzz’s hooves on fire to rid them of infection. Credit: Courtesy / Bonnie Arbittier

I spent the next few months observing milestones in Bloodbuzz’s recovery, in his relationship with Luis, and his relationship with me.

As he became stronger, he became best friends with Lily, the mare in the stall next to him. Raccoons often would try to eat Bloodbuzz’s dinner. Eventually, I was able to give Bloodbuzz his medicine, and soon Luis climbed onto the horse’s back for the first time. All Luis had to do was whistle and Bloodbuzz would run to him from the other side of the ranch. The horse’s journey back to health was not always a positive one. Bloodbuzz got colic in the winter and gave all of us a scare. Luckily, he quickly recovered into stable health.

I remember the day Luis rode Bloodbuzz in the winter charreada.

I remember the day when I rode Bloodbuzz.

Luis Parra Villanueva rides Bloodbuzz in their first charreada together.
Luis Parra Villanueva rides Bloodbuzz in their first charreada together. Credit: Courtesy / Bonnie Arbittier

Photographing the recovery of a beautiful animal over six months has been one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of my career and life, so I decided to hold an art exhibition chronicling Bloodbuzz’s recovery. The opening of my exhibition, Bloodbuzz, will take place on Saturday, April 14, 7-10 p.m., 1906 S. Flores St., at S.M.A.R.T Projectspace. I have raised funds to produce the show through my GoFundMe, and am still accepting donations. Proceeds from the show and from the GoFundMe will benefit Habitat for Horses, a rescue facility located in Hitchcock, Texas. I hope to contribute to the recovery of other horses who face uphill battles similar to Bloodbuzz’s.

Just one year after I photographed Luis riding in the charreada, I will be photographing Luis and Bloodbuzz riding together. They will perform in A Day in Old Mexico on April 22 and April 29. I”ll be there, camera in hand.

Luis Parra Villanueva's shadow is projected on the arena wall as he rides Bloodbuzz in their first charreada together.
Luis Parra Villanueva’s shadow is projected on the arena wall as he rides Bloodbuzz in their first charreada together. Credit: Courtesy / Bonnie Arbittier
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Bonnie Arbittier

Bonnie Arbittier worked as a photojournalist for the San Antonio Report.