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Fire leaping and samurai battles: Are these the world's craziest horse festivals?

By Sheena McKenzie
updated 7:31 AM EDT, Mon August 26, 2013
Each year, the pretty city of Siena in Tuscany is transformed into a medieval race track, with around 50,000 spectators cheering on 10 bareback riders. As the dust settles on this year's Palio di Siena, CNN takes a look at five weird and wonderful horse festivals from around the world. Each year, the pretty city of Siena in Tuscany is transformed into a medieval race track, with around 50,000 spectators cheering on 10 bareback riders. As the dust settles on this year's Palio di Siena, CNN takes a look at five weird and wonderful horse festivals from around the world.
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Ride into the sunset
1. Palio di Siena, Italy
2. Luminarias Festival, Spain
3. White Turf, Switzerland
4. Pasola Festival, Indonesia
5. Soma-Nomaoi Festival, Japan
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As the dust settles on Italy's Palio de Siena, CNN looks at wild horse festivals
  • Includes fire leaping in Spain and samurai battles in Japan
  • A world away from traditional races such as Royal Ascot or Kentucky Derby
  • Some ancient horse shows date back to 10th Century

Editor's note: Winning Post is CNN's monthly horse racing show. Click here for program times and latest features.

(CNN) -- Each summer, more than 50,000 people pour into a cobblestone square in Tuscany for a gut-wrenching 90-seconds.

That's all it takes for the flamboyantly dressed jockeys of Italy's legendary horse race -- Palio di Siena -- to race bareback around the medieval square.

It's been called the "most dangerous horse race in the world" -- about as far away as you can get from the genteel green lawns of Britain's Royal Ascot or the multimillion prize money bestowed on America's Kentucky Derby.

Now as the dust settles on this year's colorful Palio di Siena, CNN takes a look at five weird and wonderful horse festivals from across the world.

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Palio di Siena, Italy

On two days each year, the pretty town of Siena in northern Tuscany is transformed into an elaborate medieval race track, with 10 riders careering around the iconic city square three times.

Dating back to the 17th century, each rider represents their local neighborhood, competing not just for the coveted victory banner -- but good luck for the coming year.

Read: Hot to trot -- jockey fashion secrets

Luminarias Festival, Spain

Fire and horses may seem like an unlikely combination, but that's exactly the dramatic scene which takes place in a small town in central Spain each year.

Horse are ridden over blazing tree branches as part of the Luminaries Festival in San Bartolome de Pinares, in an effort to purify and protect the animals.

The controversial tradition, which has been criticized by animal welfare groups, dates back 500 years and is held on the eve of Saint Anthony's Day.

Watch: From camel racing to prized jockey

White Turf, Switzerland

From fiery Spain to snowy Switzerland -- there's not a bonfire in sight at the glitzy White Turf racing carnival, held on the frozen Lake St Moritz.

The remarkable competition includes skijoring, where horses thunder around the icy track while their riders hold on for dear life to a harness at the back, trailing behind on skis.

Don't let the demure appearance fool you. Audrey Hepburn, better known as Eliza Doolittle in 1964 film My Fair Lady, knew how to scream obscenities with the best of them -- especially at the races. Don't let the demure appearance fool you. Audrey Hepburn, better known as Eliza Doolittle in 1964 film My Fair Lady, knew how to scream obscenities with the best of them -- especially at the races.
Fairest of them all
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Royal Ascot: Lords and My Fair Ladies Royal Ascot: Lords and My Fair Ladies
It might look like a palace, but this is in fact the Grand Stables in Chantilly, northern France. It might look like a palace, but this is in fact the Grand Stables in Chantilly, northern France.
Fit for a prince
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France\'s $3M horse museum France's $3M horse museum
Colorful, shiny, and flamboyant. Welcome to the world of jockey silks. They might look like circus costumes, but these uniforms have a rich tradition and important function. Colorful, shiny, and flamboyant. Welcome to the world of jockey silks. They might look like circus costumes, but these uniforms have a rich tradition and important function.
Rainbow riders
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Dressed to impress Dressed to impress

In such extreme weather -- around -20C -- fur coats are the order of the day for the champagne-sipping spectators who are perhaps better known for their luxury lifestyles than racing tips.

Read: Cool racing -- horses battle on snow

Pasola Festival, Indonesia

The glitz and glam of snow-capped St Moritz couldn't be further from the spear-wielding horsemen of Indonesia's annual Pasola Festival.

The fierce festival -- held on the island of Sumba -- sees two teams go head-to-head on elaborately decorated horses, throwing blunt spears at each other as part of an ancient ritual battle.

It is believed that every drop of blood spilled will bring a good harvest.

Soma-Nomaoi Festival, Japan

If you like your ancient festivals a little less violent, there's the 1,000-year-old Soma-Nomaoi wild horse chase in central Japan.

The three-day festival sees samurai horsemen compete in different challenges -- from racing over a one kilometer track to battling over sacred flags.

Dressed in extravagant armor, helmets, and carrying swords, the fantastical warriors appear to have stepped straight out from the 10th Century.

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