...and on the eighth day, God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.
France became a Christian nation when the Frankish king, Clovis I, converted in the year 500AD.
Before that, it was known as Gaul. The citizens thought of it in terms of mythology, making Gaul the beloved daughter of Epona or the “Divine Horse,” the Gallic horse goddess who was eventually adopted by the Roman cavalry.(1)
In November of 2001, construction workers building a new bypass in the town of Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne region, uncovered a tomb containing eight men and eight horses.
Each man was lying one behind the other, the left arm of each resting on the shoulder of the man in front. The eight horses were carefully laid out on their right hand sides, their heads pointing to the south.
Circumstances and causes of death remain unknown, and the meaning of this Gallic burial is also unknown. However, it reveals a great deal about the special relationships between man and beast in this ancient land.(2)
Gaul had experimented with horse breeding for many centuries, thus creating many different types of horses. The location of the country was a crossing place for many peoples of Europe, and it became a land of many different cultures.
There was a wide variety of conquests and occupations of the nation–from Moors and Vandals, to Franks, Huns, Goths and Celts. They came from the north, south, east and west, from Iberia to Asia to North Africa. These invasions helped to make France the land of four hundred horses.
The horse has an amazingly rich history in France, culminating in the “creation” of a “breed” known as the French Saddle Horse.(3)
After WWII, it was decided to eliminate certain breeds and to cultivate others; mechanization had basically left the horse as useless. Many types of wonderful saddle horses had been bred for various tasks in different regions around the country.
These were merged together. No more local breeds such as the Bourguignon, the Angevin, the Charollais or the Vendeen, and no more Anglo-Norman or Norman. (4)
There would be just a single breed known as the French Saddle Horse, also known as the Selle Francais.
However, there are many different types of French Saddle Horse. One of these is the AQPS– the “Autre Que Pur Sang,” or “other than Thoroughbred.” It is bred specifically for racing.
This breed has distinguished itself in field events such as show jumping, dressage, eventing and cross country.(5)
An example of a “breed” that falls under the French Saddle Horse category is the “Galoubet,” descended from a line of English Thoroughbreds, and the “Jappeloup,” descended from a line of trotters.
Pierre Durand won a gold medal abroad a Jappeloup at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
The other major “breed” of the French Saddle Horse is the “Anglo-Arab.” Developed in the nineteenth century by a Eugene Gayot, who died in 1891, he was a premier horse breeder of his day.
A veterinary surgeon, he became the director of the Haras du Pin Stud Farm, where he campaigned for the introduction of English Thoroughbred blood into the French lines.
His father had also been a vet, and was the inspector of the Neapolitan stud farms of Joachim Murat, the king of Naples and a distinguished marshal of Napoleon.
Gayot became the director of the Haras de Pompadour Stud Farm in 1843, and realized a dream by combining the speed of the English Thoroughbred with the endurance of the Arabian.(6)
Eugene Gayot is the founding father of the Anglo-Norman horse, which was unfortunately (destroyed)/ developed a century later when the French decided to create a melting pot of horse breeds to make the French Saddle Horse.
The Anglo-Arab is a big Thoroughbred-type horse, coming in at 16.1HH to 17HH, that is powerful and elegant, carrying exceptional paces while maintaining a distinguished form. While its temperament can be difficult at times, it also puts its heart into whatever task is at hand.
Used in AQPS races, along with the show jumping and dressage, enthusiasts of the breed dictate that cross-country is its best event.
Moving along through the land of truffles, souffles, wine and cheese, we move to the stomping grounds of the “horse of the sea.”
The Camargue is a large, marshy delta area in southwest France is formed by the Rhone River as it makes its way into the Mediterranean and its “manades,” the Provencal word for the herds of wild ponies who live there, roam free and undisturbed in the Camargue National Park.(7)
It is thought that the Camargue Pony is descended from a prehistoric horse called the Solutre and has a resemblance to animals depicted in cave paintings at Lascaux , which date back to 15,000 BC.(8)
The Camargues spend their days picking their way through the watery environment, eating reeds and swamp grass, toughing out the suffocating heat, ticks and flies of summer and the harsh cold of winter.
There is definite Barb influence due to first the Roman period when Numidian horsemen traveling from Carthage to Rome via Spain passed through, and second, the Moorish invasion of later years.
The breed has since remained isolated, meaning the bloodline have been untouched for centuries.
Supporters of the breed say that it bears similar resemblance to horses that were driven over cliffs at Solutre in Macon, so they could be butchered and eaten. This has not been proven conclusively.
The question of lineage is speculative and academic on whether the breed has outside influences or not; today’s modern Camargue Pony is well established and is unmistakable as a type.
It is a protected species that is found nowhere else in the world. There are over three thousand wild ponies living in an area of less that 247,000 acres . (8)
While the Park is a harsh environment during the summer, thousands of tourists make an annual pilgrimage there each year to the land of “Crin Blanc,” or the White Mane.(9)
A film about the ponies was made by Albert Lamorisse, and it won at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, capturing the hearts of many children around the world.
Local cowboys make the Camargue Pony their traditional mount of choice, working the wild, black bulls that live in the area, which are then used in bullfighting. They mark the ponies with a brand on the left rear quarter. (10)
The pony has a heavy head, short, thick set body, short legs and comes in at 13.1 HH to 14.1HH. It is sturdy, robust and is generally good-natured and is white in coloring.
The breed’s walk is high stepping, the canter and gallop are flowing, but the trot is very stilted, so that gait is rarely used. Foals are born black or dark brown and lighten up as they mature.
While I will refrain from voicing my opinions on French horsekeeping and the French in general for that matter, I can’t help but to say I don’t care for their ideas on horse breeding or couture.
That is, we don’t know the conformation or character of the many wonderful, regional breeds that were lost post-WWII, due someone’s “brilliant” idea of creating a melting pot into one breed.
Who knows what amazing or beautiful creatures may have come out of these regions, now lost forever?
I also don’t like their tradition of trail riding an animal in the afternoon and then having him for dinner that evening.
Call me All-American; Thomas Jefferson dictated in the Constitution of the United States that the horse is decreed a “special animal.” That is to say, the horse is not to be slaughtered and eaten in this land.
I like that.
Nothing more need be said, so I leave you once again with the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”
1-6,8,9: “Horses,” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Jean-Louis Gourand
7,10: “A Pocket Guide to Horses and Ponies,” by Corinne Clark