The Ariegeois Horse

...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.

Folks, don’t ask me how to pronounce this one, but there is a very attractive horse over in France that is enjoying a nice comeback.

The ancient French breed of the Ariegeois Horse, also known as the Merens Pony, is a black horse that originates in the Ariege river and mountain areas of Pyrenees.

There are two types of animal, a smaller, light mountain horse and a taller, sportier saddle type.

The French breed registry is very strict, and works with other groups in Europe to keep a higher quality of breed standard. (1)

Breeding stock is rigorously chosen, with a goal of always trying to improve the bloodlines and conformation.

It is thought to descend from the Iberian Horse, and perhaps Oriental stock. (2)

The existence of the Merens Pony was seen in the times of Julius Caeser and were noted during the reign of Charlemagne, the King of the Franks.

Charlemagne is depicted in a Carolingian statue, and is seen mounted on a small black horse. Upon close examination, the horse statue greatly resembles an Ariegeois, coming in no taller than 13.3HH. (3)

The Cathars, or “The Good Men,” were Christians/Gnostics who lived in France in the 12th and 14th centuries.

The Cathars held a scared place in their religion for the Ariegeois Horse, especially in the belief of “Transmigration of Souls,” or the movement of a soul into another body after death, as in reincarnation. (4)

The Cathar Princess, Esclarmonde de Foix, made her way up the steep, rocky slope of a mountain to the Chateau de Montsegar, riding on an Ariegeois Horse, in the 12th century.

Later, in the 14th century, these same small black horses were used in the cavalries of Gaston III, the Count de Foix. (5)

Napoleon’s armies used them to pull artillery, and in the past they have been used as pack animals, and for draft and farm work.

The Ariegeois was also used by miners and smugglers, to haul goods through the Pyrenees Mountains. (6)

They were frequently seen at local horse fairs, where travelers converged to buy and sell horses.

The Ariegeois Horse was popular at the Tarascon-Sur-Ariege Horse Fair.

Towards the end of the 19th century, they were being used as light cavalry mounts.

Uncontrolled breeding at that time resulted in a decline in quality in the animal, and in purebred stock. They were crossed with Catalan donkeys to create mules, further diluting the purebred stock.

In 1908, a small agricultural society took charge of the breed, creating a formal registry in 1933.

The first stud book was formed in 1948, known as the French National Stud. (7)

After WWII, and toward the end of the 20th century, there was a sharp decline in breed numbers, as tractors and mechanized vehicles took away cavalries and draft animal work on farms.

The breed almost went extinct in the 1970;s, with only 40 horses left as registered in the stud book.

An unlikely source of help (unwittingly) stepped forward and is actually credited with the salvation of the breed.

The Hippie Movement settled up in the Ariege Mountains and took a grass roots interest in the Ariegeois Horse. (8)

The young Bohemians boosted local economies and began a re-breeding program.

The Ariegeois Horse’s popularity surged as a saddle horse and during the decade of 1975-85, its numbers rebounded.

The breeding program gained notoriety as a “conservation of rare breeds.”

The numbers of Ariegeois Horse/Merens Ponies remains small, with one genetic study revealing the “traditional type” as endangered, and has given a recommendation that preservation methods be implemented.

In 2005, the Merens Pony was rated as one of the 23 most beautiful horse breeds by Cheval Practique Magazine. (9)

A very easy keep, the Ariegeois/Merens Pony is easily able to withstand inclement winter weather. Foals are sometimes born in the snow, with no help from their caretakers.

They do not respond well in the heated summer months. (10)

This animal is versatile, calm and a good worker.

They are also showing bodily resistance to some types of fern plant species, such as being able to withstand the anti-coagulant blood issues caused by ingesting ferns.

The breed registry of the Ariegeois Pyrenees Syndicate has 600 horses registered, with eleven regional offices.

Stallions undergo rigorous testing, starting at age 3.

Black is the color, although some small amount of white is allowed on the face, but never on the legs.

The animal has a very distinguishable “beard” on the underside of the lower jaw area.

Mares also go through a rigorous testing program. (11)

The Ariegeois Horse partakes in an annual “transhumance” event, or seasonal migration. (12)

This practice, steeped in pastoralism, had long been a part of the history of this breed, but had fallen out of favor. The custom goes back to nomadic and traveling peoples, and consists of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another, in seasonal cycles.

Recently, the custom has seen a resurgence in popularity, partly due to the help of the “Autrefois en Couserans Association.” (13)

Every June, some 500 Ariegeois Horses travel unshod up the mountains to an altitude of 4,900 feet, to the summer pastures. The herds are led by seasoned mares, who sport cowbells.

The mountain paths are steep and the stormy weather is fierce.

The horses live in a half-wild state, exposed to a variety of meteorologic events. (14)

When October arrives, they all return to the valleys below to spend the winter.

Sometimes a stallion goes along, to help maintain herd cohesion and prevent mixtures of herds on the mountainside.

The temperament of the “transhumant” herd remains in a half-wild state, versus the non-feral, domesticated state of animals that are cared for by humans year round.

Some of the animals stay up on the mountainside year round and never descend.

The Ariegeois Horse/Merens Pony is a hardy mountain breed that originates in France.

It is considered a cold-blood, coming in at 13.1HH for ponies, up to 14.3HH for horses.

Their color is strictly black, and they have a sweet temperament. (15)

The Ariegeois has a pretty face, with a thick, throatlatch and a thick, cresty neck that ties low onto the shoulder.

They are well-muscled, with a somewhat low tailset, with a hint of draft.

Big hooves sport feathers above, and this attractive animal is popular for riding and carriage driving. (16)

I’d have one, folks, they are very pretty, and since the breed registry is so strict, the best features are kept and repeated. I like that kind of thinking; it weeds out backyard Joe and Mary and that horse down the road.

More next time.

Closing once again with the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”

1-5,7-9, 11-13: Internet/Wikipedia

6, 10, 14-16: “A Pocket Guide to Horses & Ponies,” by Corinne Clark, Parragon Publish., Hong Kong