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France’s love of horses knows no bounds

From the Camargue to Chantilly, a guided tour of the country with lovers of all things equestrian in mind

28 August 2019
The stocky Camargue white horses bred among the salt flats are hardy, patient and sure-footed enough even for a rank beginner
By Samantha David

Scratch the surface of French life and you will find a horse. From therapy to theatre, the French love equines – and what better way to explore France than tracking them down?

The Haras National de Pompadour, in Corrèze, is one of the prestigious breeding centres set up during the reign of Louis XIV to keep the army supplied with horses.

By 1761 it had acquired royal status thanks to the influence of Madame de Pompadour on Louis XV.

Thoroughbred racehorses at the Haras National de Pompadour.

Nationwide, these breeding centres were abandoned during the Revolution 1790 but reinstated by Napoléon in 1806.Today there are around 20 Haras Nationaux in France.

Dressage at the Chateau

You can visit the Haras National de Pompadour from April to October, when there is a full programme of sporting events and equine cabaret, races and training courses.

The chateau, the stables, the indoor ring, and the stud farm ‘Le Domaine de Chignac’ are all open.

Rides in horse and carriage are also on offer.

Visits are guided, so it is best to check the website in advance and arrive on time.

At the end of September, at the Grande Semaine de Pompadour, the elite of the horse world take part in dressage, jumping and cross-country competitions, as well as the National Anglo-Arab Finals.

If you would sooner have your hands smelling of horse than admire the crème-de-la-crème from a distance, however, try riding in the Camargue.

The stocky white horses bred among the salt flats are hardy, patient and sure-footed enough even for a rank beginner.

In all likelihood you will find yourself riding out with a gardien or gardienne – French cowboys and cowgirls who herd the famous black bulls.

Hacking through the rice paddies and salt flats, you will see flamingos, black bulls and yet more white horses.

The sun is strong in summer, and all around the water glitters until you are not quite sure where the horizon is hiding (buy the strongest mosquito repellent you can find and use it liberally – inside and outside your clothes).

If you have a taste for drama and you can be there on November 11, the annual Festival d’Abrivado gathers around 200 gardians and 1,000 horses from all over Provence for races on the beach at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Bouches-du-Rhône).

Join in and eat breakfast on the beach, and then – at 11am – watch 11 teams of herders ride knee-to-knee along the 6km route from the beach to the arena, forming a solid wall of horseflesh around the young bulls to keep them heading in the right direction.

It’s high-adrenaline stuff; villagers do all they can to test the riders, by waving and shouting, so at least one bull escapes.

The Living Museum of the Horse (Musée de Cheval) in Chantilly (Oise) is a wonderland for horse-lovers.

You might recognise it from the 1985 Bond movie A View to Kill when it was used as the French home of villain Max Zorin (Christopher Walken).

The stable complex is the biggest in Europe and contains a museum packed with artwork depicting horses.

There are also around 40 horses of different breeds which are used for the regular daily dressage demonstrations in the outdoor ring, as well as the frequent indoor equine cabaret shows.

Privately run, it does not receive state funding. And if you feel horses come second to art and culture, Chantilly remains a treasure trove; the chateau contains the second largest collection of classical paintings in France outside the Louvre.

Another chateau which contains a large collection of horse-related artwork is Saumur (Maine-et-Loire).

Originally a fortified castle constructed in the 10th century by Theobald I, it was rebuilt by Henry II of England, turned into a prison by Napoléon, and restored during the last century.

Today it is a blond stone dream, a fairy-tale palace.

Fay-sur-Lignon (Haute-Loire) holds one of France’s oldest horse fairs in the third week of every October. It dates back to 1876 when the local député Pierre de Kergorlay founded a breeding competition in the village as a way of raising standards in the area.

Today, around 300 horses change hands every year at the fair, where the haggling begins at dawn.

Listen carefully and you will hear the old-timers still negotiating in francs, and deals are sealed with a rough handshake (well, a hand slap) called a ‘patche’. Make sure to duck into the local cafés for a pot-au-feu if you really want to get down and authentic.

If you are fit and picture yourself as a Musketeer, you could set off to ride the Route d’Artagnan, a series of equestrian paths running from Belgium, Holland, Spain and Italy across France to Lupiac (d’Artagnan’s birthplace in Gers). 

The map shows the parts of the five routes which exist but are not signposted in pale blue and the signposted sections in darker blue.

You can ride the routes section by section over a period of years if you like - and although many riders do don the famous pale blue Musketeers’ uniform, it is not required. You can even walk the routes if you do not have a mount.

“There is no one route complete,but there are sections of each of the five routes which are planned, but in France progress is always slow,” said Audrey Paret, of AERA, the association which manages the project.

“It can take many months to get permissions granted. But by the end of 2019 we will have 1,000km of the route open, and we intend to keep opening sections every year. So far, one of the longest stretches is around the chateau of Chambord. It’s very much a long-term project, and as a rider myself, I’m looking forward to seeing it completed.”

She estimated that it could take another five years for all the routes to be open and signposted, and possibly another five years for all the inns, hostels, farriers’ shops, restaurants and other services to open along the routes.

The destination for all the five routes, Lupiac, hosts a festival celebrating d’Artagnan every August, making it an ideal time to visit the village, whether you are in full musketeer regalia or not.

It is not obligatory to dress as a musketeer to ride the French legs of the Route d’Artagnan – but you can...

There are also other events taking place along the routes all year round.

On September 7 and 8, the Rendez-Vous en Terre des Mousquetaires will be taking place in Oloron-Sainte-Marie (64) and at the end of the month, on September 29 and 30, there will be a Weekend d’Artagnan in Crèvecoeur-le-Grand (60); and in October there is an event in Jonzac (17) but the details had not been finalised as we went to print.

Spectacles équestres are a growing trend in France. A mix of various riding disciplines, they are a long way from the traditional acts seen in travelling circuses.

A cabaret équestre at Pompadour

Apart from the traditional military performances which prioritise precision and discipline, the accent is very much on the horse rather than simply making it perform a series of tricks.

The Versailles Academy of Equestrian Arts stages shows in a stable which looks more like a ballroom, but most shows are staged in normal arenas.

The founder of the academy, celebrated trainer Bartabas, aimed to create ballets performed by horses and over the years his shows have delighted audiences across the world.

His company Zingaro is touring France this autumn with the show Ex Anima, which features riderless, unsaddled horses apparently running free. The genius is that they are performing intricately choreographed movements to music.

Another star, from the Camargue, is Lorenzo, who made his name riding several bareback horses across the beach at once, skipping nonchalantly from the back of one horse to another at a fast canter through the surf.

Horse trainer Lorenzo during one of his spectacular shows.

This September, he will perform at the Renaissance Château Thillombois, near Verdun (Meuse), on September 20, 21 and 22. The show is co-produced by another horse trainer from the Camargue, Christophe Hasta Luego.

Throughout the year there are also a series of massive horse shows in the major cities. The Equita Longines show will be held in Lyon from October 30 to November 2 2019.

The Paris horse show runs from December 4 to 8, 2019. The next ‘Cheval Passion’ horse show in Avignon will be in January 2020 and the horse show in Bordeaux is scheduled to run from February 6-9, 2020. The Besançon Salon du Cheval de Bourgogne-Franche-Comté horse show will be in February 2020 (exact dates to be announced).

Finally, if your taste in equines runs to the shaggy, the undersized, the hardy or the adorably cute, try and be in Séreilhac (Haute-Vienne) in early October (the precise date had not been set as we went to print), because you will not want to miss the Fête de l’Ane, one of the biggest donkey festivals in France.

Every conceivable type of donkey will be there, from large funky animals with twisted ‘Rasta’ locks, through to delicate doe-eyed creatures with soft grey noses.

There is a ploughing competition and a much-enjoyed donkey obstacle course. Competitors have to lead, push or otherwise persuade their animals to walk through the entire course including through doors, over ramps, through a dark tunnel, over a wall, and through a mud patch in order to win.

And to add to the fun, the competition is against the clock. There is also a car boot sale, a small fairground, and a large apple press (operated by a donkey) turning out fresh apple juice.

If you cannot get to Séreilhac, look out for similar festivals in Gignac (34), or the Ile d’Oléron at Easter; go walking with a donkey in the Cévennes, or check out ‘Anes en Culotte’ (Donkeys in trousers) in St-Martin-de-Ré on the Ile de Ré.

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