Stone Age horses are alive and kicking (and biting)

Paris holds its Salon du Cheval this month with 2,000 horses and 450 exhibitors, including two of the world’s oldest and most iconic breeds: the endangered Przewalski’s horses, which are now bred in France, and the famous Camargue white horses. 

Przewalski’s horses are a distinct species, have never been domesticated and are the only truly wild horses left in the world although these ones are bred in the Cévennes national park.

Standing between 12-14 hands high, they are stocky, with short legs and short stiff manes which stand up rather than flow down their necks.

There are 610 drawings of these horses in caves all over France (such as Chauvet and Pech Merle), Italy and Spain, dating back 30,000 years, making them probably the oldest breed of wild horses in Europe.

In colour they range from dun-brown to pale gold, with a darker stripe on their spines, and as a mark of their relationship to zebras, some have faint stripes on their flanks.

They remain wild and, as cuddly as they look, are bad-tempered, agg­res­sive, and distrustful of humans. Riding them is impossible, and they will kick and bite anyone that gets too close. 

They are part of a breeding programme, TAKH, (www.takh.org) that is reintroducing them into Mongolia.

Founded by equine ethologist, Claudia Feh in 1990, TAKH started with 11 horses, all from European zoos as the horse had been extinct in the wild since the late 1960s.

The horses adapted well to the harsh mountainous conditions in the Cévennes, and bred sufficiently so that in 2004-2005, 22 of them were transported to the Khar-Us Nuur National Park in western Mongolia.

The aim is to establish a population of at least 1,000 animals, including at least 500 of breeding age, living semi-wild and then they would be released together. If too few were released, they would inter-breed with other semi-wild breeds already living in the area, and the gene pool would be lost.

For the same reason, six Przewalski’s horses which have been transported to the ex-military Orenburg Reserves in Russia along the border with Kazakhstan, are also living semi-wild, the entire area (more than 40,000 acres) having been fenced for them.

The plan is to increase the herd to at least 100, before considering whether to release them fully into the wild or to keep them in semi-liberty.

Przewalski’s horses are extremely hardy, happily withstanding wind, snow and freezing temperatures, given adequate food. In fact, they seem to enjoy rolling in snow, scratching their backs on the crusty surface.

Seven of TAKH’s horses live in La Réserve des Monts d’Azur, (www.haut-thorenc.com) north of Cannes and Nice. The 700 hectare site is the work of two vets, Patrice Longour and Daniel Baubet, who battled bureaucracy for 10 years to set it up. They started with horses from two zoos and say when first reintroduced to the wild, they seemed lost and confused by the presence of other animals.

“But today we have three herds, two harems and a group of single males, totalling 23 horses,” says Mr Longour, “and we organise safaris guided by an expert on Przewalksi’s horses.”

Safari parties set out on foot or in horse-drawn carts to track and observe the horses from a distance.

The reserve, which is eco-friendly and sustainable, has other species such as European bison, elk, wolves and lynx. It has accommodation and a walking safari with lunch costs from €22. Winter horse-drawn sled and snowshoe safaris cost from €12.

Like the Przewalski’s horses, Camar­gue horses are wild or more correctly semi-wild as they are ridden by ‘gardians’ who raise the area’s famous black bulls. They spend winter at liberty on the marshy delta where the Rhône flows into the Mediterranean.

They stand only 13-14 hands high, technically making them ponies, and their skin is black under their white coats, which is why horse breeders call them ‘grey’ rather than ‘white’. (At birth they are dark brown or black and only turn grey at about 3-4 years.)

They have particularly water-resistant, wide hooves which help them navigate the marshy terrain.

Camargue horses are an integral part of traditional life in the region: there is a strong local culture of bull-herding, related sports, Romany travellers, guitar music and dancing.

Looking around the salt-flats and paddy fields producing rice and melons, there are always flamingos, cattle and white horses somewhere in view.

Hardy and sure-footed, by temperament they are calm, courageous and confident, making them easy to train and ride.

Aurélien Jouvenel works for the breeders’ association and has three Camargue horses himself: “They are bred in herds, and live semi-wild for the first two or even three years of their lives, so the herd hierarchy is well-established meaning they form good relationships with humans.”

They have lots of stamina, making them good work-horses, intelligent and willing.

There are around 3-4,000 in the region, but they are bred all over France, and even in Germany, Belgium and Sweden and adapt well to life in other places.

Mr Jouvenel said: “Camargue horses really do understand working with the bulls. A good horse has an eye for what the cattle are doing, and can anticipate their moves. They are real companions and partners, sometimes even knowing what’s happening before the rider does.”

Georges Vlassis, of the Maison du Cheval Camargue said: “They instinctively understand cattle herding and aren’t frightened of bulls because they all live semi-wild together.

They can also be used for dressage and driving “and because they are small and gentle, are ideal for beginners, disabled riders and people on the autistic spectrum.”

Over the last 40 years they have also been introduced to Italy’s Po Delta national park and the ‘Cav­allo del Delta’ have adapted so well there is now a semi-wild herd of around 160.

Salon du Cheval (salon-cheval.com) is from November 26 to December 4 at Paris Nord Villepinte

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