Well – hello to all our wonderful SAHA followers – from sunny France!
Firstly, apologies for the lateness of the August report but I left for overseas towards the end of the month, and I had a very special reason for wanting to wait until I wrote this.
It’s a selfish reason – because it’s a personal story, not a SAHA story – but it is, of course, to do with horses.
Like many horse-mad people I seemed to have been beamed down into this lifetime loving horses. As a little girl I thought and dreamed of nothing else really (except perhaps The Beatles).
In 1958, when I was three-years-old, my father went to the Camargue region of France, where the-then wild herds of horses roamed, and brought me back a black and white book of photographs, which were stills from the 1953 movie, Crin Blanc. Crin Blanc, which literally translates as White Mane, was the story of a little boy who befriends a wild white stallion, and after a pretty tough journey together the pair of them ride off into the sea, disappearing from sight forever.
My father didn’t speak French, but he knew the story from the film and would tell it to me in English, and I would gaze at the white horses in the photos and be overawed with their beauty – not to mention shedding a few tears at the storyline.
Well, it’s taken me almost sixty years, and a sister’s significant decade birthday (my sister lives in France) to tick this item off my bucket list, but yesterday I went out for two hours with the owner of a trail-riding establishment based in the middle of the Camargue. And thanks to the fact that many years ago I spent a year working with horses in France, my French was sufficient for me to understand and speak with Patrick about the Camargue horses and their way of life.
It’s sad but true that these days there are no ‘wild’ horses left in the Camargue where once-yearly round-ups used to take place, but proper breeding controls introduced in the 60’s and only a select amount of breeding licenses has meant that the pure Camargue lines are safe.
But, and it’s a wonderful but, the horses are still very much in a sense semi-wild. When they are not working, either with the famous bulls of the Camargue, or trail-riding, or giving displays, they are out in the hundreds of acres that each ‘ranch’ occupies, living in the marshy wetlands, on what looks like, to an Australian eye, virtually inedible long marshy stalks – and all I might say, as fat and happy as pigs in mud.
The Camargue horse is one of the most ancient breeds in the world, and it’s indigenous to the Camargue area in southern France. Historians believe that the horses are descended from the Solutré horse – the Equus Caballus Gallicus – which was hunted for its meat during the Paleolithic period a mere 40,000 years ago. Stockier than the other main wild horse strain that had travelled from Mongolia, the Camargue horses are still small today – usually between 13.2hh to 15.3hh. They have a short neck, deep chest, a compact strong body, and almost wavy manes and tails. They are absolutely without exception, grey horses, so although they are known as white, they have black skin under their white hair. They are usually born black, sometimes dark bay, or even roan, but by the time they are five or so, they are almost completely white.
So what was it like riding one? Well, my guide, Patrick, was on one of his own horses – a Portuguese Lusitano cross Camargue that he is training for bull work, and I was on Tato, a classic Camargue horse – probably 14.2hh, sturdy with a broad but not high wither. “We ride Western style,” Patrick told me, as I hopped aboard and settled myself in the saddle – which was not dissimilar to a stock saddle but with the open mesh iron stirrups designed to keep any foot in! The trail saddles are derived from the actual Camargue Saddles which are designed to hold a rider in place even when using high-speed turns to chase bulls, and I found it amazingly comfortable. Whereas (for me at least) I’ve always found that to be comfy in a stock saddle I need to put my legs forward, in this saddle my leg rested perfectly in line with my hip and shoulder, and Tato needed only the slightest touch of the reins to go or whoah.
“He loves his work,” Patrick said, as we headed off at a brisk trot, and indeed he did. He was free-moving rather than forward, and I got a feeling of a deep intelligence – where Patrick’s somewhat flighty young one was busy dancing everywhere, Tato had seen it all before which was reassuring.
As we rode, we talked. Patrick also reassured me on the matter of the famous bulls of the Camargue – they are not, as they are in Spain, killed in the bull ‘work’ which is what they call it, rather than fighting. Instead the ‘guardian’, (i.e. rider) must manage to lift off two white strings attached to each of the bull’s horns. It’s a game of deft skill and swiftness as I saw the following night, but then the bulls – and the horses – are let go once more in the marshy wetlands to roam and graze. Of course not to get too romantic, the bulls are also used extensively for meat, but that’s a reality everywhere, but for me it was good to know the ‘travail du taureau’ – literally ‘work of the bull’, did not mean a bloody end.
Horse people might ask how on earth the horses stay fat and healthy with NO hoof problems living virtually permanently in a marshy wetland. It seems as if over the centuries, or in fact over the thousands of years they have been living there the horses have developed certain characteristics – broad hooves with large, wide soles, relatively long legs for their stature with broad knees and hocks. The grasses of the Camargue are actually full of nourishment, watered as they are by the sweet river water of the Rhône, and we passed herds of horses nibbling not just on the long grass but even on seemingly prickly unappetising bushes.
As we walked along, alternately trotting, cantering or even galloping along the sandy tracks, picking our way through the marshes, and splashing through the inevitable small lagoons here and there, Patrick showed me the herds of the mares with their foals – plus, he pointed out, an old gelding who’d retired from his work to live out his days in a “family situation”.
The work horses work only between April and October and are otherwise left free to graze and wander. The sheer space available to them all seems to make the in-fighting minimal, although I noticed that another attribute of the Camargue horses seems to be a very thick skin! They take virtually no notice of the flies and the odd bite or kick seems hardly to penetrate.
“They hardly ever need vet attention,” Patrick told me cheerfully, while I rather wished that the SAHA horses could be so hardy! “Some horses might go their whole lives never needing a vet.”
When we came upon the herds of black bulls, they were unconcerned by the horses, although because many of them were in fact cows with calves we didn’t venture too deep into the herds in order not to upset them. All of them too, were in magnificent condition. “I think here in the Camargue we might even love our bulls more than our horses,” Patrick told me, but I’m not at all sure about that, I think he was winding me up.
To say it was a magical morning would be an understatement, and as well as the horses and bulls, we saw giant egrets, wild ducks, and even an otter in the river.
Galloping along on little Tato, whose paces were small but quick, I breathed in deeply. I was in a bucket list moment, and I wasn’t going to forget it in a hurry for sure.
So now back to more prosaic August news for SAHA:
Of course you will have seen that we’ve launched our amazing new raffle with another wonderful Olympic Royal horse float and a Toyota Hilux up for grabs. This is the ultimate in comfortable float and tow packages, and you have to be in it to win it, as they say, so click here to grab your tickets.
The winner of our August cash raffle was Bernie Dousi, who has received her winnings of $10,000 and is talking about a trip to Portugal next year. Congratulations to Bernie and thank you for supporting SAHA.
In August we adopted out Alonzo – and that was such a pleasure because as you might know, Alonzo was a very particular horse, so to match him with a family was not an easy task for Jess (our rider) and Helen, but they’ve done brilliantly and Alonzo is very happy. Madonna and Tasha, too are both big-moving mares who have gone to experienced horse people, and we have more adoptions coming up. Ryley came back into care, and we weren’t able to resist the lovely Sunny – and I’ll give you all the details for him next month. Click here for his new page.
As you know our darling little chap Charming, had to have an eye removed. The operation went extremely well, but he is also requiring some more treatment on the other eye, and we are keeping our fingers – and toes – seriously crossed. Charming is back at Buccan at the moment where we can keep a close eye on him.
You guys, our supporters, have been wonderful during August, not just supporting our raffles but also our weekly fundraisers for particular horses and for our general vet and dental bills. It’s these little fundraisers that make all the difference because then we aren’t adding to the pressure of the massive feed and care bills, and the costs of running the sanctuaries. So once more, thank you – and I hope you enjoy this report which I’m writing sitting in an old French farmhouse, just on the edge of the Camargue.
Candida Baker, President