2017-12-09 / Columnists


by Candice C. Dunnigan

A travel into the French regions of Normandy and Brittany this fall found me in the midst of the heritage of French horses and two important “haras,” or stud farms. To my amazement, I learned that France has eight national farms. These are scattered throughout the country, and their main purposes are to continue in the breeding and development of French equines for farming, driving, show, and pleasure. The state gives each of them some type of national support. France has an equine culture that rivals those of England and the Republic of Ireland. The country is roughly the size of Texas and, like Texas, it is full of horses. They are featured prominently in many panels of the famed Bayeux Tapestry. Horses are part of France’s heritage.

Equines abound in Normandy. It is the home of three famous breeds, Percheron, Norman Cob, and Selle Francais. The best way to see these animals is by driving around the countryside and visiting the studs. This is what my husband and I did while vacationing, during an extended trip of the battle sights of the D-Day. Since I did not get the GPS on our rental car in harmony with myself until our third day of traveling, we took a lot of back roads, and there we found a lot of horses. One even tried to follow us.

At right: The horseshoe shaped livery stable built in 1715, designed by Robert de Cotte, at Le Haras du Pin in Normandy, France.At right: The horseshoe shaped livery stable built in 1715, designed by Robert de Cotte, at Le Haras du Pin in Normandy, France.There still are rural thatched farmhouses, barns, and green fields abounding, as if they had not been touched by the devastations of wars. Outside of the city of Saint-Lo, in fact, the stables, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806, were the only buildings not lost to bombs and mortars during World War II. Ninety percent of the town was flattened. The Haras Nationaux (National Stud Farm) began in the center of Saint-Lo in the ruins of old abbey grounds. It was moved to the outskirts in 1886. By 1912, there were 422 stallions. Today there are still breeding barns from the 1899s, but it is a modern equine sports complex adjacent to the stud farm that hosts major European jumping and carriage driving competitions.

Gold-leafed horses atop the entry gates at Le Haras du Pin in Normandy, France. Gold-leafed horses atop the entry gates at Le Haras du Pin in Normandy, France. That farm was known for the development of the Selle Francais breed. This is an elegant riding horse, beautiful but durable. The Selle Francais were bred for the calvary. One of the reasons most of Europe had national studs and breeding farms is that horses were the mainstay of their army. As major transportation for any army, a horse had such purpose. But, France, like its usual adversary, Germany, always had the desire to have horses that had the characteristics needed for specific duties, like riding, jumping, carting, and moving artillery. The Selle Francais is a cross between French draft breeds, trotters, and English Thoroughbreds. It is a swift, fierce competitor.

Partial view of the national stud boxes (1715), designed by Robert de Cotte, at Le Haras du Pin in Normandy, France. Partial view of the national stud boxes (1715), designed by Robert de Cotte, at Le Haras du Pin in Normandy, France. One day we drove to the outskirts of Le Perche, where the Percheron breed of horses originated. They continue as the “draft horse of choice” in France, and we know many examples of this breed on Mackinac.

The Haras du Pin, which is home to Percherons, is perhaps the most outstanding stable complex and grounds I have ever seen. The day my husband and I were there was misty and gray. There were seven buses of French school children also visiting. It was quite busy, and certain areas, as well as photography of horses, were prohibited. The haras keeps examples of Norman Cobs, French Trotters, Arabians, and French Thoroughbreds, as well as Percherons. It was built in 1715 by Robert de Cotte under the orders and specifications of King Louis XIV. It has the similar characteristics of Versailles and is just elegant. The riding grounds and gardens were created by the landscape architect, Le Norte, who also developed Versaille. Le Haras du Pin encompassed 1,112 acres. Today, 900 acres are part of a regional forestry system and park. The remaining acres are all for the horses and the palatial buildings.

The original barns that housed the Percherons were built in a horseshoe-shaped concept. There is a central bricked yard. The main gates still feature horse heads atop them, finished in the original 24-karat gold leaf that somehow amazingly survived the French Revolution, local uprisings, and two world wars. Originally, the director of the stud lived in a magnificent chateau that overlooks the stunningly landscaped gardens and grounds, which feature the dressage rings. Behind the facade of the horseshoe stables are long stables with standing stalls for 80 horses and various antique carriages and coaches.

Interestingly, one of their top Percheron studs is not French, but American, and was bred in Richmond, Michigan.

France’s Percheron Stud Book was established in 1893. Most of the stud horses there are gray in color, but there were a few blacks. Also, there in the stalls were miniature ponies next to several stallions, keeping a watchful eye. These little French ponies are the “teasers” that will test if a mare is in season. It’s a busy place.

The Norman Cobs, however, were the largest number of a breed of French horses that we saw daily on our drives. The Norman was not really recognized as a specific horse type until the 1900s. It is a wonderful horse “made up from other French horses,” as some like to say. But one does not say this in Normandy, as the horsemen there are very proud of their horses.

Normandy, like parts of Ireland, has soil that is influenced from the Atlantic and salt marshes. The sea has deposited rich minerals in much of the soil. The lush farmlands are perfect for cattle, so dairy is one of the chief occupations for these French. You can find many horses and cattle together in pastures, but the salt marshes suit the horses that have adapted to exist in tougher areas. They have developed strong hooves, such as this breed. Good hooves usually mean strong bones. The horses are very heavy in bone and exists happily in both marsh and field.

The Normans are small draft horses, which are surprisingly nimble and compact. They also have very tiny ears. Most of these equines are bay in color. There are some exceptions, but gray is the least likely color. They can have a dense coat, similar to a Connemara’s, which helps repel the moisture from the rains and mists. The result is few of these horses succumb to rain rot. They have an overall gentle disposition, much more than their cousins, the Selle Francais.

For a draft horse, they are on the petite size, although they weigh about 600 pounds more than the average riding horse, about 1,200 pounds. In height, though, they average 15.3 to 16 hands. As a comparison, most draft horses on Mackinac Island stand over 16 hands, and some over 19 hands in height. Although the legs of the Norman Cob are short, they have a nice extended walk and trot, rather than a lot of knee action. “Cob” refers to a type of horse, more than a breed. A Cob often looks like a large pony, but averages about 15 hands in height. They are strong boned with large joints, but they have a calm, steady temperament. The aforementioned holds true for these horses. The Normans are still popular for farm work driving and riding. If I had the means, I would own one, too.

And, so, as December days arrive and depart, we prepare to usher in a brand new year. Best wishes to all for good holidays. I hope to continue to share more Horse Tales with you in 2018. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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