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Photo courtesy of Yvelise Tschierschke.
The Cheval de Mérens, sometimes referred to by their original name of Ariegeois pony, is named for the picturesque village in the French Pyrenees where the Ariege River flows, near the border of Andorra. These small rustic horses with their distinctive black coats and abundant, rough and often crinkly manes are native to the Pyrenees and Ariegeois mountains of Spain and southern France. The small farms in Ariege, being unable to support an entire herd of horses all year round, continue an age-old tradition called the “Montagnage.” Also celebrated as the “Fete de la Transhumance,” the tradition consists of bringing livestock on foot up into the estives—the high mountain pastures—of the Pyrenees in early June where they will graze and roam freely for five months, returning to their farms below in October. Turning the horses out on the high alpine range not only takes advantage of the nutritious summer grazing season, but creates a picturesque identity unique to the region. The owners of Haras Picard du Sant, an organic Mérens horse farm in Ariege Pyrenees, France explain beautifully, “Long, beautiful columns of black ‘Princes of Ariege’ winding along our roads, trails and mountain pastures… this is the emblematic sight of late spring in our region.”

The Mérens is a smaller breed of horse, both alluring and sturdy. Similar to the Fell and Dales Pony breeds of England, they are thought to have originated in prehistoric times and bear a striking resemblance to prehistoric equines depicted in the cave paintings of Niaux, dating back 13,000 years.

The Mérens Pony, as  it is affectionately called, with its ancestral attributes of surefootedness, adaptability, safe gaits and resistance to cold, has enjoyed a long history and alliance with the mountain farmers of Monntagnol. The animals were used in draught work with miners, hauling mineral ores and sledges; the equine’s strong hooves and steady balance are greatly valued on steep and uneven terrain impervious to modern means of mechanized transport. This complex breed was also favored throughout history for military purposes, employed by the armies of Count of Foix Gaston Phoebus in the Middle Ages,  and later pulling the cannons of Napoléon during his Russian campaign.

Genetically, the hostile environment of the Pyrenees forged a remarkable and hardy horse that prefers meadow grass and living in the wild to any type of confinement in stables. In the winter the breed develops an ample thick coat with rust-colored streaks  as well as facial features that resemble beards, affording protection from the elements. The foals are generally born outside on the snow-covered ground. The colts grow quickly, nourished with the rich milk of the generously lactating mares, and soon exhibit the unique qualities of the breed, including the environmental adaptability and resistance to cold.

Physically, the breed averages size of 1.45 meters, with an ideal height for males being 1.49 meters (14.3 hands) and females 1.45 meters (14.1 hands). The horses’ weight range is 770-1,100 lbs. The breed’s head is expressive, small and refined;  the neck may be average or short but is strong and well-oriented. The chest is open, the shoulders fairly steep, with a well-defined, longer withers. The back is wide with a well-rounded croup. This rare breed threatened to disappear in the 1960’s but now numbers 8000+ animals and is considered to be a successfully rescued species. It has been classified as a distinct breed since 1998 and today, the Mérens ponies are highly valued as saddle horses, able to deftly maneuver mountainous trails in wilderness riding. They are also adept at carriage driving, harness work and as pack animals. Gentle but lively, the Mérens exhibit the strong personalities characteristic of ponies and their best assets are revealed with a devoted and firm human companion.

Photo courtesy of Peter Tschierschke.

The Transhumance expedition in the late spring is a defining and unique experience for the breed. The animals spend five months completely free in the wilds of the Pyrenees (though they are visited twice a week). The farmers consider the breed’s feral sojourn an essential component in maintaining the integrity of the Mérens character. The herd lives naturally during this time, reestablishing its natural hierarchy. It is possible for visitors to participate in the transhumance of the Mérens horses, a 70km walking journey that takes three days and three nights from the farms into the mountain pastures and is punctuated by much local celebration and merriment!

For more information on this fascinating breed and the opportunities to interact with it, click here.

(Originally published in the January/February 2013 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).