An Encounter with France’s Wild Camargue Horses

The story begins with a herd of white horses galloping along the foamy shore, their manes flashing amid the salt spray, their hooves splashing through the shallow waters of the marshlands.  The archetypical romance of the rugged Camargues, often called “horses of the sea,” is a sight to behold.  Southeastern France has been home to these horses since pre-historic times, and it is the only place they are found in the wild.  While their origins are somewhat mysterious, they are believed to be one of the oldest equine breeds in the world, descendants of the ancient Solutre horse, which lived 17,000 years ago during the Paleolithic period.  Solutre bones have been found in the southeast of France.

The Camargue region, for which the breed is aptly named, is Western Europe’s largest river delta, a collection of wetlands, dunes, salt flats and pasture land comprising 140,000 hectares. (One hectare contains approximately 2.47 acres). The Camargue is situated between Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon, bound by two branches of the Rhone and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is an area of rich biological diversity; portions of the habitat are a national park and nature reserve and among its other glamorous residents are pink flamingos and the Camargue bulls (which the Camargue horses are used for herding). 

While we generally perceive the Camargue Horses as being white, they are officially considered gray since they are not uniformly white all over.  In fact, they are born dark brown or black! The horses’ coats transform into a variation of alabaster at about four years of age.  From antiquity and down through the ages, the Camargue horses were most certainly crossed with the horses of peoples that settled the area, the Romans and Celts, the Moors, Phoenicians and Franks among them.  Perhaps the influence of Arabian blood may account for the Camargue’s ability to endure the vagaries of the challenging climate in which they live, including extremely hot summers and desolate, cold and unsheltered winters.  Legend has it that among their abilities is the strength and stamina to canter through mud that is up their bellies!

Like all horses, the Camargue horse is a herbivore, with a springtime diet of indigenous plants called samphire and the tender new shoots of tall reeds.  Winter fare consists of dried grasses and a tough plant called “goosefoot.”  Long grazing periods of up to 22 hours a day are sometimes necessary when food is scarce.  When nature supplies a bounty, the Camargues will only graze at dawn and dusk.  The horses of the Camargue live a wild or at least semi-wild life, though breeding practices are in place and are under the supervision of the Biological Research Station of la Tour du Valat.  The breed is highly prized, and considerations for its future protection are an evolving canvas, colored by numerous environmental and human factors. 

Camargues are small horses–technically ponies–standing between 13.1-14.3 hands at the withers, and weighing between 770 and 1,100 lbs.  They have heavy square heads, with straight or slightly convex profiles, large expressive eyes, and short, small, wide set ears.  They have a broad, deep chest, well-muscled shoulders and hindquarters.  Despite their size they have long, hardy, clean-jointed legs.  The Camargues’ hooves are hard and tough with large soles that are well adapted for their marshy home.

The Camargues are the mounts for “gardians,” or French cowboys, and play a major role in carrying out and preserving local traditions, including the annual “Abrivado” festival each November 10th and 11th.  Abrivado is a word of Old French, meaning “run of the bulls from pasture to arena.”  This popular festival begins with a breakfast on the beaches of the historical town of Sainte Maries de la Mer, built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD.  At eleven am, the abrivados begin.  Eleven teams of gardians in eleven consecutive abrivados demonstrate their skill as they herd the Camargue bulls from the beaches to the Arenas of the Saintes.  Upwards of 44 bulls, 2,000 horses, 15,000 spectators and hundreds of gardians are involved in this traditional display of passion for all things equine and Carmarguaise.

For those seeking adventure, there are many stables in the Camargue with a variety of riding opportunities that allow tourists to experience these magnificent animals up close in their native surroundings.  There are also numerous photography tours that travel to the area to observe the Camargues, and to capture their memorable beauty. But do be prepared.  My own experience of the untamed marshlands of the Camargue and the wild, white horses living there was twenty some years ago, but the memory remains bitingly vivid to this day. 

While Driving through the Camargue, I suddenly spotted horses in the distance!  I excitedly told my (fairly new) husband to stop the rental car right away, or toute suite as the French say.  I immediately flung open the car door to get a better look, through which just as hurriedly swarmed 10,000+ Camargue mosquitos-toute suite!  I had neglected to read the fine print in brochures on the area, which plainly advise packing jungle-strength mosquito repellent when visiting the Camargue in certain seasons! (I later found out the white coats of the Camargue horses are a natural mosquito deterrent–a fortuitous adaptation to the mosquito-rich environs.  Lucky fellas! Nevertheless, the experience of encountering these amazing creatures was worth every scratch!

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