‘All we know is that when man first came to the Camargue, there were white horses and black bulls.’
So says Brenda, an Englishwoman who has been breeding Camargue horses for many years, and she should know. The white horses are almost the trademark of the area, groups of mares and foals left to roam over wide stretches of salt marshes, which are fringed with reeds, copses of pines, and at this time of late summer are covered in a froth of pale mauve sea lavender. Carefully selected stallions service the mares, while those not chosen for breeding are likely to be gelded and used for riding. The ‘guardians’ are the real riding elite here, the men who tend the bulls and tame the horses, but ordinary horse-trekking is where we’re at, in a group of riders ready to set off for the sea, some ten miles distant.
Has our recent riding prepared us for an all-day trek? Are bottoms, backs and thighs strong enough to withstand around six hours in the saddle? Even the most experienced rider (I’m making a come-back, Robert is putting in his training hours) can end up sore if out of practice. We’ll see.
We help to catch and groom our mounts, Loulevain and Garrigan, along with half a dozen other riders from different parts of France. Saddles are Western-style, which means you ride ‘long’ in the stirrups and loose with the reins, using only one hand. The horses are bred bigger than they used to be, and can go up to 15 hands or so, to cope with modern-sized riders, while still keeping the Camargue stamina, colour and character.
Our leader Caroline (pronounced Caroleen), gives us a brief explanation of the riding style, and warns us that horses may eat before, after, but never during the ride. We must go single file along roads and when cantering, and if anyone is in trouble they are to shout the universal command ‘Stop’!
‘Do not hang onto the reins, if you are afraid,’ she says. ‘Non. You have a thick mane to hold onto.’
She speaks in French unless we ask her to repeat in English. Good for improving my French, but I’m sometimes a touch confused when she releases a string of commands, each one faster than the last.
The ride takes us first along tracks sheltered by tall bamboo and fronded reeds, and through open flat fields that remind me of East Anglian fens. The difference being that here we pass herds of black bulls, and see white egrets take off in flight as we approach, sometimes followed by the majestic upward sweep of a heron’s wings. We follow dykes and small canals, trace old paths along a watery margin or sometimes have to ride single file by the side of busy roads – my least favourite part. French drivers seem to give horses little quarter. But off the main road, drivers slow, smile, and wave as we go by. Everyone wants to see white horses in the Camargue! The horses go steadily, with confidence; they must be ridden well but can be trusted to do their job
The biggest surprise of the day: we take the horses on a car ferry! Leading them onto the roll on/off flat bottomed boat, the Bac de Sauvage, we become stars for a while. Astonished passengers whip out their cameras. The horses stand placidly as we cross the Petit Rhone, and then form a beautiful cavalcade once more as we re-mount, white manes and tails flowing, necks strong and flexed, hooves neatly lifted in walk, trot, or a ‘galop’ – there is no specific French word for ‘canter’.
Sebastien’s horse is pounding the water with his front hoof. We’re riding through a shallow lagoon, the safe track marked out by long poles plunged at intervals into the mud. This may look like a charming circus trick, but the rider is inexperienced and does not know that this is horse talk for, ‘Water! Great – I’m going to roll in it.’ The cries of, Caroline, urging the rider to move on, are in vain. The horse drops onto its front knees like a camel, back legs following and Sebastien has no choice but to bale out in the water. Luckily, all he gets is a dousing, and the horse is brought back onto his feet before he has a chance to roll and, potentially, break the all-important ‘tree’ that holds the whole saddle together.
Now we’re into the real ‘marais’, with its marsh, mud flats and shallow ‘etangs’ such as the one we’ve just ridden through. There is a sense of primitive wildness, and a kind of collective awe descends on our company as we near our destination. We are trekking onto a private beach to which only local residents can get access. The view now opens up; the scene changes from one of eerie stretches of reed, mud and water, to Sunday picnic time on a Mediterranean beach. Not crowded, but not empty. Brenda is already there with a pick-up truck and a trailer that blossoms into a kind of snack bar; from its counter she dispenses couscous, ham, cheese and apples, along with cool, cool water – it’s hot out here – and wine rose and red for those who wish. But always see to your animals first. The horses are tied up in a long double row, girths slackened, bridles off, where they can doze during a well-earned rest. It’s been nearly three hours getting here.
Swim, eat, swap stories, and mount again for the – aagh – three hours back again. Actually, it is not so bad until just a few miles from home when some prefer to dismount and walk and others of us try to flex and stretch our stiff thighs. The girl in front of me is a comedienne, trained in theatre arts; she does a series of acrobatic poses on her pony to exercise her muscles. Robert takes his right foot out of the stirrup to ease cramp.
‘Non, non, non,’ barks Caroline crossly. ‘I want that you come back alive. Garrigan, he is bit stupid in the head.’
Robert, I think, has settled Garrigan remarkably well. He may not be the most experienced rider, but his calm and relaxed attitude goes down well with horses, and Garrigan has changed from being a fretful head-tosser to a steady and gentle ride over the last couple of days. We are all glad to have had a two hour ‘balade’ yesterday, a warm-up in preparation for the all-day ‘randonee’ today.
My horse, Loulevain, has been excellent. He is willing and reliable. His only bad habit is that he’s an accomplished thief, snatching an illicit bite to eat when my focus is elsewhere. I have had to pull a whole leafy bamboo cane out his mouth at one point. In the same way that cats wait until your attention is elsewhere before they jump on your lap, so Loulevain bides his time till I am dreaming or chatting to my neighbour. Then he lunges towards the verge and has a mouth stuffed with leaves before I’ve a chance to shorten the reins and kick him on. Still, I’m glad he isn’t totally predictable.
We amble through the small, charmingly ramshackle village of Astouin, a cluster of cottages in the Camargue fens, and then we’re back. Drink, horses – you’ve earned it. And so have we.
Next day we are a little stiff, but nothing terrible. The only battle scars on us both are where the mosquitos have managed to bite us through jodphurs and jeans respectively; we’ll spray every inch of ourselves in future.
Ride at Brenda’s (local farm, with accommodation and equestrian centre) at http://www.brendatourismeequestre.com/. Takes novices and experienced riders, also bring your own horse. Our two day stay cost around 214 euros per person, including two nights b&b, plus dinners and a picnic lunch, a two hour ride and an all-day ride.
The next post has my haiku homage to the horses. Too much alliteration already! But please do take a look.