Photos of Camargue Horses by Irene Suchocki
The Camargue horse is an ancient breed of horse indigenous to the Camargue area in southern France. For centuries, possibly thousands of years, these small horses have lived wild in the harsh environment of the Camargue marshes and wetlands of the Rhone delta. There they developed the stamina, hardiness and agility for which they are known today. The Camargue horse is the traditional mount of the gardians, the Camargue “cowboys” who herd the black Camargue bulls used in bullfighting in southern France. Camargue horses galloping through water is a popular and romantic image of the region.
Camargue horses are always gray. This means that they have black skin underlying a white hair coat as adult horses. They are born with a hair coat that is black or dark brown in colour, but as they grow to adulthood, their hair coat becomes ever more intermingled with white hairs until it is completely white. They are small horses, generally standing 1.35–1.50 metres (13.1–14.3 hands) at the withers, and weighing 350 to 500 kg (770 to 1,100 lb). Despite their small size, they have the strength to carry grown men. Rugged and intelligent, they have a short neck, deep chest, compact body, well-jointed, strong limbs and a full mane and tail.
Some researchers believe the Camargue are descended from the ancient Solutré horse hunted during the Upper Paleolithic period. Extensive archeologicalevidence has been found in the present-day Burgundy region of France. The Camargue breed was appreciated by the Celtic and Romaninvaders who entered the Iberian Peninsula. Their genealogy is closely tied with Iberian horses, especially those of the northern part of the peninsula. The original Spanish jaca was probably a cross between the Celtic pony and the Camargue. It was later improved by crosses with northern European horse types and ultimately with the southern peninsular horse, as the Moors spread their influence toward the Pyrenees.
As a result, the Camargue genes probably penetrated the Americas through the influence of the jaca, the warhorse taken to new lands where hardiness was a requirement. Breeds such as the Chilean horse and Criollo show signs of some characteristics that are common in the Camargue breed. Camargue horses were used on a large scale during the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860’s.
In 1976, to preserve the standards and purity of the breed, the French government set breed standards and started registering the main breeders of the Camargue horse. In 1978, they set up the breed stud book. To be registered, foals must be born out of doors and must be seen to suckle from a registered mare as proof of parentage. Foals born inside the defined Camargue region are registered sous berceau, while those born elsewhere are registered hors berceau (“outside the cradle” or “birthplace”). They have the heavy, square heads of primitive horses, but the influence of Arabian, Barb and Thoroughbred blood can also be seen. The gardians look after the horses, which are rounded up annually for health inspections, branding, and gelding of unsuitable stock.
In England, the only breeding herd is at Valley Farm, in Wickham Market, near Woodbridge, Suffolk. Valley Farm is also the home of the British Camargue Horse Society, which represents the Camargue Breed in Britain by maintaining a stud book for British-bred Camargue Horses and registering ownership of Camargue Horses in Britain.
The Camargue horse is the traditional mount of the gardian. It is used for livestock management, particularly of Camargue cattle, and also in competitive Camargue equitation, in traditional activities such as the abrivado preceding the course camarguaise, and in many gardian games.
Horses of Camargue
Horses on the Camargue by Roy Campbell
In the grey wastes of dread,
The haunt of shattered gulls where nothing moves
But in a shroud of silence like the dead,
I heard a sudden harmony of hooves,
And, turning, saw afar
A hundred snowy horses unconfined,
The silver runaways of Neptune’s car
Racing, spray-curled, like waves before the wind.
Sons of the Mistral, fleet
As him with whose strong gusts they love to flee,
Who shod the flying thunders on their feet
And plumed them with the snortings of the sea;
Theirs is no earthly breed
Who only haunts the verges of the earth
And only on the sea’s salt herbage feed-
Surely the great white breakers gave them birth.
For when for years a slave,
A horse of the Camargue, in alien lands,
Should catch some far-off fragrance of the wave
Carried far inland from this native sands,
Many have told the tale
Of how in fury, foaming at the rein,
He hurls his rider; and with lifted tail,
With coal-red eyes and catarcating mane,
Heading his course for home,
Though sixty foreign leagues before him sweep,
Will never rest until he breathes the foam
And hears the native thunder of the deep.
And when the great gusts rise
And lash their anger on these arid coasts,
When the scared gulls career with mournful cries
And whirl across the waste like driven ghosts;
When hail and fire converge,
The only souls to which they strike no pain
Are the white crested fillies of the surge
And the white horses of the windy plain.
Then in their strength and pride
The stallions of the wilderness rejoice;
They feel their Master’s trident in their side,
And high and shrill they answer to his voice.
With white tails smoking free,
Long streaming manes, and arching necks, they show
Their kinship to their sisters of the sea-
And forward hurl their thunderbolts of snow.
Still out of hardship bred,
Spirits of power and beauty and delight
Have ever on such frugal pasture fed
And loved to course with tempests through the night.