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Camargue region, France 2022

Last month we were fortunate to visit the South of France, observing and photographing the famous horses of the Camargue region. The Camargue is actually the delta of the Rhone River. When you see films and photos of white ponies galloping through water in France, they are the Camargue horses.

We survived mosquitoes, falling in deep mud, and getting up at 5 a.m. each morning for the experience, but to quote the workshop leader, “Camargue without mud and mosquitoes is not really…. Camargue”. He did not mention the 5 a.m. part.

The exact origin of the Camargue horse is not well established, but researchers believe it descends from those depicted in the Lascaux Cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic period. The horses are thought to have migrated from the Iberian Peninsula, have been in France for over 2,000 years and are considered one of the oldest horse breeds in the world.

Surviving the severe environment of marshy wetlands and extreme temperatures in the Camargue created hardy, agile animals with incomparable stamina. They even take time out to enjoy rolling in the water! Because of these characteristics, Camargue horses helped build the Suez Canal and were exported to many areas of the world.

In fact, the cross breeding that resulted from these exports resulted in the French government establishing standards to preserve the purity of the breed in 1976. Two years later the government implemented a breed stud book.

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Camargues are known for living in a semi-feral state and now are bred, branded and maintained by gardians, French cowboys.  However, in order to be registered as a pure Camargue horse, the foal must be born in the wild with no assistance from humans and observed nursing from a registered mare. How the French enforce these rules was not explained.

Born black or brown, Camargue horses turn light gray by age four. They are famously referred to as the white horses of the Camargue, however. Interestingly, their light hair reflects the sun’s rays, imparting a needed insect repellant effect.

Camargues are used for agricultural and recreational purposes, and are the last ridden work horse bred in France. Camargues are linked with semi-feral bulls, and help manage the bovine herds. Like sheep dogs, for them it’s not work, it’s instinct.

Importantly too, they are an integral part of the traditional sport of the course camarguaise, the French version of bull fighting. It is a type of bull-running in which bulls have ribbons placed between their horns, and in the ring, raseteurs, French matadors, must try to remove them. The bulls are not killed as in Spain, and in fact are celebrated as heroes. 

Famous bulls are the draw to the arena, not the matador. The bulls are driven on foot to the arena by mounted guardians on Camargue horses and returned in the same way to their pastures. Thus, the triumvirate of the gardian, horse and bull is a deep cultural aspect of the Camargue.

Deborah and Lawrence Blank

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