From France to Tryon

Blogger and USEF judge Margaret Freeman shares tales from her trip to France before her time at the World Equestrian Games.

I crossed off another line off my horsey bucket list last week. I went to the Camargue.

The lines on that particular bucket list that I’ve already crossed off include seeing Chincoteague Ponies on Assateague Island and Connemara ponies in Ireland. I was charmed by visions of white horses galloping through the marshes on the south coast of France, so when we were visiting that area last week I booked a tour.

I saw lots and lots of white horses, whole fields full of them, but none loose in a marsh. The tour guide said that the white horses native to that area are all on farms now. Okay, a disappointment, but I did learn a lot about the area and how their white horses and their black bulls are a huge source of pride. I also learned about a sport called bull racing (actually they’re steers but are called bulls), where the bulls get to chase the humans, not the other way around, and aren’t killed but compete for years. The goal for the men is to cut a string tied to the horns of the bull, which looks as hard as it sounds.

We happened by chance on a parade in the town of Saintes Marie de la Mer, where there were people in native dress carrying baskets of a type of statice, an important local crop, and then Camargue horses pulling wagons of them as well. Our guide said the white horses aren’t usually used for pulling though but more often for riding and especially for herding those bulls.

We took trains from Geneva to Lyon and from Avignon in the south of France to Bayeux in the north, and I stared out the window the whole time watching for horses and even maybe a dressage ring or two. It was harder than I expected, especially in Normandy. There, unlike in the Camargue which is flat and open, the hills and hedgerows there make it difficult to see into farms from the roads. The hedgerows, which separate the fields rather than fences, are hundreds of years old and very tall and thick, and they don’t need a center core of wire like you see in the U.S.

The hedgerows led to an interesting history lesson, since we were in Normandy to visit D-Day sites. Apparently, the intel that the Allies gathered before the invasion didn’t specify how high and thick those hedgerows were, making it very difficult to see the enemy and thus slowing the advancing armies considerably.

My favorite horsey sights on the trip turned out to be artistic rather than real. The first was on a bridge in Geneva, a huge monument titled “Colombe de la Paix.” It was of a naked woman riding bareback and aside (a neat trick!) while holding a dove. At my husband’s suggestion, I sent a photo back to my barn buddies to emulate the idea for our next group riding session. The other was a striking painting in a Bayeux art museum of two horses fighting. It’s by Albert de Balleroy. The power and action in the piece seemed enhanced because it was a painting rather than a photograph.

I was home in Tryon less than half a day when I was over at the WEG site picking up my volunteer credentials for scribing during the dressage competition this week. As we passed through customs at the airport, I saw people wearing German, Belgian and Danish gear. I wished them luck at WEG and they responded cheerily. Everywhere I’ve been going for the past two days here I’ve seen people wearing WEG team uniforms. My best sighting so far? Sir Mark Todd, eventing superstar from New Zealand!

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