I’ve always loved horses. I grew up with them and was first plonked on top of a solid, box-shaped Shetland at the tender age of three. Apparently I howled so loudly that I had to be removed before the pony decided to press her eject button. But that didn’t diminish my enduring love for these noble creatures. I rode horses and ponies of various dimensions every day – it didn’t matter to me what they were like. Well actually it did a bit. I had my favourite, my best friend.
I’ll never forget the day I watched my horse being born. I was ten years old and already late for school, but my mum allowed me those precious minutes to marvel at what literally unfolded before me. With relative ease a gangly foal appeared, still cocooned, but not for long. His mum performed a miraculous clean-up job and there he was. “That’s your young horse, Beth,” said my wonderful mum, “you’ll grow up together.” And we did. For the next ten years we were inseparable.
Many years, and what seems to be a lifetime later, my French friend Andrée and I were walking our dogs in the forest here in France. Knowing how I felt about horses she told me about an equestrian event that was coming up in a few days’ time. A serious car accident had forced me to give up riding but my fascination for these proud beasts has never diminished. I listened carefully to Andrée but, as usual, my scant knowledge of the French language let me down when it came to the detail. I gathered that it was an evening show of some kind that involved horses but that was about it. H’m interesting!
Andrée particularly wanted to go because her granddaughter would be involved and she thought I might like to see her ride. It was taking place in a little village about 20 kilometres from us and would I like to go with her. Of course I jumped at the chance. I double-checked with Jack, my husband to see if he would like to join us, but I needn’t have bothered. Unsurprisingly he reminded me of his dislike for anything that moves without the aid of an accelerator or gearbox. He concluded by informing me he’d rather chew on a bag of nails. That was that then. I left him in glorious solitude, well nearly. He had a couple of dogs sprawled over his feet, a cat on his lap, and looked completely content as he nursed his bottle of lager.
I was duly collected and we set off along a route that Andrée knew well. She said it was fairly quiet which proved to be a magnificent understatement. We meandered through the countryside that was mainly decorated with orchards or forest. Dumpy farmhouses nestled comfortably in their own domaines, peppered with vines, or the huge Blonde Aquitaine cattle and the occasional farm dog. The road was lined by plane trees in full leaf, shading the road with their graceful boughs, it was perfect French scenery. But quiet? Certainly that. I don’t remember any other vehicles on that road for the first 19 kilometres – perfect.
We reached the village in good time and approached a field that was stuffed full of parked cars, easily more than 200. “Gosh, what’s going on here?” I innocently asked my friend, barely able to believe that there were so many car owners in the district.
“It is the show of course. People travel a long way to see it.” Andrée had got me again.
There I was thinking it would be a minor affair, clearly I was quite wrong about that. Now, completely intrigued, I joined Andrée in the long trudge to the entrance.
As I grilled her for more information we joined the crowds and entered ‘Festiberique’, an Iberian-themed world that was filled with the sights, sounds and the scents of horses. They were everywhere. Oh, and a lama too – although that didn’t take part in the proceedings. Beer tents, barbeques, and stands that sold various goods, surrounded an arena that had grassy mounds for spectators on two sides and a marquee on another. It was not at all what I’d expected.
Before we settled down Andrée asked if I had eaten and, being the consummate team mum that she is, clucked disapprovingly when I replied “no”. Decision made, I had to have something before we settled down. We immediately headed for the food area and met several members of her family along the way, one of whom indulgently stuck a big plastic tray in my hand loaded with chips, merguez sausage and a great wodge of bread. I was good to go.
We parked ourselves on a hillock and prepared to watch what the French term a Spectacle équestre, a show designed to celebrate and exhibit the athleticism of horses and their riders. And it really was.
Troupes of riders wearing magnificent Spanish flamenco costumes paraded before us, but it was not they who danced to the music that rang out from the speakers, it was their horses. It was an amazing demonstration of dressage as the animals performed intricate moves, wowing the crowds with their power and majesty. I was instantly in heaven.
Next came a series of what might be termed rodeo stunt displays. I was amazed by one rider and his horse in particular. Between them they created acrobatic movements that I’d seen on television, but never in real life. Using the saddle as a gymnast uses a vaulting horse, the rider sprang from one side of the animal to the other, touching down on the ground in rhythm to his cantering partner. He swung under the saddle, up again, then reached a standing position, posturing for the crowd as his steed continued to circle the arena at a steady canter. It was remarkable.
Then there was a completely different kind of demonstration. A horse and a human entered side-by-side, the man tiny in comparison to his fellow performer. There was no saddlery on this animal and, using the dressage whip as a prompt rather than correction tool, the man directed the horse through a series of extraordinarily complex movements.
These required enormous strength and agility. There was hushed silence as we watched, spellbound by the display that unfolded before us, thrilled by what we saw. Their finale was equally impressive and particularly poignant when the horse lay on the ground gently cushioning his co-star. It was definitely a true partnership.
The mood abruptly changed. Circus music blared raucously out of the speakers as two gymnasts, and their dancing dogs, burst into the ring. I wasn’t quite sure which were the most agile, the dogs, which seemed to be made of elastic, or the man who managed quite extraordinary moves with his somewhat hefty female counterpart. Either way it was highly entertaining. Then came a donkey accompanied by a nun. I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about, but it certainly caused great hilarity and cheers from the crowd as the pair of them cavorted in an ungainly fashion across the ring.
Horses wearing hats and pulling traps appeared and charged pell-mell around in circles. One of the carriages was accompanied by a magnificent bay stallion ridden by a lady in flamenco dress. Why? I have no idea, but they were stunning - this was entertainment at its best.
Then a team of four horses burst in, driven by a man standing on the backs of two of them. As the crowd cheered and applauded I was reminded of the film, Ben Hur, and the great chariot race, how on earth did he manage to keep his balance on those grey racers?
At this stage I was fairly breathless with excitement. It had all been so completely different to what I’d expected. Irritatingly I kept nudging Andrée, babbling questions which, good as gold, she indulgently answered whilst tutting over the occasional minor error a rider or horse might have made. Not me, I was thrilled to the core, and there was more to come.
Another horse entered the arena with its rider bearing fire brands. I don’t know of any creature that isn’t instinctively terrified of fire so I was astounded by how trusting the animal was as the rider performed a series of unimaginably difficult juggling acts on horseback. With flaring nostrils and proud gait the brave horse bore its dangerous cargo without flinching once. It was incredibly impressive.
I have always been fascinated by Lipizzaners. This is a breed of horse closely associated with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, where they demonstrate the haute école or “high school” movements of classical dressage, including the highly-controlled, stylized jumps and other movements known as the “airs above the ground”.
The horses at the Spanish Riding School are trained using traditional methods that date back hundreds of years, based on the principles of classical dressage.
I wasn’t familiar with the breed of horse that entertained us next, but this group struck a remarkable resemblance to the famous Lipizzaner. They were full of pizazz and flair. With tails carried high, arched necks and expressions of fierce pride they went through a series of movements that drew gasps of wonder and admiration from the crowd. Sometimes working as a team, their levels of synchronisation were precise, and measured. I stared in wonder at these amazing athletes. Were they enjoying themselves? They certainly seemed to be.
It was very dark now. The arena lights came down as the troupe made their exit to rapturous applause. For a moment it was pitch black – the audience began whispering expectantly.
Now there were movements in the centre of the sandy ménage, but I couldn’t make out what they were. An announcement was made; this seemed to be the star of the show. I looked around me and there was a sea of faces waiting with baited breath to see what was going to happen next. The evening had been a resounding success. I couldn’t possibly imagine anything that could top what we’d already seen.
The lights gradually came up, together with haunting music played by a lone harpist seated in the centre of the arena. The ethereal music threaded its way through the loudspeakers, enveloping the entranced audience. Andrée nudged me gently. With an expression of pride spreading across her face she whispered, “Now you will see Léna and her horse, Swany.”
A beautiful grey mare glided into the ring, ridden by a young woman in costume, who bore a striking resemblance to her grandmother. Her horse had no bridle, simply a ficelle, a string around its neck. What followed was a feat of horsemanship that so far had not been rivalled that night. Horse and rider flowed in perfect harmony to the harp music.
Intricate dressage movements interchanged with explosive actions. The horse bucked, the horse kicked backwards, the horse high-stepped. Then the horse reared up and danced for the crowd. It was truly magical.
All too soon their stunning performance came to an end, but Lena had saved the best till last. Somehow in the darkness she had spotted her grandmother and other family members in the crowd. She and Swany performed a graceful bow directly in front of us and then they quietly lay down together as the music from the harp faded away.
Part of me wanted to holler my applause and cry “Bravo!” Instead, like most of the others there that night, I silently mopped up a tear of emotion. It had been a brilliant exhibition from a horse and rider who had spent as long together as I had with my horse, Sam. They obviously shared an incredible bond.
Finally the spectacular ended and it was time to go home. We said our “au revoirs” to the various family members who had turned up to support Léna, and trudged back to our car. We chatted animatedly about the event as we retraced our steps along the deserted road. Me, bursting with thanks for the invitation, and admiration for the performers, especially Léna and Swany. Andrée was understated as usual but, I suspect, full of justifiable pride. They really were the true stars of the show.
Huh, and they say nothing happens in our little corner of France!
(I am extremely grateful to Léna, and also Fantastika: Justine Vegas and Pascale Scherer, for allowing me to use some their photos to show you the amazing partnership Léna shares with Swany.)