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Brown horse and handler │© Viveaver
Brown horse and handler │© Viveaver

The French Love Of Horsing Around

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 24 November 2016
As the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux show us, the relationship between the French and horses has been millennia in the making. With these majestic animals, France has fought wars, first defending itself from an advancing empire and then establishing one of its own, developed equestrian sports and multi-billion euro industries to match, and, all the while, prizing their meat as a national dish.

By the time Julius Caesar arrived on what would centuries later become French soil, the Celtic tribes of Gaul had raised one of the most advanced cavalries in the world. Though unable to halt the expansion of the Roman Empire, Vercingetorix and his band of Gallic horseman, mounted on ancient breeds like the Camargue from Provence, were able to inflict bruising setbacks, such as at the Battle of Gergovia in 52 BC. After their defeat, elements of Celtic culture, like the horse goddess Epona, were even integrated into Roman mythology.

Lascaux cave paintings │
Lascaux cave paintings │ | © Bayes Ahmed

Flash forward 1,600 years and horse breeding had become a national obsession, one closely regulated by royal decree. In 1665, Louis XIV and his Minister of Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert founded the Haras Nationaux, one of the country’s oldest administrations. Today, it comprises 22 stud farms, including the Haras du Pin in Normandy, the home of the French Thoroughbred. A century after the establishment of the haras, horse racing – a British import – started to take off in France.

Horse and rider at the Haras du Pin │
Horse and rider at the Haras du Pin │ | © Eponimm

Many of the Thoroughbred horses that you’ll find racing at top-tier courses like Longchamp are trained at either Chantilly or Maisons-Laffitte, two centers within 20 miles of Paris. Further afield, the town of Deauville on the Normandy coast – what is sometimes referred to as the 21st arrondissement given the influx of Parisians during the summer months – is famed for its racing and annual yearling sale in August.