Behind the Scenes - Horses and Courses

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The Dordogne is not traditional horse country. Horses are cold-weather animals and not only unsuitable for farming in a southern climate but also expensive to buy and maintain. Instead, here in the Périgord, oxen were used for fieldwork and transportation and the last were still around in the late sixties. Nor was there ever a tradition of hunting with hounds or recreational riding and today even the occasional trotting race is disappearing as interest wanes and local race tracks close.

And yet everywhere horses dot the landscape and there seem to be plenty of opportunities to ride, go on “endurance” trails ( a 1-3 day outing on horseback) and  I’m told that the number of both horses and riders is on the increase which is rather intriguing in view of their previous absence.

There are several explanations for this. Firstly the Périgord is now being heavily marketed as a place to bring the family and few children can resist a pony ride at least once during their stay. Secondly, the trend is for more physically active leisure pursuits, promoted by tour companies and summer camps, thirdly there is a growing number of overseas residents who bring with them a stronger equine tradition e.g. the British, Northern Europeans, Americans. There are also more incomers from other parts of France who take advantage of the rurality of the department to buy a property with enough pasture and  buildings to feed and stable a horse, or have enough money to pay for stabling (approx.150€ monthly) which today makes up a sizeable proportion of most equine centres’ income.

Stables come in all shapes and sizes and most only just about break even.  Running a stable is both time consuming and expensive and so all rely heavily both on the passing tourist trade (stables here tend to cluster round main towns and tourist areas) and an enthusiastic group of volunteers, usually young and female, who help with the grooming and mucking out.

Being a horse lover is not enough to qualify you to run a stable and the relevant legislation is, in theory, draconian; the toughest, owners say, in Europe. To run a stable you need to be registered with the Féderation Française d’Equitation and obtain a diploma after a 2-year course in riding skills, animal husbandry, health and safety measures and pedagogy. But legislation is one thing and enforcement another and one stable told me they were inspected every year while another said they hadn’t seen an inspector in a decade. All agreed however that inspection was more about health and safety issues than the welfare of the horses. But the farmer who rents out his ponies in the summer seems to fall under the radar.

Herbert, who runs the eco Ferme de Fonluc in Tayac says it’s a balancing act to meet the needs of both horse and rider and still make a living. He is evangelical in his mission to remain eco-friendly taking his time with clients before the ride, encouraging communication between rider and mount and above all accompanying his rides with a full commentary on interesting points of history and the flora and fauna of the area. “  I refuse to cut corners and the welfare of my horses comes first.  Even at busy times, I’m never in a hurry;  I will never be rich myself but I will provide a rich experience.”

Herbert has been around for many years, breeds his own horses, has enough rich pasture and is able to keep his overheads to a minimum and he deserves his excellent reputation. Yet he still sympathises with those facing today’s challenges not least of which was the recent massive tax increase from 7 to 20% which saw almost one in ten businesses go under. Even if a stable thrives, expansion is invariably thwarted by lack of pasture, each horse requiring 5 hectares of grassland. Neighbouring landowners are rarely inclined to sell or lease their land and placing horses in scattered fields is an option only in extremis. Few stables have the resources to advertise in the media and yet none felt they could rely solely on local riders or the services of their tourist office. Social media and word of mouth is their best publicity although this can be negative as well as positive. Françoise who owns a large stable echoed what I had heard from several other owners, that despite the rise in the number of riders, “there is a worrying trend on the part of animal rights organisations to denigrate all activities involving horses since they object to the use of animals in any context. Their views get widely reported in the media and sometimes I’m put on the defensive faced with some harsh judgements from the public who place us in the same category as circus owners and dolphin parks”.

Even if you own and stable your own horse(s) the capital outlay and running costs can be high. To buy a good mount can cost around 1000€ and tack will come to another 200-500€. Then there is the regular expense of feeding, shoeing, insurance and veterinary fees while competitive riders, in addition to high fees to enter equestrian events, need to upgrade their mounts as their skills improve, so it is an activity which requires deep pockets as well as deep commitment.

But most of us don’t want to own a horse but just go out for a ride and we will usually go along to the stable which is the nearest or cheapest. But although cost and distance are important, to get the best experience it is worthwhile selecting a stable with as much care as you would a castle or cave. So how should visitors or the occasional rider, make their choice?

When choosing a stable, first impressions count. A clean, tidy stable yard is a good indication of the state of the horses too.  A relaxed friendly welcome indicates relaxed animals. There should be an assessment of which horse is most suitable for the rider and not a case of first come, first served. Look around and see if the horses and ponies look alert and well fed. They should be ‘bien rond’ (well-rounded) and preferably grazing in a field rather than corralled in a muddy or dried up field eating bales of hay. Look to see if there is adequate shelter; horses can withstand cold and wet but suffer greatly from flies and heat and for this reason no stable should be offering rides in the summer between 12 and 4 pm. Find out too, exactly where the ride takes you. Circling a paddock on a pony is fine for first timers and small children but most of us want a ride which gives us a different perspective on the environment. Some rides are deep in the woods with nothing much to see beyond the trees so where possible choose a ride which takes you along exploratory paths providing you with hilltop views or something of interest on the way and a minimum of time spent on roads where passing traffic is always a hazard. And finally, there should be no more than 8-10 riders out at any one time.

Prices start at 8 or 9 €  for an hour’s pony ride round a ring and upwards of 38€ for a 2- hour ride through the countryside. Regular riders and members of pony cubs or other groups get good discounts but fees do vary widely and are not necessarily an indication of quality.

As regular Bugle readers will know, I  am always more interested in the actual visitor experience of a tourist site than in its historic or visual value and in this regard the not-for-profit  Brantôme Police Horses sanctuary at St. Pancrace deserves a mention. If you or your visitors are interested in a day out with horses rather than on them then this is the place for you. The owner, Roland Phillips tells me that 90% of their visitors aren’t in fact very interested in horses but love the experience of seeing large, docile animals who love people, up close and learning about their background. Roland’s mother founded the well known Devon Horse and Pony sanctuary so it was only natural that Roland and his wife Alison should set up a similar sanctuary here in the Dordogne. 12 police horses and 12 others, together with sheep, goats and donkeys are kept safe here  from the knacker’s yard

The sanctuary is regularly open to visitors but also has on-going programmes for special needs children and adults. The visit costs 14€, less for children, and offers a ‘’British day out” much to the delight of visitors whether from the area or outside, regularly topping Tripadvisor charts of the places most worth visiting in the Dordogne. Their success is based on a warm welcome right on arrival in the car park and real value for money, the day including a talk, film show and an endless supply of tea and cakes along with meeting the horses.  An excellent visit, scoring top marks for the ‘feel good factor’.

They are open every Wednesday throughout the year, but go their website to see details of other opening days and many special events beginning after Easter.        Tel: +33(0)5 53 05 86 80

Most definitely worth a visit even if you have always been wary of big horses or haven’t ever really given them much thought.


About the Author

Marie Lacheze lives in the Dordogne and regularly writes articles for Bugle.

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