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Use and characteristics of the Camargue horse
Like all so-called white horses, the horses of the Camargue are technically grey and begin life with dark-coloured coats. They are not tall, usually measuring between 13.1 hands (53 inches/135 cm) and 14.3 hands (59 inches/150 cm) high. They may be small, but they can easily carry a man using the traditional saddle of the Camargue gardians, as breeders point out when they sell a Camargue. Their conformation, particularly the head, is like that of the Barb. Equestrians who buy a Camargue horse will discover that they are also as hardy as the Barb, which has probably influenced the breed.
Origin and history of breeding Camargue horses
It is often claimed that this is a very ancient breed, possibly even descending from a prehistoric horse known as the Solutrean that roamed the region. However, although they have clearly lived in the marshes for centuries, the horses of the Camargue were only recognised as a breed as recently as 1968. Their story is entwined with that of the black bulls of the region and the gardians who look after them. The gardians are sometimes described as the cowboys of the Camargue, and it was their task to herd the tough black bulls who shared the marshes with the horses. Founded in 1512, The Brotherhood of the Herdsmen has played an important part in the history of the region, creating many of the festivals for which Provençal gardian culture is famous. The Gard and Bouches-du-Rhône départements where the horses live have their own tradition of bullfighting, the Course Camarguaise, which is very different from that of Spain. While it takes a great deal of skill and has some parallels with modern rodeo, the bulls are not killed as part of the event. From the twentieth century onward, parts of the region were drained for rice and vine cultivation. This reduced the area available to the gardians, their bulls and horses, and the famous flamingos which are also an important part of the ecology. However, visitors have always loved the Camargue for its open skies and unique marshes, its horses, bulls and gardians. Horse breeders and other locals worked hard to protect an ancient way of life that was also precious to visitors. Today, Camargue horses are viewed very much as a “speciality of the region”, providing an experience that can’t be had elsewhere. The marsh environment is believed to have been significant in creating their conformation, helping to evolve the breed’s long legs and tough feet with wide soles.
Camargue horses in equestrianism
Exploring the Camargue on horseback alongside the gardians has become a very popular tourist activity. In 1984, Robin and Louella Hanbury-Tenison rode two Camargue horses from the south of France to Britain, a journey of 1,000 miles. Today, a small population of Camargue horses has been established in the Po delta in Italy, where they are known as Cavalli del Delta.