It is said that in riding a horse, we borrow freedom.
Horses and humanity have had a deeply intertwined history; horses have been an ancient fixture in antiquity, seen on the most ancient of cave paintings, from Lascaux and Chauvet, to other examples of early art, when human beings first tried to capture the most powerful symbols often dramatically depicting their connection with the environment.
Following these ancient depictions as early as 25,000 BC, the horse was then domesticated some twenty thousand years later, found to be essential to the very existence of homo sapiens in the quest for survival. Legends such as Alexander the Great and his horse Bucephalus, and mythologies from the Greek myth of Pegasus, the Scandanavian Sleipnir, mount of Odin, to the horses depicted in Chinese, Hindu, and Persian mythology, each were similarly tamed and ridden by both great leaders and the gods as a symbol of their authority and power.
Since, horses have been depicted as a metaphor for the wild, the majestic, and the unbreakable. To this day, this spirit and the subsequent loyalty of equus ferus caballus has been used to not just inspire the imagination, but even for healing, from programs using inmates to tame wild horses for adoption and therapy programs, to other examples of the horse being used for therapeutic purposes among the most emotionally and physically vulnerable.
This connection with the horse, when done well, is one built on a slow and steady process of trust, and eventually, if horse and human bond, of mutual confidence and devotion. This connection with nature resides deep in ancestral and even genetic memory, reaching so deeply into the history of our development that at its best, it marks the human capacity to connect and exist in harmony with the wildness of nature. At its worst, it mirrors the darker human tendencies toward subjugation and need for harsh and sometimes brutal control.
Reflecting the best tendencies of those who consider themselves to be horse people, close to where some of the oldest horse paintings have been found in southwestern France, is the home of one of the oldest breeds of horse known.
The white horses of the Camargue have been both a well-known fixture and inspiration for the people of the area, a section of of Provence in the Alpes Côte d'Azur and the Languedoc between Arles and the mouth of the Rhône near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The landscape is comprised of vast area of salt marshes, where the Camargue horses continue to run wild and make up one of the many reasons for tourists to come to the area.
(The other: the annual pilgrimage of Roma, commemorating Sara, thought to be either the handmaiden or daughter of Mary Magdalene, who was thought to have landed where the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer sits, to spread a true version of Christianity that embraced the involvement of both sexes in the decision-making and leadership of the faith.)
Often depicted in promenades et "balades à cheval," theatrical experiences marking their history in the area, as domesticated, they are a powerful reminder of the ancient connection between both nature and humanity as well as horse and rider.
Bred and ridden by "gardians" among various local "manades," or farms, the white horses, standing from 13 to just over 14 hands (hand = 4 inches) and weighing in at up to 1,100 lbs, among those not still running wild, are bred under strict guidelines by the French government, who since 1976 have had a strict classification system for the breed and breed standard, closely delineating those born in the region and under specific conditions.
Because of the nature of the breed, being strong, stocky, and calm, they are utilized both for demonstrations of the breed-specific equitation, and for the work of herding another famous fixture of the area: the famous black bulls of Camargue featured in a non-lethal form of bullfighting popular in this part of France.
Gardians of the manades congregate at various events, exhibitions and meetings, comparing bloodlines of their horses and showcasing their natural capacity for herding, in equitation, and for safety and rescue operations in the region.
A combination of both French culture of the region and its own version of native horsemanship, these events mark a meeting of business and long-standing recognition of families that have worked with the Camargue horse for generations.
As a true celebration of the breed, its history, and its capacity, while innately close-knit, the community of horsemen and women, are, like many who are attached to a particular horse culture, are both hard-hewn and passionate ambassadors, showing the hallmarks of the breed's abilities, with events often being free to both insiders and the public.
But the public may be more aware of the breed than they realize: a beloved film among both children of a certain generation and horse lovers, White Mane is about the eponymous Camargue horse and the child who tames him. Better known among French and European audiences, in 1960, Denys Colomb Daunant made documentary Le Songe des Chevaux Sauvages, "Dream of the Wild Horses" which won the Small Golden Berlin Bear at the 1960 Berlin International Film Festival.
As the old adage among horse people suggests, "Show me your horse and I'll tell you who you are," the same would be said for the native horse of the Camargue and its landscape. Rugged, strong, steadfast and full of spirit, this horse reflects the ancient connection that epitomizes the balance that can be found when we respect one of the animals that has truly affected human history. And these, as one of the oldest breeds of horse alive, also remind us that there is beauty in nature worth nurturing, and a true partnership to be had, if we allow ourselves the profundity of such a relationship.
Photos courtesy of K.J. Wetherholt.