The sun sets over the vast marshes of Provence in Southern France. The still water mirrors the sky, unbroken, until a herd of white horses canter out, breaking the mirror into a thousand shards of droplets. Splashing across the marshes, bathed in a soft golden light of the dying sun – the Camargue horse looks more like a celestial creature, something that could never be accessible to us mere mortals. However that couldn’t be further from the truth! Just a hop skip and jump on a flight to Nîmes, or a train to Marseille and then a car or train to Saint Marie de la Mer in Provence, will bring you straight into the heart of the Camargue.
The Camargue is a breed of horse indigenous to the marshy Southern area of France and generally considered to be one of the oldest horse breeds in the world. You can understand how this small and sturdy horse has remained unchanged throughout the centuries when you walk around the Camargue region – itself seemingly untouched by time. They are hardy, agile, incredibly strong wild horses that have lived in the harsh marsh and wetland environment of the Rhône delta. This area is like the Wild West of France, where cowboys or, Gardians, herd and rear the black Camargue bulls, and they use the Camargue horses as their traditional mount. With it’s abundant water, flat land for as far as the eye can see and wild flamingos, it couldn’t be further from the dusty dry Wild West of America. Yet across nations, the cowboys carry out the same role day to day.
Cabanes de Cacharel
It has been my dream for as long as I can remember to visit the Camargue and ride those beautiful white (gray) horses, and this year I was lucky enough to be taken as a birthday treat! There are many places to ride here, and just walking or cycling around you’ll see countless signs for horse treks being advertised. Our wonderful host at L’Aubergine Rouge recommended the Cabanes de Cacharel, so off we went on our pilgrimage to find the Holy Grail of horses.
This stunning manade (equestrian centre) has a number of traditional thatched Gardian homes, a beautiful wooden round pen, a bright red gypsy style caravan and a stunning set of stalls for their herd of Camargue horses. They were kind enough to pick us up from the bus station (the bus runs regularly between Arles and Saint Marie de La Mer and you get off at Pioch Badet for the Cabanes de Cacharel).
They offer a number of rides: 1 hour (€20), 2 hours (€30), half a day (€40) or a full day (€60). You can also discuss with them to arrange a day out riding with the Gardianes, and they only take a maximum of two riders with the Gardianes so it would be a really special experience.
Due to time constraints we were only able to go out riding for two hours. At first I was a little worried as the group was huge and most of those coming had never ridden before. I’m always happy to be on the back of a horse and with views as beautiful as the marshes of the Camargue I wouldn’t complain, however I always ache to ride a little faster, a little harder!
We arrived at the Cabanes quite early and had a little picnic on their benches: a freshly made baguette with cheese and bull saucisson and some homemade muscat. We picked this up from a little farm shop on the side of the road and it was the best sweet wine I’ve had in some time. We brought home a few litres, but I wish we’d brought back more as it’s already all gone!
After eating, we wandered around the stables, stroking and hugging the horses. They’re such a wonderful, sweet natured breed. I usually prefer horse breeds a little taller but I have to say I was totally won over by the Camargue horses. What they lack in size they make up for in heart.
The guides split the group into three so each group was much smaller and asked each person what level they had in order to match the rider to horse. I was paired with Nestor, a strong and sturdy gelding with a very thick mane of silky hair. He was a leader and immediately took the front position and I could feel his power and desire to run. Hacking through the wetlands was an unreal experience, the nature is beautiful, the blue skies are seemingly endless and pink flamingos wander through the water, their heads in the water hunting for shrimp. Where else in the world can you ride these beautiful white horses in such an untouched nature reserve with wild flamingos?
The guides don’t speak English but if you’re able to understand a bit of French it will help as our guide gave a running commentary while we rode, giving us interesting information about the land, the plants, the animals and the history of the horses. We rode through the water, along muddy tracks and at the half way point, we took a break. The guide asked if the three experienced riders wanted to go for a gallop, to which we all eagerly said yes. We took off at a fast canter, soaring across the water, mud splattering excitedly against us. On the way back the guide told us to let the horses set their own pace if they wanted so I eased off the reins and we went up a gear into a full gallop. Their gait is slightly jolting but the power in these small horses in immense. I was so exhilarated and Nestor was just as happy doing what horses do best: running. The guide made sure to cater to everyones needs and desires and was just generally a really lovely woman.
I can’t wait to return to the Camargue, this time with a car and enough suitcase space to bring back a years supply of Muscat wine! I’ll definitely look to spend a full day riding with the Gardianes and would love to return to Cabanes de Cacharel: the perfect place for beginners to experienced riders alike.